Many people tell me they’d rather be spiritual than religious. Or that they believe in God but don’t like “the Church”. Or some variation of that basic theme that says I’d rather not bother with any kind of formal community of believers.
Honestly, I sympathize with that sentiment. Except for a brief stint in my early twenties when I was travelling around Western Canada as a stage hand on a multi-media tour, I have always had a church that I could call home. But there have been many times when I stood back and looked at what my church was saying and doing and felt that there was a piece missing.
All the outward appearances of church have always been there. There has always been a building, usually with some distinctive architecture that made it obviously a church, were we went to meet once a week. The meeting has always started with some form of music, followed by a lecture from a “paid professionally holy man (sometimes a woman)” a few opportunities to “serve the broader community” and a bit of prayer. Once or twice the churches I’ve been a part of have met in rented multi-use facilities, like a school and some have switched up the order of things but the basic premise has always been the same. Spend six days living your “regular” life and come to church once a week to hear what God has to say about it.
So what does God have to say about it?
Recently I was challenged with this very question while looking at the story of Zechariah. Zechariah was a prophet who spoke to the Israelites that remained in Babylon after the first wave of exiles had been allowed to return to Jerusalem. He writes during the reign of Darius, king of Persia of a vision he receives from the Lord.
Even though Darius is fairly tolerant of the Jewish minority in his midst the people are still very much oppressed by society at large and so much of the book of Zechariah is a look back through history at the hardships that the Jewish people had already endured with a little bit of hope sprinkled in for good measure.
This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ [Zechariah 1:3]
By the time we get to chapter 7 we have a very clear understanding of what it is that the people have done wrong in order to be treated this way. Simply put even though they are going through the motions of their religion they have turned away from God.
Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? [Zechariah 7:5]
God cuts right to the heart of the issue by asking a question that most religious people find hard to hear, even today. Are you really doing all this for me or for yourself? What’s all this religion really for?
Lest he be misunderstood God doesn’t leave us hanging for long.
And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’ [Zechariah 7:8-10]
That’s it, that’s what God wants. That is how you show true loyalty to God and to one another. It’s not about a building, or the way in which you format your services or anything else. It’s about how you live the other six days of the week.
I still believe we need faith communities, groups of people who worship God together on a regular basis but the purpose of the meeting is not to make us feel better about God and it certainly isn’t to make God feel good. The purpose of our meeting together is to equip the community in the work set out for us; to bring justice mercy and compassion to the world.
That’s what religion is for – how are you doing?