If you’ve read this here blog for any length of time, you’ve probably figured out that I strongly dislike religion. By that, I don’t just mean the many different types of so-called “false religions” in the world (in my view, all religion is false, including the one we’ve made out of Christianity). By “religion,” I’m basically referring to any set of beliefs and/or practices that takes precedence in our minds and hearts over simple relationship with God.
Religion is a subtle infiltrator. It infuses our thought patterns so easily, for the simple reason that we are so accustomed to it. Even people who are trying to break the molds and try new things are susceptible to it in ways they do not realize, and any so-called “new thing” can become a religious tradition over time. In my own quest to be free of religion, I frequently turned a corner and found it still lurking there in my mind and heart. It took awhile to realize that religion wasn’t about the things we do or don’t do in our worship of God; religion is lodged in the attitudes of our heart. This is why so many people who are trying various ways of making the church more “relevant” are not really freeing themselves from religion–they are inadvertently swapping one form of religion for another.
Let me give you a tangible personal example. I have always wanted to be a cutting-edge kind of guy when it came to church. Even when I was deep “in the ministry,” I was a bit of a troublemaker because I was always wanting to shake things up, to question established traditions that had no current relevance, to incorporate contemporary elements into worship, to make worship more tangible and accessible, etc. This is what led to the highly expressive form of prophetic worship I practiced as a worship leader. It is also what led us to “devolve” into a house church when The Wild One and I started a ministry of our own. All of these aspects were attempts to find fresh relevance, to blaze new trails, to make a positive difference, and to pursue an authentic faith.
But you know what I discovered? With each “new thing” I embraced during those years, it didn’t take long before that new expression became the centerpiece of what I believed and taught, rather than Jesus Himself. As a worship leader, I developed a whole teaching around what I labeled Davidic worship, one that leaned heavily on Scripture but which definitely had an agenda of convincing people that our way of worship was the “right” one. As we functioned in community together as a house church, most of my teaching began to center around legitimizing house church as the more authentic expression of worship, as opposed to more institutional formats.
In both of these cases–the worship expression and the house church expression–it started off as an honest pursuit of something more authentic and real, and even bore great fruit at first as God met us in those expressions. But then it sort of became an ends unto itself. Without meaning to, I was swapping one form of religion for another. Because, you see, religion wasn’t really to be found in the actual expressions of worship, however they might have looked. Religion was lodged somewhere else; it was in my own heart and mind. And, if I’m going to be honest, it was also somewhat lodged in the hearts and minds of the people who were on the journey with us. We had a great time in the living room, but we also became somewhat self-satisfied there. It was still a real challenge to infuse the heart of mission in any of us, and I think ultimately it is why that expression eventually had to run its course. We learned a lot, we had great fellowship together–but there was still just enough religion in us to keep us from moving forward. In our pursuit of a religion-free expression of faith, we were still sort of swapping one form of religion for another.
I think it has taken moving to a new place and spending a few years now in a place of “in-between” for me to realize this. It wasn’t until there was no clear expression, no community to lead, no people to convince, that I could look back and see the agendas I still carried with me in those days. Perhaps this was why such an extended period of detox has been needed for me and my family. Even now, I would not venture to say I am “religion-free.” I can simply see more clearly that anything that inserts itself in between us and our relationship with God can be religious–no matter how progressive. And it’s the religion that still lingers in our hearts that makes it so–not the outward thing itself.
I have been in Episcopal church services where the hearts of people were so turned toward God while reciting a centuries-old liturgy that I was moved to tears by the tangible presence of God. I have also been in church communities that were highly progressive in their expressions of worship, but where the spiritual pride was so thick you could cut it with a knife. And in the midst of it all, in our own worship times we’ve experienced things with God that words cannot begin to describe, because in the midst of our ignorance we were still sincerely trying to reach out to Him. I guess what I’m saying in all this rambling is that when it comes right down to it, the particular elements and expressions of worship and faith are not what make it religious–it’s the heart behind it.
I’m kind of done belaboring over the “right” way to worship or to “do church.” I have been emptied of such things and have nothing more to prove. There are things I have learned that enable greater freedom in worship, and if I ever have the chance again to lead a community in worship, I plan to use what I have learned. But whatever I do, and whatever it looks like, I want it to emanate from a heart that truly follows after Jesus and wants to see His will done on earth. I don’t want to embrace any form for its own sake, but only to the extent that it helps us follow Christ and partake in His mission. And I want it to facilitate that heart in other people, as well.
I no longer want to find myself swapping one form of religion for another. I want the real thing.