The weird thing about religion is that we always think every one else has it. I grew up in a Baptist church, and we were taught that we had all the right answers because we had the best theology in the world, but that the Catholics had it wrong because their answers weren’t the same as ours. We considered them religious because of all their rituals, but we weren’t religious at all because we didn’t have any rituals, ok maybe 2, we did baptism and communion.
Then I made some Charismatic friends, and we would be laughing because we couldn’t think of anyone more religious than a Baptist. They are just so stiff and starchy, scared stiff of the Holy Spirit and unwilling to flow with him. There is no way a Charismatic could ever be religious, right? However I have lived long enough in these circles to know that Charismatics can be just as religious as a Baptist, or a Catholic, we just practice our religion differently. Charismatics do it by chasing after “The Anointing”, it seems like some people have more of it than others, but when you peek behind the anointing curtain, it looks more like the Wizard of Oz than Jesus.
Now I am not trying to be harsh, and I am not saying these things from a place of hurt. That has been my story, I was all those things. All I am saying is that I have realised that we all have religion in our hearts. I think that when we ate the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that sin and shame became an integral part of who we are and that we cope or manage it with this tool called Religion.
When I left the last congregation I was a part of, it was to give expression to the new thing God was doing in my heart, and the only way I knew it give expression to something new was to start/plant a church. That is why I left, it wasn’t out of hurt (but I totally understand why many people do leave out of hurt though). However as soon as I had left I felt God say quite clearly to me that I shouldn’t start anything new, because if I did it would eventually look exactly like what I had left behind. You see most of the church planting happening around the world is because we want to do something new, something unique, and yet give it some time and it all becomes religious like the thing we left behind. Why?
It is because religion lives in our hearts. It is because of this that we create religious structures in the first place to help deal with our sin but even more to deal and manage our shame. So if I wanted to do something new, God wanted to first make me new. He wanted to deal with the religion in my own heart, setting my own heart free, giving me a new heart. So where did he start?
He started by showing me how his Grace deals with my shame. You see the version of the gospel that is taught in every single church I have ever been in or visited deals fairly effectively with sin. Jesus dies on the cross and pays the debt for our sins, he does so perfectly, so our sins, even future sins are washed away if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. Sounds great right? However it doesn’t deal with our shame and so we need religion to deal with our shame. So we know that Jesus forgives us our sins, but we still feel crappy because we sinned for the 100th time and there is now this distance between us, so religion steps in and says, well if you sacrifice more for God, if you serve God more, if you pray more, read your bible more, get involved more etc. then your conscience will feel a little easier and you’ll be more pleasing, more acceptable and will get God’s favour back.
The problem is that religion manages our shame, and in doing so it manipulates it, because if it totally dealt with our shame we wouldn’t need it anymore. Let me illustrate using the issue of leadership. In the workplace it is easier to lead people because you pay their salary which gives you quite a lot of influence, but in a church it is more difficult because people are volunteers, so we manipulate their shame to get things done. The hardest people to lead though, are those who are free, because they are the hardest to manipulate.
I know this is a hard thing to hear, but it is true because while I was a sincere leader and have always had a heart for people, and yet I can see how I was guilty of this, and I look at the many church leaders I know, and I can see how they did the same to me and others. The problem won’t be fixed by blaming our leaders though, or reacting to this religious system. I think we need to acknowledge that the problem of religion lives in our own hearts and allow God to deal with our shame and set us free. Free to live free and free enough to love people whether they are part of the religious system or not.