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Too much religion bad for soul, pastor says

NASHVILLE (BP) — Alex Himaya contends that more Christians need to lose their religion.

It’s not that Himaya, pastor of theCHURCH.at in Tulsa, wants them to give up their faith. But in his new book “Jesus Hates Religion — Finding Grace in a Works-Driven Culture,” he says too much religion is bad for your soul.

Religion, he says, is about somehow trying to impress God with your actions. Faith is a response to what God has already done for people in Jesus.

“We look at the distance between us and God and think we can somehow make that up,” Himaya says. “That’s religion.”

Himaya’s book, released May 1 by B&H Publishing, began as a sermon series in 2009. Jesus Hates Religion is a combination of stories and reflections on Scripture, plus comments from people who heard the original sermon series.

Himaya admits it’s tricky for a pastor to criticize religion. But he doesn’t mince words.

“Religion is poison,” he wrote, “because it kills every opportunity you will ever have to experience genuine intimacy with God.”

As a pastor, Himaya says he wants people to develop spiritual habits — like reading the Bible, prayer and serving others — that help grow their faith.

But he says many people, both inside the church and outside, see those habits as some kind of scorecard. Some may think if a person earns enough spiritual points God will bless them. But that kind of thinking, Himaya says, undermines the Gospel.

“It almost turns faith into a transaction, where God’s favor is for sale,” Himaya says.

The book has two main audiences. Himaya says he wants those outside the church to get a clear picture of God’s grace. He also wants to reach Christians who may have gotten off track.

“There’s this idea that after I am saved, after I accept Christ as my Lord and Savior, from that point on, it is up to me. It’s about what I can do for God,” he says. “That’s as silly as saying I am saved by my works.”

In other words: there’s a difference between working out your salvation, which is a response to God’s grace, and working for your salvation.

Himaya uses the parable of the prodigal son to make his point. He focuses on the older brother who was angered after his father welcomed his wayward younger brother home.

The older brother was self-righteous, Himaya says, and felt bitter and unappreciated by his father. So he sulked outside, rather than celebrating his brother’s return.

“Jesus’ message is clear,” Himaya wrote. “Our acts of self-righteousness can actually be more damaging and unfruitful than acts of unrighteousness. Why? Because the unrighteous man knows he needs help; but the self-righteous man doesn’t acknowledge that he needs help.”

Now that he’s written about bad religion, Himaya is considering doing a follow-up book about good religion, based on the book of James.

In recent years, his congregation of about 6,000 people has become involved in ministry to widows and orphans. In addition to their three other children, Himaya and his wife Meredith have an adopted daughter from Ethiopia.

He says not long after finishing the sermon series on how Jesus hates religion, someone asked him why he never preached about widows and orphans. After all, the book of James says good religion involves caring for widows and orphans.

“I reread the Bible and marked every time God talked about the widows and orphans,” Himaya says.

That led his church to become involved in orphan care, adoption and foster care, and to help other churches do the same.

“So maybe I’ll write a book about getting religion right,” he says.

For now, he began preaching an updated version of the Jesus Hates Religion series this year on Easter. The church has created new small group materials and videos to go along with the series, all of which will be available free online.

“We’d be happy to share that with anyone,” he says.

Jesus Hates Religion is available from LifeWay stores and LifeWay.com. Himaya is also author of the Bible Studies for Life study Overcome: Living Beyond Your Circumstances.
Bob Smietana is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).