For much of my life I thought being a "true" Christian meant denouncing religion.
Mentors would regularly and passionately remind me, "Faith is a RELATIONSHIP, not a RELIGION."
I came to believe being "religious" meant faking your faith. But having a relationship with God, one you could feel, meant your faith was real.
At charismatic summer camps I learned that genuine prayer had to be heartfelt, extemporaneous prayers. Things like written prayers and liturgy were hallow props for poor souls who probably didn't know Jesus. If they did, they would just "talk" to him. After all, prayer was just like having a conversation with your BFF.
As a teen, my faith cohort prayed earnestly. Not so much for the atheists (did they even exist?) but for our religious peers. They were spiritually deceived, reliant on empty rituals and dusty, outdated practices. They needed something REAL. Not all those premeditated prayers and weird smells and bells. They needed The Relationship.
In college, I believed having a vibrant, authentic, genuine-real-deal faith, meant sustaining a spiritual and emotional intensity that linked me directly to the Source. In moments of doubt, I was told to feel my way back to God with prayers from the heart. No religious props or recited prayers allowed. That would be selling out.
But then something happened. Despite all my heartfelt prayers and personal devotions, I didn't feel close to God.
Sometimes, I didn't feel anything.
I considered hopping on the SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) bandwagon. But it felt too much like a more nebulous, half-baked version of the RNR (Relationship Not Religion) thing. I needed something more concrete. More hands on. More structured.
Then I met Religion. Real, Honest-to-God Religion.
In part, I met religion through religious people. They spoke a different language of faith. They used a vocabulary that sounded ancient, rooted, and to my surprise, very genuine.
Although they didn't talk about "knowing the Lord" they seemed to have a posture toward God that was humble and beautiful. It was as if all those religious props were a way of admitting their human limitations and frailty. Old prayers and chants seemed like embodied gestures toward God; ones that asked for help, for contact, for forgiveness, for hope.
For much of my life, I had things backwards.
Faith wasn't a prerequisite to worship. Worship created the capacity for faith. Belief wasn't necessary before prayer. Prayer opened up a space to believe again. Professing a relationship with God wasn't needed before I could have a relationship with a community of faith. Being in a religious community nurtured and sustained my relationship with God. Simply put, I didn't need to believe before I belonged. I could belong, despite moments of unbelief.
That's how I learned about Grace. Real Grace. Grace that says God is faithful even when we're faithless. Grace that tells us we need not feel "right with God" before we show up, and practice believing.
Are you doubting? Are you unsure of what, if anything, you believe? Maybe try some good old fashioned religion. No prerequisites required.
You may be surprised. I know I was.