It’s another video on YouTube. But unlike most, it went viral very quickly. Within a week of its posting, it received 12,500,000 hits. Other videos have been made in response, both in favor of and objecting to the spoken word message of the videographer. Several major newspapers have reported on it while discussions in blogs and on social networks has been quite robust. Having read about it in an email, I watched and began to follow this phenomenon.
In his spoken word video, Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus, Jefferson Bethke from Tacoma, Washington, presents a critique of religion based on his conversion experience from a church-goer to a lover of Jesus. The presentation is frank, dynamic, and draws on many popular criticisms of Christianity. In general, the response is much as you’d expect: a majority of people “like” the video and a minority of people, presumably people in some way involved in traditional Christianity, “dislike” the video.
My interest in the video is not the content. To be honest about it, there are parts I agree with and other parts that I don’t. There is inaccurate information in the video, like the claim that Jesus came to abolish religion. I think it’s probably difficult for many people to understand that Jesus and his followers were faithful Jews who were very much part of Jewish life in first century Palestine. The early followers of Jesus became distraught when they are expelled from synagogues in the mid-first century for not being strict Jews. Jesus and his immediate followers were very religious people. While Mr. Bathke claims that early Christians were not religious, that’s just not accurate. They just weren’t Christians. They were Jews. That said, I don’t expect Mr. Bathke to be a Biblical scholar or historian. Instead, he’s a person who’s had what seems to be a profound personal experience. Many people have resonated with his experience. That’s what I find most fascinating.
I know many people who describe themselves as liberal or progressive. Over time, they realized that their church experience didn’t nourish the growing spiritual dimension of their lives. This led them to seek out other spiritual practices from Eastern and Earth-based religions. Most of these people drifted from church-life without much comment or notice. Some were bored, some were angry, and some were simply indifferent about religion. Many have found something that sustains their spirits in places other than a traditional church.
The experience of liberal or progressive people who have quietly given up participating in church is very different from the phenomenon occurring among Evangelical Christians. Over the last ten years or so, younger people, like Mr. Bethke, have discovered that religious organizations, i.e, churches, spend a great deal of effort to maintain the needs of the organization. It’s a simple reality: if a group has a building, staff, and a range of programs, there will be a significant focus to raise money and support the budget to pay for these things. Doing that successfully results in organizational efforts designed to keep people involved in the church rather than challenging them to change. Challenging people to change has the potential to drive them away. In sum, the needs of the institution can be contrary to a pure desire to live the way that Jesus taught. The way of life taught by Jesus was deeply rooted in his life as a Jew while it was also counter cultural.
I would suggest that in any religion, living the tenants of that religion’s founder or first teacher would be in conflict with organizational needs. I can see that in Buddhism, Islam, and all religions that maintain buildings and organizations. That’s because there was a radical approach to the way of living taught by the founders of the great religions of the world.
However, Evangelical Christians, whose primary focus is the individual spiritual experience and who define authority in terms of each person’s own interpretation of the Bible are faced with an interesting challenge today. Many young people in the Evangelical ranks are coming to the conclusion that to follow Jesus, they don’t need an organization. With a Bible in hand, they focus on the teachings of Jesus on their own or with friends at a local coffee shop.
Five years ago, a book was published entitled, “Life After Church: God’s Call to Disillusioned Christians.” Written by Brian Sanders about his decision to leave a large Evangelical Christian church to be a better follower of Jesus, Sanders had given up on church. Interestingly, Sanders went on to establish a network of home-based gatherings where people could pray, study the Bible, and teach their children. Each group is involved in social service activities. In other words, Sanders and his friends started a new church. While they insist it isn’t a church, this network of “house churches” in the Tampa area is a de-centralized way of gathering and organizing people to share a way of life based on the teachings of Jesus.
Many days, I’m very frustrated with institutional religion. There’s a long list of woes I could name, but there’s little merit to that. Fundamentally, I believe that religious organizations rise out of the human need to gather with like-minded people who have shared a common experience or set of values. Over time, those gatherings of people become more and more organized and, yes, institutionalized. As that happens, it’s far too easy for the organization to move away from the vision of the founder and on to some other agenda that has become more pressing, like meeting the financial needs of the institution.
Because there is a tendency of people to organize into groups and organizations, the vitality of religious and spiritual institutions lies in their ability to reform themselves so that they can continually find new ways to live out the foundational experiences that led people to gather in the first place. Unfortunately, the human tendency is to resist this kind of renewal. Most people prefer the kind of routine that accompanies complacency rather than the continual challenge to change that was taught by the radical prophets who founded the great religions of the world.
I applaud Mr. Bethke and others like him. He embodies prophetic courage that is the hallmark of an agent of renewal. He says things that cause us to think and examine our fundamental assumptions about our experience of belonging to a church or any other religious or spiritual group. I think that’s exactly what people like Jesus of Nazareth, Siddhartha, Gautama, and the prophet Muhammad did in the face of religious institutions that had lost their ability to be life-giving to people in their respective ages.
The world of religion will be renewed through the critical analysis of new prophets who emerge and critique the structure of religious organizations. Their critique will not always be accurate. But it will reflect the deep feeling and passion that is rooted in their spiritual experience.
© 2012, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.