This post is something that I’ve been thinking about for a little while, but haven’t really had in my mind enough to feel the need to write down until today. The trigger was this excellent article highlighting the positive side of traditionally ‘religious’ practices. Fr. Stewart, who wrote the article, acknowledged the need for a real relationship with Jesus, and a faith that does not grow stale, whilst at the same time arguing for why an ‘elaborate series of concrete actions to perform’ are very important to his faith, actions that ‘have no purpose (in the sense of utility) other than giving honor and worship to Almighty God’.
From what I gather in the article about Fr. Stewart’s church background, mine looks very different. I have only ever regularly attended three churches, and while all three are different, they would fall broadly into the Evangelical or Pentecostal spheres, emphasising a large amount of freedom in how you worship, playing mostly modern songs with instruments like any other band would have, having a looser leadership structure than something like the Catholic church or the Church of England, that sort of thing. I have also attended multiple cross-denominational events such as New Wine and Soul Survivor, which have a very similar flavour, just on a larger scale.
I have experienced a lot of teaching along the lines of what Fr. Stewart is saying – that Christianity is emphatically not a religion, it’s a relationship, and I know that the messages have always been well-intentioned, with the very important aim of encouraging people to actively pursue God, and not go through the motions.
However, I have become more and more uncomfortable over the years with the argument that Christianity is not a religion. Because it is. It is an organised set of beliefs and practices. Yes, it may be very different to other world religions, but they’re all different from one another as well.
Clearly there is more than just semantics at stake here. The word ‘religion’ has been pushed out of church usage (in my experience) because it actually stands as a catch-all term for the kind of religion that we don’t want: something stagnant. Unfortunately, I think there is a tendency to then identify things that we might associate semantically with ‘religion’, such as set things to say, certain items, practices, whatever, with the idea of a stagnant faith.
This association is where the problem lies. As Fr. Stewart rightly points out, these things can help us to worship God. As a Christian, it is important to be able to recognise the diversity within our faith. Just because you worship God with a soft-rock band and arms thrown in the air, it doesn’t mean that the person reciting a traditional prayer is not worshiping God, and vice versa.
Even among Christians, it’s easy to be suspicious of what we don’t understand. But God created us all unique, and it follows that as the infinite God, he is capable of having a unique relationship with each one of us. This is not to say that ‘anything goes’ with God – the Bible clearly states that Jesus is the only way to come close to him, for example – but it is to say that within the life that we enjoy through Jesus, there is room for significant variation. Someone may worship through a daily Bible reading, another through praying at a certain point, another through singing a hymn, another through singing a rock song.
God is big enough, and compassionate enough, to relate to us in whatever form our religion takes. We should not look down on, or worse, mock, the practices of other Christians. Instead, we should encourage one another, and rejoice that we worship a God who loves and encourages the diversity that he has so clearly created in us. One person might call that religion. Another might call it a relationship. But when it comes to Christianity, they are two sides of the same coin. And we should celebrate that.