You can live a happy, productive, charitable life without it. “Religion” can have a negative connotation. Maybe I’m conjecturing based on a few comments I’ve heard or patterns I’ve seen among my peers. Nevertheless, it seems that a recent trend, at least in my generation, is to drift toward a God without structure, one without doctrine and/or denomination.
In some ways, I get it. That organized religion has sown division, perpetuated some of the most heinous crimes on earth, and reflected the opposite virtues of Jesus’ earthly ministry is true.
But at the end of the day I’m not sure that my spiritual life is better without it. For me, it seems that life is enhanced and has greater depth when accompanied by religion. I don’t think a denomination’s infamy should define its entirety; despite its challenges, religion is crucial and, I’d venture, necessary.
When religion gets discouraging, monotonous, and challenging, we tend to walk away. When we get triggered by a statement or a position presented by the church, we let it define the whole. But when we turn our backs on it altogether, we leave a lot of value behind us.
Religion is important for families. Often, young adults who drift away find themselves coming back when they have kids. I suppose this is because of the values inherent in a church community. If this is a subconscious acknowledgment of the importance of religion, don’t we deserve to have that for ourselves all the time?
“I don’t think a denomination’s infamy should define its entirety; despite its challenges, religion is crucial and necessary.”
Religion is thought-provoking. Through its core beliefs, a denomination is an explanation of the world; an attempted answer to difficult questions. In any situation, being forced to dig into the whys and whats makes the experience more valuable. And sometimes beliefs will take a lifetime to turn over and figure out. But isn’t that the point anyway? A religion that doesn’t challenge or make you think wouldn’t offer much of a community to be a part of.
Religion is responsible for so much good. Establishments rooted in religion are responsible for hospital systems, rescue and relief organizations, and successful educational institutions. Communities need to be cared for, and religious organizations are often the ones spearheading these efforts. Doug Hardt, senior pastor of Markham Woods Seventh-day Adventist Church, talks about the participatory nature of religion. “I believe that all humans, regardless of their religion or persuasions, enjoy spending time with like-minded people. . . . It is good to have churches, church schools, seminaries, etc., to care for the spiritual needs of a community. I don’t think that in theory, it should be different than other needs that we have as humans.”*
Sometimes we forget about the significance of the mission aspect of religion; this characteristic has especially helped define the Adventist Church. Christianity revolves around including others in the spiritual experience. Pastor Hardt goes on to say, “We are not called by God to inhabit a deserted island or secluded monastery where we quietly pass time reading Scripture and praying. . . . It is a dangerous practice for God’s mission in the world to condone separating from organized religion to pursue individual spiritual enlightenment. If every last Adventist in the world church would consciously choose to do that, we wouldn’t see anywhere near the effective mission that has allowed us to go from being about 5,000 believers in New England in the 1840s to a worldwide denomination of more than 21 million members working for the gospel in more than 200 countries.”
Most important, a community of believers provides support and encouragement that can be a buffer to a personal relationship. Religion can certainly be a pillar.
A common argument I’ve heard and that many others state as a reason to phase religion out of their lives is that Jesus wasn’t part of one; some people even go as far as to say Jesus hated religion and stood in opposition to it.
However, during the first century, the majority of religions worshipped mythological gods and idols. Judaism was one of the only religions during the time Jesus was on earth that supported monotheistic beliefs. When He was 12 years old, Jesus was in the temple, debating with seasoned scholars. As a Jew, Jesus worshipped methodically at the synagogue, He observed Jewish holy days, He instructed believers to be baptized, and exemplified this ritual Himself. In writer Kevin DeYoung’s words: “If religion is characterized by doctrine, commands, rituals, and structure, then Jesus is not your go-to guy for hating religion.”
Avoiding religion isn’t the antidote to suffering. Just as there have been wars motivated by religion, there have been even more conflicts created by causes not even remotely related to religion. And to be honest, even if we took religion out of the equation, Jesus and conflict can still be connected.
The Future of Religion Is Defined by Us
Some churches claim to love grace, but all they give you is legalism. And legalism can certainly be found in some places in the Adventist Church. But don’t give up the good in religion when you’re trying to get rid of the bad. Religion is never just one thing; its shortcomings in one area may be successes elsewhere.
If some frown upon denominational organizations and structured worship, it maybe that they have lost sight of what these really are, and what they can be. You can still be open-minded and go to church. You can still ask all the questions. We get distracted by disagreements and decide that because we don’t want that part of it, we don’t want any of it. But if there are problems, we should be courageous enough to stick around and try to fix them, not point fingers as we walk away.
*Quotations from Doug Hardt are culled from an email interview conducted by the author, April 9, 2021.
Juliet Bromme is a senior communication major at Union College and was a summer intern at the Adventist Review when this was written.