Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Stop saying "It's not a religion."

"Are you religious?"

I've always found this to be a tough question to answer- my background is evangelical Christianity, which very much emphasizes that no, this is not a religion. "Religion" is about following rules to earn God's approval, and that's not what we believe. We believe God loved us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8), and there is no way we could have ever earned that.

"It's not a religion, it's a relationship." I don't believe this anymore. Image source.

So, how should I answer when asked "Are you religious?"

Because, you know, I wouldn't want to be confused with those "religious people" who just try to follow rules and don't actually care about God. I wouldn't want to be confused with those "Christians" who only go to church on Christmas and don't even own a bible. I wouldn't want to be confused with those people who say God just loves everyone and wants them to be happy- and never count the cost of following Jesus.

I can say I'm Christian, but hey, a lot of people say they're Christian- what does it even mean? I can add some adjectives on the front of it- evangelical, bible-believing, born-again- to show I'm serious about it... but then again, those are just labels for particular subcultures within organized religion. I can throw on my own descriptor- "I'm a Christian and I love Jesus more than anything", "I'm a Christian and Jesus changed my life", etc. Maybe I'll even stop using the word "Christian" and just say I'm a "disciple of Jesus"- see, that'll show everyone that my faith is my own and I'm not just blindly following what some organized religion says.

No. STOP! This whole thing comes from a desire to separate myself from my brothers and sisters who follow the same God I do. Why do I need to judge? Why do I need to say, "I'm a Christian, but not THAT kind of Christian"?

It's not my job to figure out who is and who is not a "real" Christian. If someone says they're a Christian, I'll take their word for it, and they can take it up with Jesus later if needed.

Agape Church, in Chongqing.
Why? Because I went to China.

Because a friend of a friend, whom I had never met before, let me stay with her in her tiny apartment. Because she took me out to restaurants and never let me pay for food or even the bus fare. Because we prayed together- in both English and Chinese- and cried together.

Because a member of her church invited us to his apartment- with cement floors and no heat- and we all made dumplings together. Because he GAVE ME a bible- a Chinese/English bible, which I had tried so hard to buy but they were out of stock at the church bookstore.

Because they tolerated my bad Chinese and my annoyance at being spoken to in English. Because they were so hospitable, and made sure I knew what to say to the taxi driver to get home.

And I asked my new best friend, why was she doing all this? Why was she buying me dinner? Why was she taking the time to show me around the city? Why did she never let me pay for anything?

"你是我的妹妹." You are my sister. She didn't know me, but she knew I was a Christian. And somehow, two people from different cultures, on opposite sides of the world, had something in common. Everything is different about us, but we follow the same God.

And that is why I no longer want to separate myself from the body of Christ. I no longer want to create little categories to prove I'm a "real" Christian. No. Because this label, "Christian", connects me to millions of brothers and sisters around the world- they speak different languages, they come from completely different cultures- we have nothing in common except the most important thing.

"You are my sister." I'll never forget her.

You can say "it's not a religion" if you want, but I don't believe that any more. You can say "it's a relationship" if you want, but it's not just a "personal relationship with God"- it's a relationship with every human being on the planet who calls on the name of Jesus.

Now I'm happy to say "I'm a Christian" with no modifiers or disclaimers. Because God is so much greater than anything I could experience in my own little "personal walk with Christ". If he really is a global God, who unites people from every race, every language, every culture- why would I throw that away by distancing myself from the name of "Christian"?

"Are you religious?" Yes, I am a Christian.


  1. I think you'd like this recent John Shore post:

  2. Indeed. Thanks for sharing the link. :)

  3. I stumbled upon your blog today via Dianna Anderson's blog, which I found via Rachel Held Evan's blog. I've read several of your posts, and have to say--what a gem!

    I've been struggling with how to respond to "Are you religious?" for several years, after growing up as an Evangelical Christian, graduating from a Christian university, and then exiting the Christian bubble and becoming immersed in the secular (and highly enlightening) world. Someone asked me this a couple years ago, and I am haunted by my lame inability to think on my feet and unpreparedness to answer thoughtfully (my answer was something like, "Errmmm.........I go to church"). How do I respond, so as to not be associated with people like Mark Driscoll, the Westboro Baptist congregation, and Pat Robertson? There's a lot of negativity and confusion surrounding the label "Christian" in the U.S. these days.

    Last week, I went to a seminary lecture called "The Future of Evangelicalism," and took several things away from that, including: (1) Christians historically have divided themselves into groups and further into subgroups, to set themselves apart from other Christians who don't believe exactly as they do, (2) in the U.S., Evangelicalism has become associated with American culture wars, Republican politicking, and white, male, westerners, and (3) Christianity in the U.S. has become entrenched in individualism and consumerism. These things have contributed to the tarnishing of the labels of "Evangelical" and "Christian" in the U.S. One of the speakers said that if someone asked him what kind of Christian he is, he would respond, "Evangelical--wait--let me explain!" As for me, I'm still struggling, not only with how to respond to "Are you religious?" but also "What kind of Christian are you?" because of how labels can stir up preconceived notions in people's minds, and I hate being misunderstood and having certain ideas assumed about me. But I really like what you had to say here, and it has helped me to reevaluate my approach to working out an answer to these questions, because that connection to others who call on the name of Jesus is something to be cherished. The body of Christ is pretty much a big, messy, and at times dysfunctional family, but that shouldn't preclude me from claiming my place in it in words. I'm trying to restructure my faith to understand myself in the context of community, rather than the tunnel-visioned individualism of American culture!

  4. You can say "it's not a religion" if you want, but I don't believe that any more. You can say "it's a relationship" if you want, but it's not just a "personal relationship with God"- it's a relationship with every human being on the planet who calls on the name of Jesus.

    I love this and I think it also makes sense like this - "it's a relationship with every human being on the planet."



  5. Beautiful article. I surely hope people come to the understanding that Christianity is BOTH a relationship and a religion. The definition of religion follows: "the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God/gods. A particular system of faith and a pursuit/interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance." That is a key component of Christianity and without comprehending the very basis of the structure of our faith, how then are we to fully know and utilize our relationship to the "supreme pursuit" of our lives? Religion is not bad and it is necessary to comprehend the cherished relationship you share with God. A religion contains creeds, instruction, doctrine, church history, theology, philosophy, historical documents/architecture/scripture - these are not things to be treated lightly or with disdain! In my opinion, it weakens the individual and the Church as a whole when we cast off centuries of wisdom and direction in order to simplistically bask in the glow of a "relationship" without pressing further into the heart, soul and intelligence surrounding that bond

  6. 这篇文章真的很有意思。我是穆斯林,我也学了中文,也去了中国。你的这个经验是跟我的经验完全一样。我完全同意你的看法:我觉得宗教就会unite不同国家的人。