Depending on a person’s background, age, or beliefs, this word can conjure up a wide variety of responses. It seems like lately, though, the word has become very unpopular. Various polls (I won’t include them here, but email me if you want my sources) I’ve recently read show that Americans (especially young people) increasingly shy away from identifying with ‘religion’.
“I’m spiritual but not religious”
“I love Jesus but I’m not religious”
These are certainly refrains I’ve often heard. Last fall I even saw a series of school supplies on sale at Wal Mart emblazoned with the bold statement: “It’s not about religion. It’s about a relationship.” Religion, it seems, has become a bad word. It’s certainly understandable. “Religion” carries with it the baggage of the worst parts of Christian history. Sometimes Christians don’t want to be associated with religion out of fear of being associated with such things as the Crusades, or wars started over religion. Religion is also associated with something dead and formal, institutional, exclusive, even self-righteous. With all this baggage, it makes sense why a follower of Jesus would want to flee from “religion”.
But I think the word religion needs a makeover, or rather, it needs to be reclaimed for what it is meant to be. In fact, I think that a good dose of true “religion” is very much needed today. But first we need to look at what that word really means, and what scripture teaches us about what it is supposed to be.
The word “religion”, from the Latin “re-ligio” actually means “re-bind” or maybe even better “re-connect”. Think of ‘ligio’ as a root word of ‘ligament’, a strong tissue that connects bone to bone, allowing for the bones to cooperate, to work and move together. Religion is meant to reconnect, which suggests a loss of connection to begin with. At the fall of man, our connection was broken with God. We have need of re-connection. Re-ligio. Religion. For Christians, of course, that reconnection is Jesus Christ, who bridges that gap through His incarnation, death, and resurrection, making it possible for us to once again have communion with Our Creator, Our God. It is through Him that we can be reconnected. So, ‘religion’ is supposed to have something to do with cooperation with Jesus Christ, our connection.
But to live, to practice religion, to be ‘religious’, suggests an action on our part. It suggests not just a feeling, not just something that happens once, but a binding of ourselves to this life, to the connection, Jesus Christ, with our whole being, with how we actually live. I like to think of it in terms of other areas of life where, in order to experience the reality of something to its fullest, we must get past initial feelings, past what it means for us, and begin the work of living it. Marriage is a good example. To simply feel ‘in love’ within ourselves is wonderful, of course, but not enough to sustain a marriage. We have to decide to be ‘religious’ with our marriages, which requires getting into good patterns of communication, good habits of self-sacrifice for the other person. It is not easy. Its work, but its necessary to have a good and lasting marriage. We have to constantly and deliberately ‘reconnect’ with our spouse for it to work. We can’t just rest on the fact that we’re married and think it will last forever. So to be religious in our life in Christ is to not just rest on what Christ did for us, but to actively live it and strive to have that reality infuse everything in our lives – how we think, how we treat others, how we work, how we play – everything. It has to move beyond what it means to us, individually, and towards what it means together, with Christ, and with others.
This is where living out this religious life in a community becomes important. I would dare to say that in our current culture, we have moved too far into the individualistic understanding of our life in Christ. What I mean is that our embrace (which certainly should be embraced!) and focus on a personal relationship with Christ has veered into a territory that makes it all about “me and Jesus”, which can place our life in Christ dangerously outside of the necessity for communion with one another. When Christ prays for His Church, He prays for them together, that they be one even as He and the Father are one (see John 17:20-23). In the Upper Room He breaks bread and shows His followers what it means to follow Him and be with Him together, not individually. He always connects serving and loving Him with serving and loving others. Life in Christ is not just a ticket to heaven, it is an invitation to a life transformed and united with the salvation of others. And that re-connection is not just something that happens after we die, but is to begin now, in this life.
“Pure and undefiled religion before God is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). This instruction from James echoes the words of the prophets of old who were sent by God to call the people back to a true form of religion. The suggestion is that reconnection with God means reconnection with neighbor, especially those most in need. This is what the religious life should be. So what does this have to do with doing our ‘religious work’ in a larger community of believers? Can’t we just do this work individually? I would return again to looking at how Jesus taught and lived with His disciples, and how the Apostles constantly call for unity and togetherness in this religious work. There is something important, that we as human beings need, in struggling together and not alone.
Stepping outside of just “me and Jesus” and seeing our salvation as connected with one another can cultivate humility, patience (with one another), and obedience (to one another), but can also strengthen and encourage us. One of the greatest blessings I have found in being part of a ‘religious community’ is how gathering together with one another, to worship God, take communion together, and enjoy fellowship and friendship becomes a source of strength for the rest of the week, as each of us go out into the particular ‘mission field’ of our work, our families, our relationships. This is something that is much more difficult to achieve by being ‘spiritual’ alone.
It just might take some good, old fashioned religion to get this. Which is why I think maybe we can all use some more of it.