You may not recognize the name Jefferson Bethke immediately, but I’m sure at one point you’ve stumbled across his poem, Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus on Youtube. When it was first posted, it went viral nearly overnight, as people around the world shared, commented, upvoted or downvoted it.
I watched it on repeat over and over again, thinking ‘finally, somebody else gets it’.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, and haven’t seen the video before, I ask that you watch it before continuing my post.
When I found out Bethke had gone on to write a book based off this poem and has become a prominent Christian speaker, I had to have the book. It had been a long time since I had encountered a Christian who could resonate what I felt about my faith, and do so in a way far more eloquently than I could.
I stumbled on his book at a time when I was rebuilding my faith. After going through what I consider to be one of the darkest points in my life, I was starting from ground zero. All but the foundation of my faith had shattered, and as my husband and I had struggled to resurface without support from our church and Christian community, I was struggling with wanting to get back to my faith again.
You see, for me, one of my biggest struggles as a Christian has always been separating people from Jesus, religion from relationship. I’ll never be a perfect Christian, and I never have been. But it’s always bothered me when Christians don’t seem to get it; when the church becomes a comfortable place where people can go to feel good about their faith and feel like good Christians because they come, tithe and pray, but then forget about the poor, the struggling and the hurt.
That anger is one of my faults; I was raised by a perfectionist to be a perfectionist who expects the best out of myself, but it also means I expect the best out of others. I draw a super high bar, and I struggle when people can’t meet it.
I’m working on that.
And that was part of why I felt getting this book was so important. It wasn’t about reading it to glean how the Christian population should view Christianity, or serve Christ, it was about getting my head on straight. It was about reminding myself of the Christian I wanted to be so I could rebuild that shattered faith and become a better Christian, and a better servant of Christ.
It only took a few chapters in for that to be reaffirmed, and for the reminder that getting angry with Christians not serving the way the Bible calls us is not going to make anybody, even myself, a better Christian.
In his chapter ‘Religion Makes Enemies/Jesus Makes Friends’, Bethke discusses how from day one, we’re brought up with an Us vs Them Attitude. He goes on to highlight several examples: Blacks vs Whites, Conservatives vs Liberals, Rich vs Poor, Republicans vs Democrat, and so on.
While it is often disguised as a ‘right vs wrong’ attitude, the problem is that when we breed that, it carries over into all aspects, including ‘good Christians vs bad Christians’.
Bethke writes: “We love to pit ourselves against others. It gives us moral authority. It gives us moral affirmation. Let’s be honest: sometimes Christians are the worst. Our church is better than the one down the street. The way we do worship is better than the church we grew up in.”
He then provides more examples of how this attitude infiltrates the church: Calvinists vs Arminians, Complementarians vs Egalitarians, Catholics vs Protestants, and so on.
“…we can’t honestly think any non-Christian will want to come into the family of God if we just as – if not more – divisive than the rest of the world.”
Bethke’s book is one hard slam after another. But it carries within it an important truth that we all need to apply to our own lives. It carries with it the question “Are we followers of Jesus, or are we followers of the religion that started on the ideals Jesus brought to his followers?”
One of the most powerful quotes I’ve ever heard, that seems to ring more and more true each and every day about Christians (all of us), was said by Brennan Manning over 20 years ago.
“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their mouths and walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.”
Bethke explains early on in his book that Christian culture is no longer as fulfilling because it’s no longer true Christianity. We’ve created a band-aid version with a Jesus that is ‘safe for the whole family’.
“We’ve lost the real Jesus – or at least exchanged him for a newer, safer, sanitized ineffectual one. We’ve created a Christian subculture that comes with its own set of customs, rituals, paradigms and products that are nowhere near the rugged, revolutionary faith of Biblical Christianity.”
He goes on to add that “We claim Jesus is our homeboy, but sometimes we look more like the people Jesus railed against. The same indictments Jesus brought against the religious leaders of his day – the scribes and the Pharisees – he could bring down on many of America’s Christian leaders. No wonder the world hates us. Most of the time we’re persecuted not because we love Jesus, but because we’re prideful, arrogant jerks who don’t love the real Jesus. We’re often judgemental, hypocritical, and legalistic while claiming to follow a Jesus who is forgiving, authentic and loving.”
So how do we repair the broken parts of the church and strive toward this incredible thing that Jesus intended us to be?
Bethke writes in the final chapter ‘Why Jesus Loves the Church (And You Should Too)’ that “The difference between a critic and a servant is how they approach a problem. A critic stands back and points out the problem; a servant rolls up [their] sleeves and helps solve the problem.”
There are beautiful churches (see people, not building) who are getting it. It took removing my heart of criticism to see that.
If being the kind of Christians that Christ intended us to be was so easy, much of the important things we glean from our relationship with Christ wouldn’t be there. That character development that is required to truly understand the heart of Christ would be lacking.
“In the same way a mosaic is made up of broken, ragged and dirty pieces of glass, so the church is made up of broken, ragged and dirty people. But when you zoom out and see the whole picture, you see something beautiful. Broken people living life together is a beautiful picture.”
Whether we choose to admit it or not, we are all broken in some way. We are all failing Jesus and his mission in some way. In one aspect or another, all of us are guilty of following our Christian religion instead of following Christ. It can be a hard truth to hear. It’s even harder to take that truth and apply it to our lives.
But as Bethke says, the sign of a true servant is the one who digs in and starts making those changes. The church isn’t going to change overnight. But when each of us are willing to examine ourselves and dig in after a true, authentic Jesus, we’ll start to see change. It doesn’t come from calling one another out, claiming it’s out of love when it’s not. It comes from doing the dirty work ourselves; changing our own hearts, minds and actions. When we strive after that authentic relationship with Jesus, it challenges others to do the same. When we reflect Christ in all areas of our lives, it challenges others in the body to start reflecting him too.
And if that’s what you’re striving for, then I definitely recommend picking up Bethke’s book, Jesus>Religion. It may not revolutionize your faith, but in the least, I promise it will challenge you.