The hottest video on the planet right now is by a young, West coast performance artist named Jefferson Bethke, a Christian. Bethke’s video, “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus” went viral a couple of weeks ago and has been viewed by over 17 million viewers with more watching it every day. It’s taken the nation by storm and, especially, younger believers are so enthusiastic about it that they’re adopting it as their personal guide to the Christian faith.
Bethke begins by asking, “What if I told you, Jesus came to abolish religion?” then moves quickly to an indictment of traditional church in general: “If religion is so great, why has it started so many wars? Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?”
Religion is “like spraying perfume on a casket,” he continues before skewering the church for what he sees as a failure in practicing the grace it preaches. “If grace is water, the church should be an ocean,” Bethke says before condemning the judgmental spirit that characterizes so many congregations.
He concludes with a personal confession of faith. “So know I hate religion, in fact I literally resent it, because when Jesus cried It is Finished, I believe He meant it.”
In one sense, Bethke’s rant is easy to dismiss, especially by older, establishment guys like me. Here’s one more young guy protesting the institution and calling for reform. People have been doing that for ages. And the slick production values of the video, along with the sly product placements make me wonder at least a little about some of the motivations behind it.
But not too much. Because the fact is what Bethke’s saying is borne out by the rapidly shifting demographics of American church life, where younger believers are abandoning the church in droves while older believers are hanging on for dear life.
In light of all this, I believe there are five clear lessons the church must learn from “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.”
1. There’s a great hunger among younger people for an authentic relationship with Jesus. Bethke’s yearning is unmistakable: he wants to know Jesus, purely and simply. So do most of the younger people who view it. What an age for evangelism we live in!
2. The younger generation distrusts institutionalized religion greater than any of us in traditional church yet understand. But along the west coast, we can clearly discern where all this is headed. There, traditional churches are dying so rapidly that many wonder if they’ll even be around in a few more years. Instead, people are moving into organic churches, small, localized bodies of believers who meet in homes, restaurants, schools, business or wherever else they actually live and work. They’re moving past the institution as quick as they can.
3. Martin Luther is winning the theological battle for the hearts of young people. The sixteenth-century German theologian who first articulated the gospel of grace in the modern world, and who began the Protestant Reformation that included John Calvin, is the most important theologian for the younger generation whether they realize it or not. Bethke’s passionate statement of radical grace and opposition to the institutionalized church is Luther’s reformation all over again.
4. There’s in unavoidable crisis coming to the American church. The next generation of American Christians will not have the commitment to religious institutions anything like their parents. Bethke perfectly captures the feelings of younger believers. The volunteers, money and buildings that have sustained the American church for the last hundred years are in the process of such a dramatic shift that the landscape will never be the same.
5.The new generation of believers are significantly less interested in the cultural battles that have so dominated the American church of their parents. Bethke’s screed begins with a condemnation of the Republican party—on one level, sort of expected. But the reality is that younger Christians are simply not concerned with the moral issues that have particularly connected today’s conservative Christians with one political party. They’re much more laid back regarding lifestyle choices. Instead, they’re searching for authentic spiritual experience.