(Originally published by Florida Voices)
It’s Holy Week for Christians, and as Easter approaches, you can’t help but wonder whether the Church as an institution has any future at all. If a swelling number of voices from across the theological spectrum is to be believed, Jesus is terrific, but the Church is hopelessly bad.
This is hardly a new idea, but the latest version began drawing attention in January when a YouTube video went viral. It was a rap/poem by an earnest 22-year-old evangelical, Jefferson Bethke, titled, “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus.” Bethke says, “I love the church, I love the Bible, and yes, I believe in sin. But if Jesus came to your church, would they actually let him in?”
The video got more than 16 million hits and prompted a lot of discussion. One of Bethke’s points was that the Church in America has become too complacent and too identified with politics.
The same point is made by political commentator Andrew Sullivan in this week’s Newsweek cover story: “Christianity in Crisis: Why we should ignore politics, priests and get-rich evangelists and just follow him.” Him being Jesus, of course.
Sullivan, a Catholic who has leveled frequent criticisms at the Catholic Church, writes that its current infatuation with politics has produced hypocrisy and corruption, something Jesus would reject.
“If we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be – rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was – he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely,” Sullivan writes.
He cites figures as diverse as Thomas Jefferson and St. Francis of Assisi as people who have tried to live this “love Jesus, hate the Church” approach, but these are not exactly guys the average Christian is going to emulate.
If anyone has reason to dislike how the Church can act, it’s me. I’ve been dismissed twice from church positions, once as a pastor. But I still show up at my congregation each Sunday for the simple reason that to be practiced rightly, faith demands community.
This tenet flies in the face of our individualistic society, which believes that self-reliance is a virtue in all things. Not so in religion. The idealistic notion of “just following Jesus” sounds great until you try it. It’s difficult even with others helping. It’s impossible alone.
In a Huffington Post essay titled “Four Reasons I Came Back to Church,” author Christian Piatt says he found what Sullivan dreams of, “a community that defied stereotypes” about Christianity.
“Fortunately, God’s grace is more persistent and patient than the time it took for me to get over my hurt feelings and biases against organized religion,” he writes.
Is there hypocrisy and corruption in the institutional Church? Undoubtedly. Is the Church too much involved in partisan politics? Absolutely.
Is the Church – in whatever size, shape or form – still needed? Yes.
To paraphrase Mitt Romney, churches are people, and in their churches people come together to worship, study, pray and help others inside and outside the walls.
It’s imperfect. And it’s indispensable. My question to Andrew Sullivan is, if you want to follow Jesus, where else would you go on Easter?