This might be a touchy subject but it comes up quite a bit so I thought I would address it. I know some Protestant, non-denominational, evangelicals who pride themselves on not "being religious". "It's about a relationship not religion" they will say. I know where they are going with this and to an extent, I would agree but I'm not sure they really know what "being religious" means. They are usually too polite to tell me to my face but sometimes they will imply that I am involved with a 'religious institution', as if it were a bad thing and say it is not for them.
First of all, religion does not have to be and should not be anti-relationship with God. I agree that we are called to have a relationship with God. Through Jesus' death and resurrection, he made a way for that to happen. We are called to "rend our hearts, not our garments." (Joel 2:3). And we are called to love God with our whole heart, mind and soul. He does not want just lip service, he wants heart service. In effect, he wants his law to be written on our hearts.
I know people that think that striving to be obedient to the Lord is "being religious". I don't get that! Didn't Jesus even say, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."(John 14:15)? I would like to propose that if you are not walking in obedience to the Lord but go to church every week and say that you love him, you are "being religious". If you are lukewarm in your faith, but still go through the motions, you are "being religious". I also had someone tell me once, "Shoulds are bad and if you tell yourself, 'I should do this and I shouldn't do that', then you are being religious." Isn't that statement in itself being legalistic and putting God in a box?
There are also those that say that 'guilt' is a bad thing as if ALL guilt was bad. Paul however in his letter to the Corinthians distinguishes and talks about a guilt that is a good thing.
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10)
So, it sounds to me like there is a 'Godly guilt' that is a good thing because it can lead to someone leaving sin behind and changing their ways.
Some Protestants also think it is religious that Catholics have a liturgy (a collection of formularies for public worship). I hate to break it to my fellow Christians, but if you belong to a church, you probably have a liturgy. It may be a shallow liturgy, but it is still a liturgy. If you gather, sing a few songs, have a message and a time of prayer every week, that is a liturgy. If you are doing this every week but not inviting God to be in your midst, that is "being religious". If you are going through the motions but your heart is distant, not surrendered to the Lord and your thoughts are elsewhere, that is "being religious". In any given denomination you have those who just go through the motions but are not sold out for the Lord. It is not the religious institution or denomination that is the culprit, but the callousness of our own hearts. I think most of us have been "religious" at one point or another.
Now, I will give "non-religious people" this, "religious people" might be more prevalent in a denomination where there are many born into it instead of choosing it. That is not as much the fault of the church as it is those in charge of teaching and catechizing (which should primarily be the parents). In the Catholic Church there also might be more to ensnare someone who is prone to scrupulosity and someone who has not yet had a personal encounter with the Lord. However, for someone who has had that personal encounter, there is so much richness and beauty that can aid to help one grow deeper in the faith and love of the Lord. Knowing what is there, why we do what we do and out of love for the Lord, putting our hearts into our Faith is not "being religious". If what we are doing is out of love for God, it is not "being religious"!
I grew up in the Catholic Church, and growing up I did not know that we could have a relationship with Christ. I thought he created us, left us on this earth to fend for ourselves and watched from a distance like that 1980's song "From a Distance". However, that couldn't be further from the truth and when I was 19, my spiritual eyes were opened (through the breaking of the bread) at a Mass. I then discovered that God was very much in our midst, walking among us and imparting his grace through the Sacraments of the Church. I also was involved in non-denominational churches for ten years and knew people who went to church every Sunday but were not surrendered to Christ or living for him during the week.
I propose that we as Catholics and Protestants who love the Lord, work together to help those around us encounter Christ. I say we stop judging, labeling and start loving one another, recognizing all we have in common instead of what is different. It is then and only then that Christ will be revealed in and through us!
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)