“Religion no longer works for me,” he said. “I’ve gotten cynical and weary of the formulas and cliches that make up most of the Christian message.”

He’s not alone. A great many people, including many church-goers and most thinking clergy I know, have the haunting suspicion that formulaic religion no longer rings true in this scientific, pluralistic, skeptical culture.

Reports of the mass exodus from churches, particularly in urban areas, are well-documented. Far too many churches, whose buildings are located at the intersection of Hopeless and Pain Streets, are sounding the death rattle at a time when our culture seems profoundly in need of a bigger vision and a healing word.

What happened? Is this an expression of our culture’s reluctance to join organizations, whether it’s Shriners, or bowling leagues or churches? Perhaps.

Is it a matter of demographics? Bright, new suburban churches are thriving. Are urban churches in decline because of poor parking and peeling paint? Maybe so.

Or is it a matter of urban communities containing a high percentage of nonconformists? Are thinking people today tired of the packaged and the processed? Does religion no longer have anything of relevance and rigor to offer the world around us?

And what about those thriving suburban churches where people flock as if going to the mall? Are they maturing their people, or simply treating them as consumers, like the malls they imitate, filling them with more comforts of life?

Here’s my latest theory. During the Industrial Era there was a call to standardize, simplify, economize, sloganize and package everything we love, from beer to batteries. About this same time, the message of religion also began to appear in a packaged, processed form.

And why not a packaged religion? After all, religion had brought perspective, purpose and peace to people, so why not find a way to mass market it? Say it in a way that everyone can understand. Put it in a package that is easily transported from one person to another.

But along the way, something vital was lost, at least for thinking people. What happened to religion is like what happened to vegetables.

People loved vegetables, and knew them to be good for us. So wouldn’t it be great if we could have vegetables year-round, and ship our bumper crops across the land in an economical package without fear of spoiling? Welcome, canned vegetables, allowing us to have handy vegetables whenever we choose.

But after a while people realized that something vital was lost in the process(ing). Canned vegetables are usually blah, flat, uninteresting and have the vitamins boiled out of them. Canned goods don’t taste good and have created a generation of anti-vegetarians.

Canned religion, like canned vegetables, is also mostly blah, flat, uninteresting and only minimally nutritious. Partaking of canned religion is like eating canned carrots–mushy and tasteless.
What we need is an introduction to fresh vegetables … and fresh religion.

Fresh religion–a dynamic relationship with the Mystery of Life–is hearty and healing. Like fresh vegetables, it takes humus–earth, humanity, the stuff of life– to be born. It requires work, effort, patience, timing and tending.

It doesn’t package nicely. It’s not uniform and peeled. It is more complex than sound bytes or bumper stickers.

But nurture it, and you’ll have something that sticks to your ribs. Something you can sink your teeth into; something of substance. You’ll find a bit of dirt in its creases, for it has been where you are. And yet it has something you need, for it has distilled the light, and water, and minerals of this beautiful world, and it offers itself to you as a kind of sacrifice.

We encourage our kids to occasionally try a vegetable previously rejected. Those who have been served a bad plate of religion in the past are invited to take a similar taste test.

Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.

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