Religion may be choking the growth of Christianity in America.
It's not so much postmodernism that many Christians lament of, or the "harder hearts" of the younger generation, or a less interested God that's causing more and more pews to be empty. Rather, the culprit seems to be religion, as one Durham, N.C., pastor pointed out.
"Religion seems to choke out the Gospel among God's people," J.D. Greear, lead pastor of The Summit Church, told hundreds of pastors at Advance, a conference on the resurgence of the local church.
And until Christians repent of religion, no program, energy, or strategy will help them to grow, Greear said Friday.
Greear, 36, helped grow The Summit (originally Homestead Heights Baptist Church) from 400 people to some 3,000 and is continually reaching people from throughout the Triangle area. He doesn't claim to be an expert at church "revitalization" but he says he knows there are some things that have to happen in order for a church to revitalize around the Gospel.
And looking around the churches in his community and across the Bible Belt where churchgoers are getting fewer and older, he sees people asking "why?"
Why is God not moving? What is it about us? Greear posed.
Citing what Jesus reprimanded over 2,000 years ago, Greear said religion is keeping Christians from effectively carrying out God's will.
"In religion, there's no passion for God, there's no hunger to know Him," the Summit pastor said.
For "religious people," Christianity becomes more of a checklist of duties and behaviors – such as small group involvement, volunteering, taking a mission trip, and reading the Bible.
"That's what religion does. It reduces God to a set of duties," Greear noted.
In addition to substituting love for God for religious ritual, religious people often elevate secondary matters – such as dress code, alcohol, politics, taking care of the earth – above a love for God.
"We got churches that are filled with people who think they're going to heaven because they don't cuss, or drink bear, or because they vote Republican," he said.
"The tragedy is is our emphasis on those things has kept us from calling them to real repentance."
The secondary traditions are important, but Greear noted that they've often replaced "the real thing."
"Anytime we preach a Gospel that leaves people thinking about what they're supposed to do for God and not what God has done for them, we have preached a false Gospel," he said to some applause.
Other characteristics of religious people, the young pastor listed, include seeking recognition and praise from people and elevating religious ritual over love for others.
"Religious people have a lot of rules but they don't have love," Greear said, adding that they are usually angry, judgmental and more concerned with winning an argument.
While religion makes one selfish and self-focused, the Gospel is about overwhelming love, he pointed out.
"One of the reasons we're so ineffective to people outside of Christianity [is] it appears we're trying to show them that we're better than they are," he said. "They know we're not."
Urging the pastors to return to a love for the Gospel, Greear called them to repentance – not of sin but of religion.
The 2009 Advance conference was held in Durham, N.C., June 4-6. Other speakers included theologian John Piper, Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll, and missiologist Ed Stetzer, among others.