Now I realize I'm preaching mostly to the choir here. Most of you who read this blog are participants, on some level, in "organized religion." Most of you are churchgoers, many of you actively serve in your church - whether as staff or laity, and some of you even give financially to support your church's ministries.
But most of you are going to hear, at some point, "I just don't believe in 'organized religion'" - whether it be from a co-worker, a close friend, or, in many cases, a son or daughter. So we ought to give it some thought and be prepared to respond thoughtfully.
This is the response I've come up with so far:
So what exactly is it in "organized religion" that you don't believe in?
- Is it Texas Baptist Men, whose volunteers are in Joplin right now, making sure that survivors of that devastation get proper medical care, as well as food and clean water? Who have similarly traveled to Alabama to help tornado victims, Mississippi to help flood victims, and even Japan to minister to the needs of earthquake and tsunami victims?
- Is it Woman's Missionary Union, whose HEART (Humanitarian Emergency Aid for Rebuilding Tomorrow) Fund helped to provide jobs in Southeast Asia following the tsunami, helped rebuild a nursing home in Chile following an earthquake, and helped send children in Haiti back to school following an earthquake?
- Is it Catholic Charities Immigration Services, which provides low-cost immigration counseling and support to families and individuals who are eligible for immigration benefits and cannot afford private assistance?
- Is it Buckner International, formerly Buckner Baptist Benevolences, which has worked tirelessly for over 130 years to meet the ever-evolving needs of orphans, vulnerable children, families, and the elderly?
- Is it the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission and its World Hunger Offering and its tireless insistence on justice for the disenfranchised?
- Is it the local church, where Christians come together to worship, celebrating their common faith while being challenged to live out that faith?
- Is it the Sunday School, where fellow Christians study the Bible and help each other in their struggle to understand it better and to search out its relevance to their lives?
Throughout this post, I've enclosed "organized religion" in quotation marks, because it is used by many as almost a pejorative term, one that has gained a negative reputation through the worst moments of some of its practitioners. Perhaps it's a sexual scandal of some preacher or some holier-than-thou politician - thus exposing their hypocrisy; or some outrageous, hate-filled proclamation by a notable televangelist; or simply a bad personal experience in a church where the person felt ostracized and alone.
Well, we all have our bad moments, don't we? I would hate to be evaluated solely on the evidence of my worst moments. But that seems to be the church's lot. "Organized religion" has had many bad moments, because it's populated by human beings, and human beings are sinners. Our attitudes are not always right, our motives not always pure, our actions not always perfect.
For that matter, as I wrote in my post last week, we Baptists have done a poor job of responding to the needs and interests of 21st-century young people. We need to make the church experience relevant to their needs, or else we are not being faithful to the spirit of Christ, who always meets people where they are.
But many of the loving, caring acts in the world would have never happened had Christians not gathered together in community and pooled their resources to do more together than we could have done alone.
That's what organized religion - in its Christian form, anyway - is really all about. Cooperation in community - being the presence of Christ "to the uttermost parts of the earth," as well as in our own backyard, just as He commanded us to be.