‘I am spiritual, not religious.’
‘I don’t want a religion; I want a relationship.’
‘I love Jesus, but hate the church.’
We’ve all heard phrases like these. And we bristle every time. Those of us who serve the church have little patience for those who would drive a wedge between Christ and his Church.
However, I believe a stance of wholesale rejection of the movement these slogans represent is a grave strategic error. The critique of religion has an impressive pedigree that must be taken seriously. And, like all heresies, its appeal rests in the fact that it is not completely wrong, but rather half-right. A catholic (i.e., holistic, global) response would affirm its genuine insights while simultaneously affirming what it denies in its singular attachment to said insights. A strategy of critical appropriation would serve us better. So when I hear someone throw around these slogans, I seek to find the truth in what they say while pressing them to see the whole truth beyond what they say.
How might we go about such a critical appropriation? Well, I think we could begin with the end. What will the coming kingdom look like? And how much of that can be tasted now?
So, for our topic, that means asking: What role, if any, will “religion” play in the New Jerusalem? And what might that tell us about the Christian life now?
It seems to me that there are two sides to the answer.
On the one hand, I think we must reject the notion that the eschaton will consist solely in worship (narrowly conceived adoration of God-as-object). This is a common assumption, but a false one. According to Revelation, the new heavens and the new earth will be an event of reconciliation not only between God and people but among people themselves. It will be the wondrous event of “the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). It will therefore be the fulfillment of mission — not simply its completion, but its maturation and ongoing enjoyment. God’s mission will be perfected, but it will never cease. The eternal process of perfection includes not only true worship directed towards God-as-object standing over against us, but also true mission directed towards others alongside God-as-subject. The eschaton, therefore, does not consist solely in worship, but rather in the living interplay of worship and mission.
On the other hand, I think we can imagine how worship will be fulfilled in the coming kingdom. It will be fulfilled in that worship will be quite different–worship itself will be perfected. This means that in a certain sense worship will be concluded. It will not simply continue as-is. A strong note of discontinuity must be heard here. Our broken worship in the present will be healed in the end. Our incessant desire to control God—-to make him into a dead idol—-will be finally and fully shattered. And so worship will be different. As John the Revelator says, “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22). There is still a temple of sorts, and thus, a kind of worship. We will continue to be religious, contra the sloganeering of the religion-haters. But it will be a living temple—-a temple stripped of its capacity to idolize God.
Both worship and mission will be perfected in the end, i.e., both concluded and continued. This two-pronged anticipation of the end should liberate us in the present to critically appropriate the insights of those who despise religion. We should be freed to ask, without anxiety, what worship might look like that relinquishes an idolatrous grasping of the living God. What might worship look like that does not compete with mission, but it positively related to it? I think we can ask these questions faithfully—-not simply as a critical endeavor but as a parable of the coming reign of God.
So, when the haters come knocking, I do not feel the need to simply reject them. I can affirm and appreciate the critique of a church that is ‘so heavenly minded it is no earthly good.’ I can do so because I have a different picture of heaven in mind: one in which the activities of ‘secular’ life are redeemed and included in the ongoing enjoyment of God’s world. I can do so because I am not threatened by the thought that there is something wrong with our religiosity, and that Christ seeks to redeem it. But as I do so, I do not for a minute begin to think that this means that religion can simply be set aside. For God is in the business of redemption, and he seeks to redeem even our worship of him–transforming it into the image of his son Jesus Christ! The church is the place were our religion is being transformed. So, if you hate religion, join the church! Join us as we partner with God in his transformation of religion into a worshipping missionary community worthy of his name!