Driving home from the hospital where I work this weekend I heard the promo for NPR’s debate show Intelligence Squared which was debating the motion “would the world be better off without religion?” I didn’t actually get to listen to it, there were weeds to be picked, and little daughters to be played with and steaks to grill, and well… there’s only so much time to go around.
But hearing this promo seemed to fit into a stream of thought I’ve been having lately regarding what exactly does the church do? Some folks think Church is the embodiment of the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel. Some think it’s for living out Jesus’ command to serve the “least of these.” Others think it’s for marking out the “elect” from the damned. I like the first two of those, I’m not so into the third. Let me be clear though, I’m not asking what the church is, I’m asking what it does. I think Cardinal Dulles’ Models of the Church is the best reflection on the nature of the church I’ve come across, but it can be a little bit abstract.
My suggestion is that what churches are really designed for, their core competency, if you like, is religion. As the NPR program suggests though, similar to the web-excitement generated by the YouTube video of the guy who loves Jesus but hates religion and all those folks claiming to be “spiritual but not religious,” religion isn’t very popular in America (or Europe, as far as that goes). Actually, religion hasn’t been very popular for awhile now – too limiting. It seems to me that a great deal of what church institutions have been engaged in for several decades at least is to try to pass themselves off as places that aren’t bogged down by “religion.”
But I think religion is getting a bad rap. Religion, at its best is about the inculcation of faith. Religious practice and religious discipline (think praying – not spanking) create in us deep patterns of behavior and thought that can be very useful in developing a worldview consistent with Christ’s teaching to love God and neighbor. Mind you, it is possible to lose sight of the purpose of religion, the building and sustaining of faith, and to begin to pursue religion for its own end.
I don’t think you have to go to church or be religious to be loved by God. But I do think that church offers a time-tested way to develop faith and to learn how to confidently respond to the broken world around us in knowledge of that love. So go ahead and get yourself some religion – you might be surprised how it turns out.