I wrote the following for today's local paper, the InPort News.
I recently got back in touch with an old university friend who I'd lost touch with for 20 years. I was not always a pastor. I got to know this friend when we were studying Civil Engineering, which was my line of work before becoming a pastor. We exchanged long emails telling about our lives and families and work and what we've been up to over the past 20 years. He remembered that I was a church-goer but was a little surprised that I was not a pastor. One comment in his email was that he "had problems with organized religion" and something about the hypocrisy he so often sees among religious people.
I know that church and religion aren't everybody's thing and I'm okay with that. But my friend's comment got me thinking about the term "organized religion" and the way it's often used. I could always come back with the joke that says "If you knew my church you'd find out we're not that organized" but I know that's not what people are getting at when they use that phrase. I've always been a part of "organized religion" so I don't know exactly what they are getting at.
Some may be atheists who have, or claim to have, absolutely no faith in God. Some may be agnostic, who aren't sure about faith and God, but can't or don't want to find answers in a church. Some might claim that they can't find God in church, in "organized religion," and that religious experience can be better found communing with nature. Some may think that religion is the cause of too much strife in the world (and they may have a valid point). Some will say that you can be a good person without belonging to a church. I'm sure you can. And some will have a problem with hypocrisy among religious people, those who don't practice what they preach.
There are likely many more reasons why people have a problem with "organized religion." That list is just some of the reasons that I thought of off the top of my head. Now, the hypocrisy thing, I get that. The church and the Bible call people to live a certain way and to act a certain way toward others and the world, the whole "golden rule" thing, and we're not always that good at following through. But there's more to our religion and our faith than following rules.
One of the phrases that comes out of my Lutheran tradition is a Latin phrase that says Christians are simul iustus et peccator. It means we are simultaneously righteous and sinful. Being a Christian or belonging to a church or even trying really hard to be good doesn't make you perfect. Being sinful is part of being human. Being righteous is part of being saved. And that's what the church, what "organized religion" is about. We're not perfect. I don't think any church would claim that they are.
There are plenty of social service clubs that do a lot of the same things that churches do, maybe even do them better than churches. They might offer support groups, soup kitchens, services to the elderly, food pantries, counseling hot lines, etc. But what the community of believers provides that those other agencies can't replace is called salvation.
We gather on a Sunday morning, to hear God's word of love for all, the promise of forgiveness of sins, encouragement to live a righteous life. We gather to meet a God who has promised to be there. We pray together for the church, the world, and all in need. We sing together, whether we're any good or not. We share a ritual meal in which God promises to come to us with love and forgiveness. We gather with others to give each other love and support and fellowship and together we work to spread the good news of God's love in Jesus Christ and to do what we can to make our world a better place. And every one receives a blessing, just for showing up.
That's what "organized religion," at least in the Christian tradition to which I belong, ought to be about. As I said, we're not perfect and we don't always live up to the standards others set for us or that we set for ourselves. But as a community of faith we encounter God together and we work together, support, and encourage one another as we muddle through and struggle along in this life.