Jesus: The Healer of Bad Religion
When we're wounded by the Church, the answer is not to give up faith or create distance from God. What, then, is the spiritually healthy response?
I have been noticing something for many years. You probably see it too: Lots of ordinary and sincere Americans are dropping or minimizing faith and losing confidence in Christianity. This is sometimes referred to as “deconstruction.” Some people root their current faith story in previous experience, saying, “I am de-churched.” Others, focused on a preferable future, say, “I want to be spiritual but not in a churchly way.”
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Many of us see the studies:
Nearly four in 10 Americans ages 18–29 (38%) are religiously unaffiliated, an increase from 34% in 2021.
Over the past three decades…large numbers of Americans have left Christianity to join the growing ranks of U.S. adults who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.
The Pew Center’s projections show Christians shrinking from 64% of Americans of all ages in 2020 to between 54% and 35% by 2070.
Those are disembodied stats and facts. But we are embodied humans. We know stories and see faces. Projections are personal. We know family members wounded by the Church. We have friends who no longer know what to believe or even how to approach issues of faith.
I feel all that in my bones. It is a grief. I lament. I experience my own dark moments regarding church.
It is that mix of what I know to be true in me and what I see around me that led me to write What Jesus Intended: Finding True Faith in the Rubble of Bad Religion. I wrote it with loving, empathetic compassion. It is my best attempt to gain a fresh hearing for Jesus, who is the leading figure of human history when it comes to healing bad religion and articulating the good, wise and loving intentions of his Father.
I made the decision to follow Jesus in January of 1976. While church has sometimes confused or disappointed me, over the decades Jesus has only grown in stature, my commitment to him greater than ever. Based on my long experience, this much seems true: Trying to access or understand Jesus through the lens of the Church does not work. Rather, we need to give Jesus a fresh hearing, and from that hearing grasp the nature, meaning and purpose of the Church.
In my book, I seek to help wounded church-goers reexamine who Jesus is and what he taught:
What was the burden of Jesus’ teaching? Did it have any center of gravity and controlling perspective, or was it a somewhat random collection of wise parables and religious sayings? What expressed and unexpressed presuppositions undergirded his teaching? What made Jesus’ teaching meaningful and coherent?
I then go on to articulate what made Jesus different from other religious leaders of his day.
Jesus was calling for “a disposition conditioning the whole conduct of life…[marked by an] appetite for the will of God—as the act of accepting his reign.1 The teaching of Jesus emerged from a matchless inner dynamism and spirit. Reaching backward and forward at the same time, it made sense of Israel’s troubled past and articulated its promised future.
Recalling Jesus clarifying pronouncement: do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (Mt 5:17), we are able to grasp that, “Jesus’ aim is to mediate the final, climactic revelation of God’s will, thus bringing the teaching of Torah and prophets to its full, divinely predetermined, eschatological measure of completeness.” 2
Jesus was “the proclaimer of God’s kingdom initiative—and all his teaching traits [and healing, delivering actions] were in service to this.” 3 As the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus taught in a very different voice and vitality than the other religious leaders of his day: “…his authority was personal not exegetical.” 4 His focused teaching about the kingdom of God was the basis for his call to conversion. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God to “summon the sons [and daughters] of that reign.” 5
Finally, I explore what Jesus has to say about our faith journeys, whether straightforward or circuitous.
Jesus is patient with our journey, but there cannot be a journey without a path—and Jesus was not shy about pointing to, modeling, and calling people to one way in and through him. “The commands of Jesus were the heart of his teaching and reflected the revolutionary significance of the reign of God and specified the right response to it.” 6
For instance, Jesus said:
Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? (Luke 6:46)
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34,35)
No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:57-62)
Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven (Matthew 10:33).
My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice. (Luke 8:21)
One cannot hear Jesus without reacting in some way. Some might try to do away with Jesus as his contemporaries did (Mark 11:18; 12:12; Luke 11:53; 22:2). Another might be amazed at the authority of his teaching and become convinced by it (John 7:17). One could also remain lukewarm—which might be the worst state of all (Rev. 3:16). It is always true: the teaching of Jesus compels his hearers to make a decision.
It’s so important I’ll say it again—when we give Jesus a fresh hearing, we can grasp the nature, meaning and purpose of the Church, not the other way around. Jesus is the one who called a people to himself. That people is the Church. The Church is meant to embody, proclaim and demonstrate the Jesus-life.
We fail. That failure wounds. But the answer is not to give up faith or create distance from God. The spiritually healthy response is always to make our way back to the Jesus that emerges from the pages of scripture.
From Jesus, we can learn “to live and move and have our being in God” (Acts 17:28), becoming human as God intended—agents of his healing, repair and justice.
The Aims of Jesus, 139.
The Aims of Jesus, 147
The Aims of Jesus, 137.
The Aims of Jesus, 151. Emphasis added.
The Aims of Jesus, 137.
The Aims of Jesus, 145.