Maybe you’ve seen the video on YouTube. It’s a video titled “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.” It is the venting of one young man’s frustration over what he defines as the difference between “religion” and Jesus.
It is a spoken-word poem written and performed by a young man who is clearly frustrated by his perceptions of the institutional church. He blames religion for starting wars and accuses religion of behavior modification and moral deliberation that is graceless, unforgiving, condemning and intolerant. It’s a harsh critique, and with over 20 million views, it has stirred a lot of controversy across faith and denominational lines.
I know there are a million things we can nitpick apart about this young poet’s ecclesiology, theology or whatnot, but instead, I would rather simply state that, whether you like it or not, this is a perception of the church by the Millennial generation. These are the feelings they have toward church. So instead of taking it apart, let’s instead deal with this video as an introduction to the Millennial Jesus.
His first line starts it all — “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?” For some, this just seems ludicrous. But before you pick it apart, you have to understand that to Millennials “religion” means something different than it does to older generations. Baby boomers and the silent generation would define religion as a synonym for faith. Religion is your faith at work.
But to the Millennial, religion is defined as the empty rituals taken on by people to affect a faithfulness they don’t truly possess. To the Millennial, “religion” is not faithfulness but rather the habits — the work — that merely appear as faith but leave out the greater reality of the relationship with Christ. As the poet states, “Now I ain’t judging, I’m just saying, quit putting on a fake look, ‘cause there’s a problem if people only know you’re a Christian by your Facebook.” Ouch. It addresses the feeling that people are acting Christian or say they are Christian as a secular identity, not as a faith statement.
It is the age-old accusation of hypocrisy in the church. Every generation has shared that old bailiwick so we cannot say it is particularly unique to this generation. But when you compare how many signals this generation receives concerning dis-ease in the church — sex abuse scandals, multimillion-dollar buildings, pastors who preach against being a gay person only to be caught with male prostitutes, talking heads selling snake oil get-rich-quick schemes over morning TV — well you can see that in their eyes this accusation is earned. When we tell a Millennial we are a Christian, these are the images they first think of.
The role of grace
Millennials are also greatly attracted to grace as core to theology. As he states, “Religion is man searching for God. Christianity is God searching for man, which is why salvation is freely mine, and forgiveness is my own, not based on my merits but Jesus’ obedience alone.” This is great theology! But their frustration is the great disconnect between the grace-filled proclamation of Jesus and the gospel that turns grace into an ultimatum. “Either accept this grace message or be condemned to hell!” This is not, nor does it sound like, grace. And it is the message they are told over and over at Tea Party gatherings and Christian music festivals.
At the same time, Millennials are aware of the nature of grace to change one’s life. It is not a call to morality or an earning of the destiny paycheck for a life well-lived but rather a free gift given by God’s continual searching for us. Millennials are also aware of the sanctification dimension of grace. Inundated by images of poverty, abuse, sex-trafficking, bullying and other injustices, the Millennial cannot reconcile inaction on the part of the church. If grace has freed us, the Millennial believes it has freed us not just for life everlasting (justification) but for life today (sanctification). Cheap grace is on the mind of the Millennial.
“Because if grace is water, then the church should be an ocean.” This is the challenge to the church in America. It is a prophetic word from this young man. Granted, his view is quite myopic in only seeing the darkness within the church rather than the abundant (and oft unpublicized) light. But if this is the perception of the Millennial, then this is the reality we are called to deal with. We cannot try to prove him wrong with more blog posts, responses via YouTube, through sermons or even in articles like this. We must begin to turn toward understanding our youngest ones and hear their prophetic heart calling us back to costly grace.
You might also want to read or watch:
Jesus vs. religion: a death match
‘Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus’ — a response
Be the change. Be the gospel. Freed in Christ to serve.