In last week’s blog my colleague, Aaron, emphasised that Christianity is very different from all other religions of the world and showed why every person should seriously consider who Jesus Christ is. This week let’s talk about another common misconception about Christianity: that it is all about religious rituals.
Ephraim, my husband, grew up serving the church from his Primary years to High School. Throughout those years, he would wake up early in the morning on Sundays to do all the rituals that needed to be done in church before and after the preaching of God’s word. He would recite memorised prayers, sing worship songs as part of the ceremony and faithfully participate in all the rituals, rites and celebrations organised by his local church. He was raised following this family tradition which was rooted in many generations before them. He grew up with the understanding that he needed to fulfil all those rituals and rites to please God. He made sure that he was always on top of “proving” that he loved God by doing those things.
Ephraim didn’t understand what it meant to have a personal and authentic relationship with Jesus. The void in his heart just kept growing as he knew deep down inside him that there had to be something more than all those religious activities.
When he moved to Singapore, he met some real Christians that encouraged him to know God deeper through his words (Jeremiah 29:13). Right there and then, he realised that true Christianity, as taken from the accurate interpretation of the Bible, is never based on rituals. Rather, it is relationship-based. Our living God made a way for us to be relationally reconciled to him through Jesus (John 3:16; John 14:6).
Jesus never hesitated but gave his own life, receiving all our punishment to pay for all the sins we had done (Romans 3:23-24). His death as a righteous man gave us the right to become God’s children. The gospel made Ephraim realise that he was bought with a price and how his Saviour loved him beyond words! He genuinely sought forgiveness from the Lord and surrendered his life to become God’s child (John 1:12).
There may be some rituals and rites involved in church, and these can be good things, if each one is derived from the Bible. However, if a church is so structured or so focused on rituals that the Holy Spirit is not able to break through to the hearts of the people, then the message of Jesus’ cross is being compromised. I am grieved that some churches have replaced an intimate and profound relationship with Christ, with a futile but functional relationship with the church by taking part in rituals. The reality is that God is not interested in rites and rituals. He created us in his likeness because God wants to have a relationship with us! (Genesis 1:26)
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Mothers will agree with me that we have chosen to give birth to our children not because we need to do it as part of a “ritual” or a responsibility of being a wife. As mothers we underwent the physical pain and sacrifices because we desire to have a close relationship with our children!
In the same way, God delights to have a relationship with us. He longs to engage with us and spend time with us. He loves to reveal himself to us, if only we will seek him with all our hearts (Jeremiah 29:13). He passionately wants us to know and experience his goodness and faithfulness because he has great plans for us (Jeremiah 29:11).
He does want us in church but not to satisfy an attendance requirement or to please the elders of the church. God wants us in church so that we can seek and worship him with other believers. He wants to reveal himself to us, show us the right path and get closer to us. He wants us to be surrounded by other believers, so that we can encourage one another through the different seasons of lives. He knows that we are stronger together as a church than we are alone. He wants us in church because he loves and cares for us!
Yes, it is imperative for us to pray and read the Bible regularly. But we pray, not to recite lengthy liturgies to fulfil a tradition or ritual passed from one generation to another, but because it is our best way to converse with Jesus intimately. It is to acknowledge that he is in control of our lives. Jesus even warned us against “vain repetitions” in prayer (Matthew 6:7). Many rituals held in churches are nothing more than that. Repetitive prayers, creeds or songs do not allow free expression of one’s heart, mind and soul before God (Matthew 22:37-38).
In relational prayer we speak with God and in studying the Bible God speaks with us! We also study the Bible because there is so much false teaching. It gives us the reference to distinguish truth from error. And the Bible reveals what God is like. To have wrong information about God is to worship a false God or an idol because we are worshipping something that he is not.
Can you see the difference between rituals (repetitive religious activities to gain God’s acceptance), which are wrong, and spiritual disciplines (activities that grow our relationship with God), which are healthy? Prayer and Bible study are not responsibilities assigned to us so that we can be acceptable to God. No, these are opportunities to have an intimate and vibrant relationship with Jesus.
God accepts us, not because of activities we do, but because of what Jesus has already done for us at the cross.
Do you know someone who thinks Christianity is just about religious rituals and rites? Help them understand that some churches are like that, but that those churches don’t represent biblical Christianity.
Some religious practices, like reading the Bible and praying, are great opportunities to get to know God. But anything that is just going through religious motions is actually having a negative impact on them spiritually. Talk with them about how to start a real relationship with God. Encourage them to go to a church that is all about that real relationship.
Whatever routine, ceremony or ritual removes your focus from having a genuine and passionate relationship with Christ is wrong.
Let them know that God sees our hearts and he is pleased with those who worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Rituals can be helpful, but external practices should never replace personal devotion.
Real Christianity is not about rituals or rites. Even when you fail to go to church one Sunday, forget to pray before you sleep, or unintentionally neglect to read the Bible before you start your day, it is not about what you do or did not do, God still loves you unconditionally (Romans 8:37-39)!