The night Jefferson Bethke, 22, posted his “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” video on YouTube, he made a bet about how many views the video would get by morning. The highest guess was 6,000. By the time Bethke woke up the next day, the video had more than 100,000 views. Eight days after the video was posted, it had been viewed by over 14 million people. His video, Bethke evidently said, was not an attempt to bash all religion, but rather “to write a poem against legalism, self righteousness, self-justification and hypocrisy”—the definition of bad religion that is preached at Mars Hill, the church he attends in Washington state.
The fact that a video may go viral is no indication of either artistic merit or intellectual insight. Just search out on Google the list of the “top ten viral videos” of the past year if you have any doubt of the eclectic or odd mix of U-tube videos that caught our collective fancy. Still, most videos that become wildly circulated via Facebook, Twitter and other social media, have obviously made connection with people’s angst or funny-bone, social conscience or deep longing. Whatever one may think about Bethke’s video, the simple fact it obviously resonated deeply with many for whom the institutionalized church has failed to live out the contagious loveliness, openness and world-changing vibrancy of the church found in the Book of Acts. While some of the rebuttal videos and negative editorials offer valid critique of his theology, many others just come across as cranky, self-serving and missing the point that Christ’s people all too often have failed to exemplify Christ’s radical compassion and joy that seemed to draw the watching world, rather than repel it. What is so sad is that it is so easy for society to bash the church today, because the church does too fine a job of making itself look narrow, mean-minded and unloving, especially in the ability of its saints to display such hostility, intolerance and judgment against one another.
Yet here’s the challenging truth. The church is God’s idea, not ours. The church, with all its human frailties and sins, remains Jesus’ chosen instrument through which he desires the fullness of his gospel and the beauty of his life be revealed. The church, with all its “warts and wrinkles” is still the chosen, holy bride of Christ, and no matter how much Mr. Bethke or myself or anyone else may be offended by or critical of the worst failures of the church in any of its local, denominational or historical manifestations, to love Jesus means we are part of that same messed-up, still incomplete yet thoroughly beloved new creation.
Which suggests to me that rather than bashing the institutional church in any of its forms (conservative or liberal, traditional or contemporary, third-world or first-world, evangelical or social-action oriented, mega-church or house church) or condemning each other, we would bring far greater praise to the Lord by putting more effort into forgiving, respecting and loving each other who call ourselves Christians as in bringing mercy, grace and kindness to the world for which Jesus died. In the first century of its existence, though misunderstood and persecuted, the church commonly brought forth the expression from the pagan world around it: “behold these Christians, how the love one another!”
Which leads to one other thought: perhaps the reason a video about loving Jesus but hating religion goes viral is that there is such a deep hunger in the heart of our society, not only for Jesus, but ironically, for the church to be the kind of place where Jesus can be found and met and his radical, transforming grace be encountered. If the church seems to find itself increasingly marginalized in society, it is not because society does not have a desperate yearning for grace, for the holy, for a transcendent hope or for authentic community—all the gifts that uniquely belong to the church and can only be found in Jesus. The good news of the gospel is still good news, and the church has a waiting audience that is as broad, needy and ready to receive that good news as it had in the first century Mediterranean world. Because in the end, the good news is not about what brand or version of Christianity is most liturgically pure or theologically correct. The good news has nothing to do with methodologies or technologies of our evangelism or worship or anything else. The world remains simply hungry for Jesus and it is the church, you and I, who are called to make the introduction and let the world see the Lord in us. That’s what loving Jesus is. And that is what being the church is.