‘Religious’ People?

It’s next to impossible to answer loaded questions in a way that doesn’t set you up for the even-more-unsettling follow-up question. ‘Are you still single?’ ‘What are you going to do with that English degree?’ ‘Do you have any plans this weekend?’ Each one is an invitation to dance in a minefield of interrogation.

Renee had an interview for a florist position this past week (as she’s pretty much a legend when it comes to floral design). Upon seeing her resume, which highlighted her previous mission and development work, an employee asked one such loaded question: ‘Are you a religious person?’ Renee answered that she wasn’t. The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Interviewer: ‘But do you go to church?’

Renee: ‘Yeah, I’m part of a Vineyard church.’

Interviewer: ‘Is that one of those American “happy” churches?’

Renee: ‘Well, no. We’re just normal people, really.’

Interviewer: ‘Because I’m not religious at all.’

Renee: ‘O.K.’

Interviewer: ‘And I’m a single mum.’

Renee: ‘Yeah. I know that’s gotta be tough.’

The stream of the conversation reveals what most people think being a ‘religious’ person entails. ‘Religious’ people are eccentric misfits who waste their weekends singing hymns and listening to sermons. Puritanical and stoic to the last, they live by a set of ‘dos’ (like ‘do go to church’, ‘do read the Bible’ and ‘do live as a conventional married couple with at least 3 kids’) and ‘don’ts’ (like ‘don’t drink’, ‘don’t use four-letter words’, and ‘don’t allow your children to be influenced by the “gay agenda”’). ‘Religious’ people also hold a holier-than-thou judgemental attitude toward those whose particular situations don’t adhere to these rules.

Altering Actions to Alter Perceptions

Sadly, we (Christians through the centuries) are largely responsible for these perceptions, thanks to the attitudes we’ve held, the words we’ve spoken and the actions we’ve taken. But we can celebrate the many throughout our history and in our present who have chosen an alternate path. Walking this path means acting out of love for God, not a compulsion to follow ‘the rules’, enjoying the bonds of the Christian community, and engaging (not retreating from or shunning) our neighbours with friendship and empathy.

And that’s why Renee answered the ‘religious person’ question the way she did, because she’s this kind of disciple. I think we could all begin to reverse at least some of people’s negative impressions if we’d determine to live in the following ways.

Be humans.

Some of us make very ‘good’ Christians, but not so great humans. Real humans have real problems. Yet we often conceal our problems behind a veneer of religious language and behaviour, pretending to have our shit together. Then we call it our ‘testimony’. But what kind of testimony is it to cover up our issues?

Shared doubt, pain and struggles forge strong connections between people who journey together, so it does no one any good when we act like we don’t have any. Let’s live as the raw and unadorned humans we are, with a deep understanding of the grace that accepts our brokenness.

Act as peace bringers and welcomers instead of judges.

Farewell DiscourseIn Luke 10:1-9, Jesus trained 70 (or 72, depending on your translation) of his disciples to go into the world, bringing peace to towns and homes. He taught them to embrace whatever welcome they received and accomodate themselves to the situations they encountered (It’s significant to the passage that Jesus tells them to eat whatever is put in front of them; these were Jewish men and women visiting Gentile areas).

At some point between then and now, however, a number of us abandoned this mode of operation and became the world’s morality cops. Exactly why we expect and insist that those who don’t follow Jesus should think and behave like those who do is perplexing. Let’s allow God to be God – someone perfectly capable of acting as judge without our assistance. And even God has chosen to extend compassion, mercy and forgiveness.

Speak in a language other than ‘Christianese’.

Since that famous Pentecost 2,000 years ago, many Christians have spoken in strange tongues. Yet the one we’ve perfected to an art form is ’Christianese’, a kind of jargon somewhat like Newspeak in Orwell’s 1984. In Christianese we replace words like ‘fortunate’ with ‘blessed’ and sentences like ‘I got fired yesterday’ with ‘God is opening some new doors for me’, so that others can’t accuse us of Christian thought crime.

Of course, no one outside church company speaks this language or fully understands it (and talking slowly and loudly won’t help). If communication is the key to any relationship, why not just speak in regular English* to facilitate communication with regular folk?

Expand our circles.

It’s vital to share our lives with our fellow believers, inviting them into our homes, enjoying meals together, praying for and encouraging one another. Yet we can easily become insular and exclusive, neglecting those beyond the boundaries of our Christian cliques. We thus ignore people who may desperately need a warm and welcoming environment, a listening ear and an encouraging word. In addition, we rob ourselves of fulfilling friendships.

In short, if we’re meant to act as salt and light to the world, it helps to actually interact in meaningful ways with people in the world.

Hated – But for the Right Reasons

At this point, those tasked with quality control might object: ‘We can’t sell out and become just like those in the world! We’re meant to live differently. Anyway, Jesus predicted that we’d be hated by the world (John 15:18).’

And they’re right – we are different. But let’s be the right kind of different. We follow a different ‘way’, we make different choices and have a different kind of hope that gives meaning to our lives and our struggles. There’s no need for us to differentiate ourselves by competing in a behavioural Olympics to prove how superior we are to others.

In the same way, let’s be disliked for the right reasons. The powers that be should hate us for standing in the way of their injustice and for highlighting their failures to protect the vulnerable. They should hate us for insisting that their temporary and artificial authority pales in comparison with the Kingdom of God. I’d say that’s far better than being hated for wagging our fingers and making angry faces at feminists, gays, liberals and the music and movie industry.

By altering the ways that we conduct ourselves in the world, maybe, just maybe we can shift the narrative which the world writes about us. Maybe we can be known as followers of Jesus, instead of ‘religious’ people.

* Of course, if you live in a country with a different common language than English, then use that one.

Image Credits:

  1. Feature Image: The Feast of the Holy Family of St. Basil (from http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com)
  2. Jesus giving the Farewell Discourse to his eleven remaining disciples, from the Maesta by Duccio, 1308-1311. (Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons)

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