In the beginning, when the Church-as-We-Know-It was invented, somebody asked, “How should we design this thing?”

I imagine someone looked around and said, “Our job is to propagate the faith. We should do that like you propagate other subjects–like literature, or mathematics, or history.”

Most likely, the committee chair said, “Good idea.” So they set up the Church-as-We-Know-It like you would any other academic institution. With faith as the subject, they found learned professor-types to stand before the unlearned and dispense information. The lecture halls were set up with pupil seating in neat rows facing the learned ones. It was the professors’ job to lecture. It was the pupils’ job to sit still, be quiet, and appear to be listening.

And so it was that the Church-as-We-Know-It became an academic institution.

The early designers were successful in establishing faith as one more academic subject. Even to this day the people recognize faith–or religion, as they call it–one more subject to study. And the Church-as-We-Know-It does everything it can to foster this academic reputation.

  • The people gather at the appointed time, file in, sit in rows, and stare silently at the lecturer.
  • The preacher thumps a book and refers to the “text” of the day.
  • The “teaching pastor” provides a printed outline with fill-in-the-blanks for easy answers.
  • The grown-ups go to Bible “study.”
  • The young ones go to age-graded Sunday “school.”
  • Sunday school “curriculum” utilizes word scrambles and other schoolish busywork.
  • They call the teenagers “students.”
  • The Christian “education” department organizes “classes.”
  • Kids compete in Bible “quizzing.”
  • Discipleship means attending a 6-week “course.”
  • “Deep” teaching involves lectures filled with layers of biblical facts and historical minutiae.
  • They call the church property a “campus.”
  • The sign out front says, “A Strong Bible-Teaching Church.”

Academic institutions serve their purpose. Subjects get taught. But when it comes to the church, there’s one problem. Faith is not a subject.

Faith is a relationship.

In fact, we often talk about the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s not an academic exercise. It’s a relationship.

And if we want to help people pursue a relationship, why wouldn’t that look like how people pursue a relationship? Think of any good, healthy relationship. How does that develop and grow?

Joani and I have been married for almost 30 years. Our bond is not an academic subject. Our relationship did not develop through a series of academic classes. Had that been the case, our relationship would’ve been dead on arrival. Had one of us stood and lectured, while the other passively listened, our love could never have grown. Had one of us handed out little worksheets to fill in while the other spoke, our dating life would have crashed at Date #1.

Our relationship is not built on mastering loads of historical facts and bits of information about each other. In fact, to this day, we still can’t do a great job of keeping each other’s relatives straight. Our love is not built on an academic historical exercise. It has developed and deepened through an ongoing series of shared experiences, rich and honest conversation, and working through the thick and thin of real life together.

How would the church look if we pursued its mission like one pursues a healthy, growing personal relationship? How would the world react if we introduced our friend Jesus not as another subject to be mastered but as a master to be befriended?