When our family first moved to a new town, we visited several churches.  One stands out in my mind.  The people were nice and friendly, but as soon as we sat down, my daughter whispered, “Mama, I don’t like it here. It just feels… empty.”  Ten-year old children are smart. I knew just what she meant.  They did everything a church is supposed to do – greet each other, worship, listen to a “sound” message, but the service felt void of life. Religion was there, but the Holy Spirit wasn’t.

Religion is the over-emphasis of organization, structure, tradition and rules. For example in many churches,  the “organization” of the church comes at the expense of the life and freedom of the Holy Spirit.  The Bible calls it “form without power.”  It is epitomized in the Pharisees and it is the reason people who don’t yet know Christ do not want to go to church.  (And the reason that some who DO know Christ don’t want to go to church.) The Pharisees knew a lot of scripture, but they were judgmental and controlling, and they actually worked against what the Holy Spirit was doing through Jesus.  (Sound like anyone you know?)

People who have pursued religion, instead of Jesus Himself, eventually wind up very confused.  They also focus more on rules and regulations than on Christ Himself. Some of us are aware of the religious spirit, but can’t quite put our finger on what is wrong.  Others have been extremely hurt by it

Here are some examples of how it operates:

Religion wants control.

It is a pastor who preaches extra-long sermons, but convinces his congregants that it is impolite to interrupt him, so they don’t move and are too scared to go to the bathroom.

Religion intimidates.

It is a teacher insisting her students pray “head down and eyes closed.” (Where is that in the Bible, anyway?)

Religion is inflexible.

It looks like young children at Bible camp who are made to sit in a closed room in 100 degree weather for hours because it is on the agenda to deliver a message and heaven forbid that agenda should be interrupted.  (My son referred to this as “camp torture”.  He didn’t come any closer to Jesus that day.)

Religion competes.

It politely infers that you are not a good Christian wife because you don’t cook. (Yes, this happened to me!)

Along those same lines,

Religion is ultra-critical of other people.

Religion is powerless.

Religion is happy to speak into a microphone all the live-long day about the power of God, but never lay hands on a single person to see them be healed.

Religion is arrogant.

It turns it’s back on a female speaker.

Religion tells you that you are not doing enough, you aren’t serving enough, you aren’t enough, and you have to measure up before you can come to God.

Religion is horrified if you break a rule. And judgmental.

Religion spies on you.  It wants to know where you were last Sunday?  And are you coming to the very important meeting tonight?  Will you serve in the nursery, make a meal, come to the next outing, join a home group?  And… How much do you work outside the home?  What do you do with your time? Can you be more available at church?

Religion gossips. (Usually under the guise of someone who needs our prayers.)

Religion is insecure.  It is constantly wondering what other people think of it.  It’s children have the misfortune of being continually under the microscope, because, well, what would people think if they did something wrong?

Religion exalts obedience to the Scriptures over having a Christ-like heart.

Religion is scared.

It is scared to do anything, because of what people will say about it if it messes up.

Religion sees the world in two groups of people; us (saved) and them (sinners).  Religion doesn’t have a lot of compassion for them.  It does have quite a bit of judgment though.

Religion acts superior.

It uncannily zones in on your flaws and finds subtle ways to point them out.

Meanwhile, what does God say about it?

Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings— meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.

Isaiah 1:13-15, The Message

How can you tell if the Holy Spirit is the primary influence in your church? Easy!

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

2 Cor 3.17

No restrictions. No rules. No performance. Grace in abundance.

Grace and peace,


P.S. If you want to learn more, check out my book on Amazon:


The Truth About Religion

Written by Amy
Amy Shively Hawk is the author of Six Years in the Hanoi Hilton: An Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in Vietnam, with a foreword by John McCain. She lives in Hood River, Oregon, where she serves on the elder board and teaches bible classes at her local church. In the summer, she may be found on the sunny Columbia River windsurfing, paddle boarding, or doing SUP yoga with her husband Steve and their lively teenagers, Savanna and Cruise.