I may not agree with the Jesuits in everything but James Martin (as cited in this CNN article) makes an excellent point. In reference to the increasingly popular concept of being “spiritual, but not religious” Martin says:
Being spiritual but not religious can lead to complacency and self-centeredness. If it’s just you and God in your room, and a religious community makes no demand on you, why help the poor?”
While Martin’s conflation of religion and community may go a little far, he hits upon a profound truth. The Christian culture has increasingly become one in which we also want to consider ourselves “spiritual, but not religious.” The phraseology looks different – we’ll say “I have a relationship, not a religion” or “I’m not a Christian, I follow Jesus” or with Anne Rice we simply quit “Christianity” – but the dangers seem eerily similar.
Of course, religion as a means of merit or earning a status before God has no place in the Christian worldview. However, religion as the activity of the Christian in the context of the local church deserves further thought.
With this definition in mind, denying our religion denies our very context. The Christian belongs in the church. God has ordained the church (as flawed as it may sometimes turn out) as the place for the Christian to practice Christianity with other Christians. This is not simply a good idea; it becomes a necessity. One need only briefly browse the New Testament to see the importance of community.
Yet often we think of religion as an individual effort and all the evils come rushing out to meet us – the fact that worship fails to draw us in, the fact that our pastor does not know Greek and Hebrew, the fact that the youth group does not really seem relevant. But all of these opinions treat religion as something revolving around “me” – religion, rather, must always involve the many because by definition it requires relational activity.
So why’s religion important? Because religion actually consists of more than simply “going through the motions.” Our religion includes our behaviors in community. This community and the way we commune with it deeply affects our identity, changing and shaping us. For example, even something as routine as singing songs together can deeply remind us of our united purpose and need for one another.
Religion may just be the best-kept and least-recognized secret in Evangelical Christianity. I think it time we give it another go rather than dismiss it for the world’s religion of “me.”