Have you ever gone to get a new phone, along with a new phone plan, and tried to sift through all of the different charges and “benefits” that you’ll be receiving? You slowly begin to realize that you’ll be signing your life away along with your first born.
I get anxiety and a little bit of heartburn any time I hear the phrase “I need a new phone.” When we get to the store, and we’ve waited our customary 45 minutes minimum, then comes the dreaded conversation with the salesperson. Look, I am not bashing salespeople, it is their job and many of them do it honestly and helpfully.
The problem is, I’m terrible at asking questions about what is and isn’t included and ultimately I end up with a bunch of things I don’t want or use. I get a lot more data than I’ll ever need and features on my phone that I hadn’t even THOUGHT of until the salesperson at the store recommend it to me. “Maybe I do need a phone with two cameras. Now that I think about it my battery life is crap! You know, you’re right. My touch screen isn’t responsive enough. Let’s get that upgrade my friend!” True confession: the last time we bought new phones, I ended up with a cable subscription that I didn’t want or even know I had until a month later.
They are so good at convincing you that you are saving money by doing this. The process, of which I’m sure you are quite aware of, is called “bundling”. The hope, for the buyer, is that it will save you money. However, it is often a clever way to get you to sample things you may not have sampled in hopes that you will like it so much you’ll buy into it or subscribe to it eventually.
I think this sometimes happens with our faith. Think about it. When you first begin your faith journey, there are some pretty amazing things that you find out about God. You discover that God loves you unconditionally and that you can have a relationship with Him. Then you learn that even when you mess things up, there is grace and forgiveness if you ask for it. How about God’s abiding presence? Even in your darkest hours, when you think all is lost, you begin to understand that He will never “leave you or forsake you.” I could go on and on but I think you get the picture. There is an excitement and passion about your faith that supersedes understanding.
Then, right when you are getting jacked about your spiritual life, people will “bundle” a few other things along with it, just so you don’t get the wrong idea about Church. Like it could actually be enjoyable or filled with hope. Honestly, I don’t think they do it on purpose to dupe or pull one over on you. The fact is that some of these things have been passed on from generation to generation. We just blindly accept it and then pass it on.
Here are a few weird ones from my childhood. Don’t dance, it could lead to other things. Don’t watch rated “R” films, you might want to start doing the things that you’ve seen in the movie. Science is basically evil, unless you need to go to the doctor or take medication…then it is a necessary evil. Things that are new are bad, until they become old and then we will accept and use them like there is no tomorrow. All “secular” music is the Devil’s soundtrack. If you play Ozzy Osbourne music backwards you will become a high priest in a satanic cult and bite the head off of a bat. I mean, is listening to “Crazy Train” really worth all of that??!!
Now, most of us can see straight through those examples right? Sure, there might still be a few of us that would take issue with one or two but my guess is that these days, there aren’t many. I’ll wager that there might be a few things that are bundled with our faith that are a little bit harder to see through though.
Here are just a few things that I have had to reconcile.
Guilt driven religion. Shame is used as a tool to drive up baptism numbers and “decisions to follow Jesus.” We relabel this as “being tough on sin” and not preaching a “weak gospel”. I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about sin or address it but if most messages focus on the negative side of the world that we live in and how terrible we all are, you might be in an environment that is using guilt and shame as a tool.
Exclusionary Community You could also attribute this to some form of tribalism. Creating an “us vs them” mentality where we are the heroes and they are the villains. We do this by comparing the best of “us” to the worst of “them”.
This part of our bundled faith is relabeled as “being holy” but underneath stirs up hatred and bigotry toward those who are different. Certainly we are called to live as Jesus lived and that type of life stands out. I’m not suggesting that we give “being holy” the boot. Far from it. I think we should lean in to that. It is a really important aspect of following Jesus.
What I am saying is that we need to be discerning about what gets put in that category and what doesn’t. Calling out your own sin is necessary and healthy as long as you receive the forgiveness and grace that God provides us. However, calling out other people’s sin all of the time isn’t “being holy”, it’s just being mean. It pushes “them” down and gives “us” a false sense of security by excessively patting ourselves on the back. It keeps the people we were sent to reach at arm’s length and many times keeps them away from a relationship with Jesus.
Hostility toward women. I’m sure we could go round and round on this one but let’s get real. We have a big problem with the way women are treated at most churches. For an organization that is comprised largely of women, for many churches they are an after thought. They are good to take care of our kids, help us get organized in the office but as far as taking on a serious leadership roles within the Church, they are not welcome to do so. This has to change. Not just in word but in deed.
This isn’t always in straightforward ways, it can be more subtle. If we tell success stories about how God is at work in the lives of His people, and we don’t include stories about women, we contribute toward that problem. If all of the examples that we include of women in our sermons and videos are of women who occupy traditional roles only, without also including women who are leaders in business, single moms and mixed families, we contribute toward the problem.
Business practices guised as Ecclesiology. Don’t get me wrong, there is a business side to church. If you have a building, resources or staff that you have to manage, there are business principles that are necessary to employ in order to be good stewards of those things. I understand that you have to turn the lights on and pay the water bill. There is wisdom in looking at how other organizations operate and seeing if we can learn from them. If you want to get better, it is always good to look outside of the usual suspects to become more efficient. I totally get that.
However, the Church is not a business or at least, it shouldn’t be. Our bottom line is not profit. Our bottom line isn’t to be in Forbes Fortune 500 or to be better than the church around the corner. The Church is about loving God and loving people, and that is sometimes hard to gauge and it is messy. We should care for people more than the average business does.
People are not a widget or a cog in a machine.
They are not a means to an end. They matter. If our business is to make disciples and a disciple is someone who loves God and others, using and discarding them moves us away from that goal.
The list goes on. There are a myriad of other issues from racism to hedonism that could be included but maybe that is another post for a different day. It would take too long to list everything that gets included and that list may be different from person to person, denomination to denomination and church to church.
Why even bring this up? Isn’t this just stirring up anger against the Church? Don’t we need to be unified and not divided during a divisive time? Yes, unity is important but unity at what cost? It is okay to disagree on these issues and remain unified but we don’t need to gloss over them and pretend they don’t exist either.
I know that there are a lot of churches out there that are struggling through the same issues and doing their absolute best to strike a better balance. My point isn’t to throw the Church under the proverbial bus. My point is that there have been things that over generations of people have been “bundled” into our faith. Many are exasperated by it and are attempting to “unbundle” those unhealthy spiritual practices.
Hear me out: that’s not a bad thing. Let’s give people the space, they’ll take it anyway, to sort through some of their baggage and find a new way forward. I’m not suggesting that we give our faith the boot, I am saying that our faith is so important, that it is necessary to get rid of things that make us stumble and that cause us to derail our walk with Jesus. If your body is sick, you take it to the doctor to eradicate the sickness.
This is spiritual surgery, not faithlessness.
It would be really easy to stop right there and not do the hard work. I don’t think that would be helpful.
Instead, I will continue to do some writing in this space where I will share with you a few things that I am currently doing and have done to find a way forward in this ever changing environment that we find ourselves in. It isn’t easy but it is worth it. Our faith is too important to leave it bundled or to abandon it completely.
Separating toxic religion from a life giving faith is hard work, but it is worth it in the end. Let’s engage in this work together and not alone.