Religiosity is Adapting – Brad Jersak
In our long-term quest to pursue Christianity Without the Religion, we’ve noticed that Christless religion can adjust itself to shifts in popular culture. In other words, religiosity is quite capable of adapting to new forms and expressions, while continuing to wander far from the Jesus Way.
As I’ve visited 10-20 different congregations per year for the
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1. In spite of its reputation for being a money-grabbing industry, I can report that with few exceptions, I no longer encounter heavy-handed offering appeals in local congregations. Not because Christian communities aren’t in great need of money. Rather, the money rhetoric has toned down because most churches know they could never get away with it. Some churches I know still pass an offering plate, but that is increasingly rare and the invitation to give is far more subtle than it was previously (of necessity).
I see two main exceptions to this trend away from pushy appeals. First, on a positive note, specific appeals are usually focused on helping needy people across the world. Like Paul the apostle (when he raised cash for famine relief), some groups are more upfront about funding third-party projects than trying to maintain their own overhead. That’s fair.
On the other hand, there is still an ugly connection between the charismatic prosperity gospel and high-pressure offerings, promising spiritual and financial breakthrough by transactional giving (an oxymoron). This seems to be waning or at least less obvious (apart from television evangelists).
2. Nowhere I go do the churches directly promote ritualism or legalism as ways to gain merit with God. That’s too obvious. Yes, we still have faith practices (congregational prayers, songs and Scripture reading) that are expressions of faith. And we still have a sense of Christian morality (right and wrong is not out the window). But most churches know that making these a ladder to heaven in the age of “grace alone” is a turn-off and likely to empty the pews. Religion has moved on from the old church’s “indulgences” tactics in a major way.
The exception to this is when the rituals and rules are transposed into new super-spiritual lingo (mainly connected with revivalism). For example, “passion for Jesus” and being “radically sold out” may sound saintly but can become clichés for the new legalism. In other words, “striving” sounds bad, so now we “press in.” “Law-keeping to earn merits in heaven” sounds awful, but “pressing in for a breakthrough” is so spiritual. And thus revivalism becomes the new legalism.
No, Christless religion doesn’t just dissipate into the ether. It is a crafty and cunning chameleon, ever changing its color for new habitats.
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Over time, Christless religiosity has advanced on new fronts that are more obvious now that they once were. Some examples:
1. Increased appeal to entertainment consumerism. It has been popular to sneer at the expensive cathedrals built by serfs in the middle ages, but are modern multiplex monstrosities and their overhead so dissimilar? No sooner do eyes roll at priests wafting incense than the worship pastor is installing a smoke machine. As hymn books are being demoted to doorstops, the CCM (contemporary Christian music) industry vies for Top-40 sounds, styles and rockstar status.
I believe that God loves and inspires beauty in our lives and in our worship. I have no quarrel there. But I would pay close attention to how religion is finding new inroads into the faith through performance orientation and consumerist culture. Too often, churches are assessed according to how they scale in their entertainment value. “What I got out of it” or whether “I was moved” depends on if I experienced goose bumps or “liver shiver” and assume that as the work of the Holy Spirit.
2. While avoiding legalism (gaining merit through law-keeping), there is still a very strong pull toward moralism (belonging by behaving). Legalism and moralism sound similar, but even “grace alone” people who deny being legalistic can still be very exclusive and condescending toward messy and marginal people–those less “holy” than them. This still marks a profound in/out division (the same wall of partition Christ destroyed) that leaves strugglers feeling “less than” while those who play by the script are rewarded with social standing. This phenomenon can be especially prurient—a word that describes Christianity’s undue emphasis/obsession with sexuality. Moralism is Christless religion in its willingness to pick up stones. Christ is so clear about checking the beam in your own eye and letting our voyeuristic judgments fall from our fists.
3. I have noticed a marked increase in politicized faith, where our morality is NOT derived from the Sermon on the Mount or Christ’s ethical teaching. Rather, these days it simply mirrors the popular political and ideological trends that dominate the most recent polarizing culture wars. My sense is that the political right and the ideological left are not only at war with each other across the nation, but together, conspire to co-opt and dominate the front end of religious discourse. In my forthcoming book, A More Christlike Way, I will describe how the left-right spectrum is itself a matrix of tribalism and the most obvious expression of what the apostle John condemns as “the world” [system]. The “world” wants to displace Christ in determining Christianity’s moral imperative … and I’m afraid that’s already a done-deal. We want to call Christianity back to Christ himself as the first determiner and final judge of what is right. Hint: Love God, love your brother and sister, love your neighbor, love the stranger and love your enemy.
4. Finally (for now), I see Christless religion surging among those who are doubling down on divine retribution. Just when I thought we were beyond that… No, a new “hipster fundamentalism” struts across the big stage in blue jeans. Some of the fastest growing churches in North America are thriving on a market that wants to push back hard against postmodernism and the perceived liberalism of those who preach the beautiful Gospel of God’s infinite love. They wave their fists at this gospel and condemn the so-called “hippie Jesus.” Their increased emphasis on God’s wrath, penal substitution
Yes, religiosity is alive and well, but we need to learn to sniff out its sneaky new inroads into the most popular and powerful movements within Christendom–and into ourselves. Resistance isn’t futile but it does take some vigilant discernment. May God grant us mercy to follow the Jesus Way.