- (Photo: www.jesusisgreater.tv)
On January 10, 2012, Jefferson Bethke uploaded "Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus," a spoken word YouTube video. Eight days after Bethke posted it, the video had 14 million hits and Christian and mainstream press was abuzz dissecting, digesting and disagreeing with the then 22-year-old's message.
Because of Bethke's age and message, the performance in many regards, established the Washington native as an informal spokesperson for the Christian Millenial. Bethke has not shied away from his platform and has continued to release YouTube videos sharing his thoughts through spoken word and preaching on topics "the Most Misinterpreted Video Verse in the Bible," division in the church, and relationships.
Next Monday, he will change up his medium and release a book, "Jesus>Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More and Being Enough," offering his thoughts on the kind of faith to which Christ calls his 21st century followers.
Bethke wrote the book to appeal to the "believer who is very nominal," the one he says is similar to how he grew up, and the "very fringe, non-believing, I-hate-the-church-and-Jesus type group, which accidentally started gravitating towards me via email and through my videos."
"My hope for the book is to bring depth to 'What is Jesus really trying to do?' 'What is he really trying to say?' 'And this whole American, Christianity, modern Evangelical type of thing, have we actually gotten it totally wrong?'" he told The Christian Post.
Bethke, hails from Tacoma, Washington, and grew up "below the poverty line," raised by a single mother. As a teenager he struggled to reconcile his faith with his love for his mother, who after coming out to him in high school, expressed fear and hostility towards the church. Although he attended a Christian college for a year, he did not ultimately find his faith until he transferred to a public university and began to devote himself seriously to figuring out what the Bible said.
Bethke's "Jesus, not religion" ethos sprung out of a desire to share his faith with peers who had been burned, turned off, and isolated from the church, though when he finally put those thoughts out onto the internet, he was not prepared for the reaction.
"Here's the thing, I am totally okay with people critiquing me, in fact I invite it. I want to grow. I want to learn. I want to pursue Jesus more. I hopefully have 50-60 years ahead of me so I'm an idiot if I say 'Screw you, I don't need what you say.' Of course, I'll invite it," said Bethke.
Still, Bethke felt that his critics had not fully understood his message.
"It was very difficult, in fact almost depressing in the sense of crushing me when every article I read, I would almost yell at my computer screen, 'I agree with you. We're on the same page.' I just felt like they totally missed what I was trying to say. That was hard, really hard."
Bethke felt himself looking at Christ's response to his detractors as he fashioned his response.
"We can get really prideful in our misunderstanding and think things like 'They don't really understand me. To hell with them.' But that's stupid, and causes bad heart attitudes. So look at the way of Jesus. He understands. He knows. And takes the opportunity to clarify and discern," he said.
Social media has also enabled Bethke to connect with millions of people - many of whom may never have wanted to attend church or speak to someone publicly about their questions about Christianity.
"[With YouTube,] I'm literally talking about Jesus in someone's bedroom," he said.
Yet there are times that Bethke feels conflicted about the impact on culture.
"[The whole Jesus/Religion Youtube incident] showed me we weren't created for virality," said Bethke. "The Human soul is not created for the spotlight for two weeks. You look at all these people that it happens to, they don't ever want to repeat that month. It's hell."
Bethke also wants to challenge Millenials to fight the narcissism, hubris and arrogance that he says are the side effects of social media culture.
"[My generation refuses] to live in true community. Now, we love friends, we love community, but I think the real biblical idea of submitting to a community, I think that's completely lost," said Bethke.
"We refuse to submit to a community of 'Hey you have free reign to call out sin in my lives,' which is a space where we give people permission to call out sin in our lives. Community is for accountability, prayer, and encouragement, and I think our blind spot is that. We want to live on our own island and if we do live in community we want to put out the cropped, edited version of ourself on Facebook and Twitter," he added.
Bethke also encouraged older generations to reach out to and come alongside Millenials, offering them their wisdom and lives.
"It's a little awkward for me to approach someone older and say 'Hey, can you mentor me?' But if the older generation could step out on a limb a little more and say 'Hey, can I come walk life with you for a year or two?... That's how you stop talk over each other and having screaming matches is when you sit at the table with other people."
Division and segregation were two of the values that Christ sought to overcome, said Bethke.
"The scandal of the Gospel…was that Jesus was creating post-racial, post-gender, like all these crazy social barriers—he just crushed them. He didn't crush them to say that we are all the same in our uniqueness…He crushed the barrier in regards to access and privilege and all that, but he didn't crush the barrier in the sense that there are black people and white people and Asian people created that way because that's a total beautiful, amazing facet of what God is."
Bethke challenged Christians to "submit to Jesus" let go over their "consumer mentality" that kept the Church divided.
"One of the Church's biggest blind spots [is that] we just hang out with people who we look like, who we talk like, and we act like that and that's a total disservice to thing that made the church so beautiful and scandalous in New Testament Christianity."
Jesus>Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More and Being Enough is available from Christian Book on October 7.