As Joe Laycock points out, Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” spoken-word video was viewed 15 million times in its first week on YouTube.
Not surprisingly, critiques began pouring in almost as quickly as the praise. “Lame Poetry, False Dichotomies, and Bad Theology,” the title of one of the first, from Patrol’s Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, neatly sums up much of the commentary. Later on, Fitzergerald and Dan Gilgoff echoed Michigan pastor Kevin DeYoung’s assessment that Bethke’s video captured the “mood” of a lot of young Christians in nondenominational churches.
That mood, in which a personal relationship with Jesus is prioritized over an affiliation with institutional Christianity, certainly permeates young evangelical communities. “The term ‘religion’ has itself become a pejorative label,” Laycock writes. “This is no doubt due to an increased suspicion of organized religion among the millennials.” But the question remains: why?
“Love Jesus, hate religion,” a sentiment I’ve heard countless times from young evangelicals, is a concise and provocative slogan, a way for this new generation of evangelicals to clearly define itself against, and to distance itself from, its fire-and-brimstone brethren. “People are afraid of saying they are Christian, so they came up with this ‘I hate religion’ thing,” says Juliana Anderson, a member of IKON Christian Community in San Francisco. “The meaning of religion and religious is so messed up these days. It’s got a bad rap.”
For many young Christians, identifying as such bears the risk of being characterized as judgmental, as discriminatory, as politically conservative, as anything like their unhip counterparts. By repudiating religion, they establish themselves as subversive, as anti-establishment, as empathetic and educated and culturally savvy. Religion is full of rules and prohibitions; Jesus accepts you as you are. Religion represents the uncool collective mainstream; Jesus represents the hip individualized counterculture.
“Following Jesus has become a hip thing these days,” Juliana admits. “As long as you’re not ‘religious.’ It’s the same thing, but we just call it something better.”