In our last column we discussed family — and how just as God created us as humans to be born into families, he also intends for us to be born again into a church family. “You must be born again ... of water and the Spirit,” he told Nicodemus (John 3:3-5). Through baptism, believers were added to the early church. “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them ... And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:41, 47)
In 2007 a Pew Research poll revealed that when Americans were asked what religion or thought group they belonged to, 16% indicated “none.” Fast-forward only eight years to 2015, and that percentage had increased to 23% of the adult population. And while the “Nones,” as they have come to be called, have increased slightly among several age groups, the greatest increase is among the youngest adults. Among millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, 35% now consider themselves unaffiliated with any religion. No other religious self-identification is growing as fast in the United States as the Nones. Curiously, a significant minority of the Nones also indicate that religion still plays an important role in their lives.
This leads researchers to conclude that many have been turned away from religion, although not in all cases away from a spiritual sense of need. In my personal experience speaking to many millennials, there is a desire to move away from “religion” (often defined as involvement in organized religious bodies) but not away from “spirituality.”
And I can partly understand why. The early church became known as “Christians” in Antioch because they talked so much about Christ, and lived like him, and the faith of Jesus spread like wildfire. But the Bible itself describes a time when the church would not be pure in either teachings or lifestyle. “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.” “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears.” “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, truce-breakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God. Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” (Acts 20:29; 2 Timothy 4:3, 3:1-5) The greatest deterrent to Christian evangelism is not external opposition but internal inauthenticity. Going to church doesn’t make one a Christian any more than going to a garage makes one an automobile.
And for some, that “form of godliness without the power” has become identified with organized religion. If churches are only social clubs, if parents act one way in church but differently the rest of the week, if adherence to doctrines and creeds is put above kindness, compassion and Christlikeness by Christians, then the religion of Christ is conflated with the structures, organizations and people that misrepresent him.
But here’s the thing: If we throw out organized religion because of those who take Christ’s name in vain, or because of the abuses counterfeit Christianity has purveyed on history, we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The reason the devil has so effectively used organized religion to counterfeit the true is because the true is also organized.
There’s no question that Christ intended and the Holy Spirit led the early church to be organized. There were leaders, accountability and a means of being added (Acts 2:41, 47) and removed (2 Corinthians 5:1-5) from membership. By eschewing organized religion we remove ourselves from the family that God intends should help us (and we should help) grow in faith and partner in ministry. The gospel commission given by Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20) demands more than an individual spirituality; it requires a willingness to sacrifice our own independence in order to be one among many, with a shared worldwide vision and mission.
Yes, with a community of faith comes the challenges of relationship, communication, personal sacrifice and at times inconvenience. But it also brings blessings both here and hereafter! God intended us to enjoy the blessings of a spiritual family — blessings the Nones are in danger of missing out on.
Chester Clark III is pastor at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Dalton. Contact him at email@example.com. His column appears on the third Friday of the month.