You may have seen this video doing the rounds in certain circles:
Is it a fair distinction? The broad sweep of someone who wants to affirm the grace of God and the idea of faith as a relationship with Christ, as opposed to the idea of emphasising an institution with a dubious track record is commendable. Coming out of certain contexts – say, The Troubles in Ireland, such a sentiment is powerful, for example in this song by the Belfast Christian singer Brian Houston:
And as someone who finds being a ‘professional Christian’ who is expected to uphold and serve the institution frustrating and tiresome at times, I certainly sympathise, too. Sometimes it feels as if I am being asked to be a flag-waver for Methodism or worse, an enforcer, rather than a witness to God’s redeeming love. I want a faith that emphasises grace, mercy, love and faith rather than dull rule-keeping. I too am embarrassed by the history of the Church. That’s not difficult.
But the poem, laudable as it is, needs probing. To me, it is framed as if I’m on the side of grace and ‘they’ are on the side of wrong. That’s always dangerous. It risks lapsing into self-righteousness, ironically, the very thing the author finds distasteful (and rightly so).
Rather than just using ‘religion’ as the label for all the bad stuff associated with belief in God, wouldn’t it be better to join in the confession of the Church’s sin? Remember Daniel, exiled in Babylon, praying, “We have sinned?” It wasn’t his personal sin that had carried Israel into exile, but he identified with God’s people. Humility like that is necessary. It is more likely to touch and transform the ‘religious’ than shouting at them at a distance.
And is it honest just to use ‘religion’ as the label in the way I’ve just suggested? It’s too convenient. Instead of saying that the Church should feed the poor and criticising her for not doing so, let’s do it ourselves! I’m delighted that one of my churches will be hosting a food bank, with personnel provided by another church that had the vision for it, from next month.
Let’s get our hands dirty. That’s one of the best witnesses to grace.