The long slow decline of religion in America has produced much hand wringing among Christians. The grief and anxiety are inevitable, but not entirely necessary. After all, Jesus didn't come into this world to start a new religion. His stated purpose was actually to announce the presence of the "kingdom of God" (Luke 4:43). A reality, which he said, was located within us (Luke 17:21). Oddly enough, the very religion that bears his name has often built the biggest barriers to him and the life he promised.
One thing that might ease our anxiety is to remember that Christ and Christianity are not the same thing; If Christ is the wind, then Christianity is the sail. Some sails are better than others at catching the wind, some sailors are better at using the sail, but there is always and only one wind. A sail without the wind is a limp flag, wind without a sail is still the wind. The relationship is only one way.
Just because Christianity claims Jesus as its own does not mean that Christ automatically claims Christianity as his own.
In one sense, Christ is the pre-existent creative power of the universe with no birthday or death date, Christianity on the other hand is an institution built with the intention of harnessing that power. If the institution goes away, the power remains. Put simply, Christ is much, much bigger than any religion.
The book of John tells the story of a woman at a well. Here Jesus introduces her to the possibility of eternal life. This woman was a member of a religion starkly at odds with his own. She was a Samaritan, he was a Jew; the gap between these two is comparable to the gap between Muslims and Christians today. Yet, throughout their conversation, he never once made religious conversion a requirement for her to access eternal life. To paraphrase, Jesus essentially says to her, "I don't much care where or how you worship, but if you can recognize me, streams of living water will flow from within you."
In the story above, Jesus focuses her attention on a deeper interior reality, rather than external ones. The religion of the woman is immaterial. However, we notice a minimum requirement to recognize Jesus in order to get the goods he offers. It might be tempting to conclude that as long as we recognize and name Jesus that is what matters.
The problem is sometimes even recognition isn't a requirement for Christ to work in our lives. In John Chapter 9 Jesus spat on the ground, made mud pies and smeared them on a blind man's face. Soon the man could see. The method of the miracle is so bizarre that we often miss the most important point. The man didn't ask to be healed. He was minding his own business when some guy rubs dirt and spit on his eyes and them tells him to go wash it off. He didn't even know the name of his assailant. Here Jesus performs a miracle without anyone asking or recognizing who he was. Jesus served as an anonymous donor, able to give gifts without getting the credit. If we, who are merely human, are able to give anonymous gifts, how much more is Jesus?
The truth is that Christ is able to do his work with or without Christianity or recognition. This doesn't mean he's against Christianity, only that he doesn't require it. Just because my religion bears his name doesn't give me the ability to wield or withhold the saving or healing power of Christ as I see fit. Such misconception is a dangerous, even arrogant illusion. If we buy into this assumption, we become like the sail who believes it controls the wind.
Jesus may not need religion, but it seems he is glad let us help if we simply join his agenda, rather than insisting he join ours. The question is, do we know his agenda?
Shane Hipps is the former teaching pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. He is the author most recently of 'Selling Water by the River: A Book About the Life Jesus Promised and the Religion that Gets in the Way' (Jericho 2012). To learn more visit www.shanehipps.com