Some believe Christianity is in crisis — most especially with young people.
The disenchantment toward religion was summarized earlier this year in a rap video by 22-year-old Jefferson Bethke titled “Why I Hate Religion, But I Love Jesus.”
The video was a viral hit with the 20-something crowd, the same crowd that has been fleeing the religious sphere like it's the bubonic plague. The message of the video is that religion is hypocritical and corrupt, and that one simply needs to embrace Jesus.
I don’t blame the youths of today for their skepticism. In an era of corporate greed, two-faced political professions of faith and mega churches, it’s hard not to be cynical. My city paper ran an article about a local church trying to lure the young crowd with boxing matches and texted sermons. Our neighbors left their congregation because they were turned off by the aggressive fundraising efforts. Are there churches taking advantage of their members and losing sight of what “religion” is all about? Absolutely. Do we need to look outside the facade of religion and return to the fundamentals of Jesus Christ’s teaching? Certainly.
But does that mean we abandon the brick-and-mortar church in favor of a more personal relationship with Christ? As Americans, we have never been as disconnected from establishment as we are today. Civic engagement is at an all-time low. Does it behoove us to declare the churches as ancillary to our faith, and therefore disposable? To answer that question, we have to look at what a church provides — beyond a Sunday sermon and a sacrament. This, in my mind, is what churces do:
1. They provide community
I’ve spent my life jumping from one place to the next. The first thing I do when I move to a new place is find the local chapel. That is the grounding point. Church-goers gather for festivals and holidays — not to mention weekly worship. In an era of community disconnect, churches become more crucial than ever. They give us resources we can’t get through Angie’s List. And they provide connection that is singular, no matter how many friends I may have on Facebook.
2. They give aid
Look at natural disasters, then look to see who responds first. While government-sponsored programs and non-profits can sometimes be busy jumping through hoops and collecting funds, the churches are on the ground, handing out blankets and water bottles.
3. They provide service
They serve meals at homeless shelters and donate blankets to battered-women shelters. They visit nursing homes and deliver meals to the sick and the new mothers. They give rides to the elderly and watch each other’s children.
4. They expand your circle
This is especially true of Mormon congregations, which are organized by geography. Without a church congregation, my circle would be as large as my neighborhood block and my work associates. However, because of church, I’ve had the privilege of befriending people from Africa, Germany, Peru, Haiti and Russia. Not only that, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with all kinds of people — some who are illiterate, highly educated, crippled, wealthy or mentally disabled.
5. They provide a school for learning
I was talking recently with a woman from Liberia who joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints several months ago. She said she was impressed with how husbands in the LDS Church help their wives with household tasks like cleaning and caring for children. She has learned this by watching families in the church. I’ve learned how to parent, how to teach and how to lead by looking to the example of other church members.
6. They provide opportunities for growth
It’s easy to do a job that we’re good at. When serving in a church, we are called on to serve in areas where we may not have strength. Just ask a non-musician who was called on to lead the ward choir — or a disorganized person who was called on to serve as secretary of the Relief Society.
When we abandon church — and by that I mean the physical structure, and the act of worshipping weekly — we give up a portion of what it means to be schooled in a Christian setting. Eugene England, in his landmark essay “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” states this most eloquently:
“It is precisely in the struggle to be obedient while maintaining integrity, to have faith while being true to reason and evidence, to serve and love in the face of imperfections and even offenses, that we can gain the humility we need to allow divine power to enter our lives in transforming ways.”
On Sunday morning, I watch the garage doors rise in the homes around me. The families — Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopalian and Mormon — head to church.
None of us are as good as we should be, but we are all trying to live a Christian life, a life that reflects the teachings of Jesus Christ. I see that in how the parents raise their children and how the kids interact with one another on the basketball court.
We have Jesus in our heart. But we are also a church-going people. My hope is that the rising generation sees the two as mutually inclusive.