Every Sunday we ask our church folks to fill in “conversation cards” which, among other things, give them an opportunity to make a comment, ask for prayer, or give us feedback. This past Sunday afternoon I took one of the cards—which I’d already crumpled into a tight little wad—tossed it on the barbecue, and promptly reduced it to ash.

It felt great.

It felt great because the card was written in big, diagonal, angry strokes that defied the lines. Because the remarks were more emotional than rational. Because they were clanging gongs and clashing cymbals—no love there, just a bitter spirit. Because they were written anonymously. Because the writer had the audacity to include the line, “No more emails. Use direct communication.”

Oh, right. Direct. Like your anonymous criticisms on a piece of paper that get collected by the ushers so I can read them a few days later. Thanks for clarifying.

In beautiful contrast to that non-interaction, I introduced myself to a younger (and new) guy after the Sunday Service ended. After some small talk, he gave me two pieces of clear and helpful critique that I took to heart. One was related to my “family-oriented” vocabulary, which came off sounding exclusionary to singles during my message. Got to change that. I’m working on it already. Another tidbit was about his experience with some folks serving on Sunday AM. Also valid.

And something happened—changed—improved, at DCC—because he chose not to take the cowardly approach of a sniper without accountability.  One kind of critique is iron sharpening iron. The former, the hallmark of a religious spirit. Want to know how to identify a religious spirit? It’s fairly easy.

1. It tends to zero in on molehills as if they were mountains (in other words, it routinely misses the point). For example, one remark on the card was, “Is this how leadership sees things? Is the glass half empty or half full?” To begin with, I’m an optimist. But secondly, the important word here is not “empty” or “full,” but half. Whether that speaks to squandered opportunities or potential to realize (I took the approach of speaking to both) is secondary to the actual state of affairs. Something is half of what it could be.

2. A religious spirit often invokes scriptural principles and orthodoxy in the service of it’s cause. Nothing wrong with that, right? But it’s almost always coupled with the third hallmark of a religious spirit:

3. It violates the clearest scriptural principles in regards to how we are to relate to each other in Christ, as if the problem it has identified trumps the need to be Christlike. So I can smack my pastor upside the head about indirect email communication while being evasively indirect myself.

4. It is generally blind to both 1 and 3, and will crucify you if you try to address that.

The religious spirit usually just pops up here and there, like stray gophers beneath the lawn. Nothing major—like the card Joe Guy tossed in the offering plate on Sunday. Left to itself, though, a religious spirit can grow to ridiculous and gangly proportions. That’s why a religious spirit is not just dangerous, but terrifying. It, not the Jews, murdered Jesus. And it’s just getting warmed up. It ruins churches. It ruins ministries. It turns off true seekers. It reeks of all things satanic while adorned in it’s freshly ironed Sunday best. It’s the soul of the killer weed Jesus warned us about, the tare that disrupts the whole crop of wheat while you’re trying to uproot and excise it from your midst.

The moral of the story is, never let a religious spirit go unchecked. Once it’s in power, hell is on the throne.