Jefferson Bethke played baseball in college, got a degree in politics and government, and taught high school social studies in the Seattle area. On January 20, 2012, he released a YouTube video titled, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” Within three days it had received six million views. It has now been seen more than 25 million times.
Jonathan Merritt, one of my favorite faith and culture writers, recently talked with Bethke about his new book, “Jesus > Religion: Why He is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough.” In the interview Bethke affirms discipline, church attendance, rhythms and routine. However, he worries about “people that use [religion] to describe moral behaviors that place you in right standing with God.”
He just described the way faith worked for me, for many years. When I was in high school, my week usually included Sunday school and worship, Sunday evening worship, Tuesdaynight visitation, Wednesday night prayer meeting, and Saturday morning youth Bible study. I was also taught to begin every day with a “quiet time” with God.
What no one said but I somehow inferred was that all this religiosity put me in greater favor with God. The more I did, the more he was pleased with me, or so I thought.
Such transactional religion goes back to the ancient Greeks: place a sacrifice on the altar so the gods will bless your crops. The more you do for them, the more they’ll do for you. Bethke is right: such religion results in “making yourself the center of the story rather than Jesus.”
And it often sparks a superior spirit that demonizes those who disagree: “Religious people see certain people as their enemies, when Jesus-followers see sin as the enemy. Religious people see ‘them’ as the problem; Jesus-followers see ‘us’ as the problem.”
Jesus came not to establish another transactional religion but to birth a movement centering in transformational relationship. Here’s where it begins: “Abide in me, and I in you” (John 15:4). Worship, pray and study Scripture—not so Jesus will love you but because he already does. Spiritual disciplines do not earn his blessing—they position us to receive his grace and be transformed by his Spirit.
With this result: “whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (v. 5). In a culture where 77 percent say religion is losing its influence on American life, it is urgent that more people see more of Jesus and his relevance, in us and through us.
Would Jesus say you are abiding in him right now? Do you have a religion based on him or a relationship with him? Changed people change the world.