What’s left after religion?

Are we looking at the horizon of religion’s demise? Many experts predict the coming flat-line, at least the death of a certain kind of religion that has drawn the wrath of modern media & the culture it produces.

Several blogs I recently read encapsulated these feelings by pointing to a coming “collapse” of evangelical Christianity.*

Just one quote from “The Evangelical Collapse: A Statistical Analysis” will sum up the point:
“According to George Barna: ‘With its 195 million unchurched people, America has become the new mission field. America has more unchurched people than the entire populations of all but 11 of the world’s 194 nations.'”

In other words, religion, as we know it in the western world, has fallen on hard times and ever-hardening hearts. Our culture pays less and less attention to religious ideals, opting rather to almost-daily invent our “values” as we desire.

Maybe the idea of “religion” itself can’t any longer juice up the imagination of postmodern mankind.

The word “religion” comes from the old Latin language meaning “to bind again” (cousin to the word “ligament”). And what culturally aware person today wants to be bound by anything? It doesn’t seem to be in our 21st Century genes to accept restrictions, limits or chastisement of any kind.

So, if religion itself is a culturally endangered species, what will replace it?

Well, I think we can make an educated guess because it’s happened before. Although ancient religion was never totally erased, it did have to move over and give way to a more powerful force (until that force was co-opted by religion itself and watered down to resemble the same old, same old).

The day Jesus arrived, the world was already swimming in religion. He didn’t need to come here to start another one, not even a better one. Religion had failed. It had failed completely to bridge the breach between God and His corrupted creation. Ancient religion had littered the world with violence, gruesome sacrifices, racism, fear and hopelessness. So much for man’s attempt to fix his problem with Divinity.

If you don’t believe me, read the Apostle Paul’s masterful analysis in Romans chapters seven and eight. Or read Jesus’ laser-like summation in the Gospel of John: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (5:39-40 NIV).

So what did Jesus think should replace “religion”? Relationship. A relationship based on mutual love between Jesus and His disciple.

Religion binds. Those who aren’t good at it soon lose hope; those who are talented at it soon develop spiritual pride.

But true relationship frees. It frees God to embrace us despite our evil, and it frees us to be embraced without fear.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23 NIV).

*”Why Do They Hate Us?” “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” “The Evangelical Collapse: A Statistical Analysis”

If God is real, why so many unhappy Christians?

Atheists like Christopher Hitchens often argue that if God really exists, then why are so many religious people unhappy, partisan, mean-spirited and even sometimes violent?

They have a point. But it’s based on a false assumption. The assumption is this: if a real God really operates in a person’s life, then that person will be perfect, living as if he or she is already in Paradise, without any temptation to sin or moral failings.

This spiritually naive view can’t grasp a basic phenomenon of interaction between God and man. That basic phenomenon is this – a man who walks with God, still walks on this earth. He is still human. And he has a spiritual enemy called Satan, who is trying to win him back to the dark side.

Trying to live the religious life on this fallen planet can be messy. That’s because the spiritual quest to know God is a human endeavor. Although a real God is in it, so are real humans.

I know what you’re thinking. Some claim the Name but don’t walk the talk. Not all believers try sincerely. Hypocrisy abounds, but hypocritical behavior itself is a spiritual illness. Even if you subtract the hypocrites (which the Lord Himself will do – Matthew 13:24-43), that still leaves many sincere believers who struggle. Spiritual life on this planet doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but in the middle of flawed human life.

Even prayer is a human exercise, finite man trying to communicate with the Infinite. Sometimes it can be sublime; sometimes it fails miserably.

And it fails, not because God isn’t powerful enough, but because even redeemed man still has a sometimes-stubborn will. And God won’t violate that sacred thing He created in us called sovereignty – our freedom of choice.

All of Jesus’ great disciples, from Peter to John to Barnabus to Paul, exhibited flaws. The Bible pull no punches, but shows all the Messiah’s followers to be human, moral warts and all.

In fact, Jesus didn’t die for our good deeds but for our sins. He knew what He was getting. He isn’t naive about who we are, yet He died for us anyway. And He continues to work with us despite the flaws, mistakes, sins, missteps and spiritual ignorance… and even those days when we don’t feel like praying.