As part of my commitment to a couple of book projects, this spring I am taking a personal blogging hiatus and have invited some folks to blog in my stead. It is my intention help share some new voices and perspectives with a larger audience and keep my blog active during my break. If you are interested in guest blogging, feel free to submit an idea. Today I welcome my friend, Steve Lindsley to the guest blogging crew as he muses on the recent “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” viral video. When Steve is not being pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Mount Airy, NC, or playing music/writing songs/recording, or teaching Bible at his local community college, or running, or playing pick-up basketball with his 9 and 7-year old sons and letting them win, or watching “The Voice” with his lovely wife of over twelve years, it probably means he’s sleeping.

Well, 18,973,512, to be exact – at least at the time I composed this blog. But more than likely it’ll be 19 million by the time you read this.  Probably more.

I’m talking, of course, about the infamous “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” YouTube video that has, in social media parlance, gone viral.  Most of us first saw it when our cousin or youth group member or random high school friend shared it on their Facebook page – probably with a comment like, “You MUST watch this!” or “Jesus is about relationship, not doctrine” or, my personal favorite, “I can follow Jesus and wear a cool jacket too!”  We may not have seen any comments attached to it that poo-pooed the church specifically.  But that hasn’t kept some in the church from reacting to this with a bit of nervousness.

This blog is not about the theological or biblical legitimacy of what 22-year old Jefferson Bethke espouses in his four-minute beat poem, although that’s not to say that I don’t have strong feeling about it.  To borrow lingo from a relationship status option on Facebook, “it’s complicated.”  He makes some good points; he makes some not-so-good points.  And like a lot of folks, when I first watched this video I immediately wanted to respond to him personally and what he was advocating.

And then something funny happened.  The more I watched the video, the more I stopped watching the video itself and started watching something else: that little number under the bottom right of the video.  It’s the number of unique views the video gets.  And with each viewing of mine, it started to get bigger.  And not by one.  The number shot up exponentially each time I hit refresh – a number that now stands, at the time I’m writing this, at just under 19 million.

And that’s when I realized that what really should matter to us in the church about this video is not really what it says, but what it’s done.  If something in our culture that deals with religion – and specifically our relationship with Jesus – has 19 million unique interactions, well, that’s something we have to pay attention to.

So when I ponder the 19 million views that “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” has received since its inception a little over a month ago, here’s what I think:

  1. This video deals with a key issue facing the church – the attempt by a growing number of folks to separate Jesus from the body of Christ.  The reason, as David Kinnaman highlights in his eye-opening book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters, is that they “think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind, that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be.” And is this disconnect really that hard for us to understand?  When the Jesus of the gospels preaches love, forgiveness, healing and self-sacrifice; and those who claim to follow him want to talk about legislating religious beliefs, bashing gays and cultural entitlement, does it really surprise us that people don’t see the two as one in the same?  So the only way to get to the “real” Jesus, they surmise, is to bypass the church and go straight to the source.  This is the challenge the church faces, as a growing number of people want to take Jesus with them and leave the church behind.
  2. This is not the voice of just one person, but of many.  It’s easy to target an individual when it’s his face on the video, his voice speaking the words.  But if Bethke is anything, he is merely a reflection of the cultural disconnect of many between Jesus and the church, not the cause of it.  Our cause as the church is much better served if we refrain from attacking a public-school athletic director proclaiming a theological manifesto in the social media world, and instead channel our energies into another venture.  Which leads me to the third point . . .
  3. The church needs to take this seriously – not the man, but what he says. Whether we believe all or parts of what he says is not what ultimately matters.  What matters is that chances are pretty good we have lots of Bethkes out there mulling the possibility of walking into our sanctuary one Sunday morning or staying in their PJs at home and enjoying that second cup of coffee.  Or the Bethkes who are sitting in our church pews, and have for years, but are nevertheless starting to question what exactly the church stands for and how important the church is to their relationship with Jesus.

And here’s the cold hard truth: if people believe, for whatever reason, that they can have a relationship with Jesus apart from the church – a relationship that may even make them a better follower of Jesus and better person in general – then there will quickly come a time when we will no longer see them sitting in our pews anymore.

That’s why bashing a man won’t do us any good, regardless of whether he’s right or wrong (and regardless of whether some of his rhymes are a tad lame, which they are).  Seeing this video as a reflection of our post-modern, spiritual-seeking culture, and surmising how we might respond to that, will serve us much better in a long run.  Because if anything, this video demonstrates that the church needs to get busy showing people – biblically, theologically, pastorally – how it exists not to further itself but to further people’s relationship with Jesus Christ and the body Jesus called into being.  That’s what 18,973,512 views tells us.

Well, 18,973,806. I just hit refresh.

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