Voices

Disorganized religion

In America, the institutional church has become the counterculture

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

A recent article in USA Today blazed with the headline, "Believers OK With Many Paths." The gist of the article is a Pew Foundation survey of 35,000 Americans about their religious beliefs, covering both doctrinal and cultural issues. Questions ranged from the existence of God to standards of right and wrong to the acceptance of homosexuality. It should come as no surprise that while an overwhelming majority (92 percent) believe in God, opinions differ drastically as to who or what God is. An impersonal force, with a light and a dark side? A one-time-only creator who has no interest in what we do? Or something like Genie in the Disney version of Aladdin: PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER; itty bitty living space.

The latter actually seems to be the default mode. Most Americans grant full creative honors to God, while on moral and theological questions He seems to reside comfortably in their own minds. This is only to be expected in a diverse culture, but that same divergence on basic questions shows up among those who call themselves Christians.

To the question, "Do you believe there are clear and absolute standards for what is right and wrong?" 78 percent agree or mostly agree. But only 29 percent say their religion is their guide for determining those standards. A little over half (52 percent) rely on "practical experience and common sense," without seeing the contradiction between absolute (true for everybody) and experiential (true for me). A majority of religious Americans, including Christians, agree that "many religions can lead to eternal life." Perfectly compatible with our tolerant age, of course, but the direct opposite of what Christ Himself said.

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"Americans are deeply suspicious of institutional religion," explains John Green, a Pew Forum senior fellow-even some of those Americans who go to church at least once a week (39 percent), pray daily (58 percent), and believe in heaven (70 percent). "Organized religion" has been an object of scorn among elites at least since H.L. Mencken was reporting from the Scopes trial; how many entertainers and pundits have expressed admiration for God while dismissing the only entity that claims to speak for Him? Only to be expected, again-except when more and more evangelical believers are joining the skeptics. The Shack, a publishing phenomenon billed as a Christian novel, makes doctrinal religion part of an "unholy trinity" along with politics and economics.

But what exactly is "organized religion," except code words for Christ's own church? In the world's eyes, she's aging ungracefully: an overdressed dowager with a checkered past, who divides her time between ghastly potluck dinners and awkwardly meddling in people's private affairs. When he first came to faith through an enchanted forest of imagination, C.S. Lewis saw the church as a "fussy, time-wasting botheration": "the bells, the crowds, the umbrellas, the notices, the bustle, the perpetual arranging and organizing." Over time, he probably saw her differently; it's certain that Christ does, as a radiant bride adorned for her husband, ordained by the One who calls things that are not as though they were.

The church is an easy target. So was Stephen, at the bottom of a pit, bent double under a hail of stones. He was there for impolitic statements, for challenging the establishment-not with his personal experience but with sound doctrine taught by an institution.

These are actually interesting times to be a church member in good standing, for organized religion has become the counterculture. We can think of ourselves as stealth troops undermining conventional wisdom with our "perpetual arranging and organizing." But our effectiveness, like Stephen's, depends on keeping our eyes on Christ: "devoting [ourselves] to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Like the church's first martyr we gaze into heaven and testify to a risen Lord, the only Way, standing at God's right hand.

To those who claim to follow Jesus yet remain outside His church, one question: How can you love Christ and despise His body?

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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