People describe the Christian faith as a “personal relationship with Jesus.” But in the church, how have we gone about encouraging and developing that relationship with Christ? Curiously, church services, classes and programs rarely pursue that relationship like, well, like a real relationship.
It’s not for lack of good intentions. At some point, years ago, church leaders somehow got the idea that the church is in the information business. The God information business. They knew a lot of good information about God, and they felt compelled to share that good information with other people. So, they looked around and asked themselves, “How do information-keepers disseminate information?” Well, for mathematics, literature, history, and other academic subjects, people set up classrooms and have “school.” The teacher with all the information stands in front, lectures, and recites information. Pupils sit quietly and passively while the teacher goes through his or her lesson plan. Seeing this model of information dissemination, the church began to follow and imitate the tactics of the academic world.
The academic mold even drives church architecture. Seats in neat rows face the front of the room. Elevated platforms accentuate the focal point, the prominence and the power of the lecturer.
We’ve bought into the idea that the church’s job is to dispense God information. Our “professors” go to Bible school and seminary to accumulate the facts. They, the professional God tellers, then return to their towns to preside over classrooms of silent students.
The trouble is, faith is not an academic subject. Our faith is a real, living relationship.
Joani and I have been married for 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 two-way conversation, and working through the thick and thin of real life together.
So, we must ask, what is a growing Christian faith more like–an academic exercise or a living, loving relationship? If we believe it is a relationship, wouldn’t we want to pursue it like we would any relationship? What if we could fashion our church services and programs to be more like a living room of friends than a stiff history class? What if every time God’s people gathered, they’d have the opportunity to converse and ask questions? What if people always had the opportunity to tell (and hear from others) how they’ve seen God work in their lives? What if each person had the opportunity–and dedicated time–to experience an intimate conversation with Jesus?
There’s a place in the church for academic learning. But when academics trump relationships, expect to see more students of religion than friends of Jesus.
PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS! in my experience, it seems to be an ‘evangelical/fundamentalist term. Searched, but can’t find such a phrase/concept in the Bible. Seldom, if ever, heard in historic main line churches. Must ask who invented it and what does such a phrase mean to the modern world as the concept conjures images of intimate/sexual relationships between couples in love. Those who use it better be ready to do some explaining.
You are right that the term does not exist. The idea is more observed through the relationship of Jesus with His disciples. I guess this is something I think we all crave. We have the Holy Spirit but He is a seemingly silent internal life long partner, a driver of desire for good. Still as human beings, we crave more. We crave that face-to-face back and forth conversation. This is why God created woman to fill that particular void and bring about family.
God sent Himself Jesus to save us for what end purpose? Maybe in the sweet by and by we can have that face to face, back and forth relationship? Is there enough of Jesus to go around in heaven?
In Exodus when God was leading Israel in a cloud and fire, He was still distant and unapproachable. Despite He could be seen, that lack of personal relationships to the individual people did not work. Moses was closest to a personal relationship with God but still his human nature drove him to strike the rock instead of speaking to it.
Even with the Holy Spirit now, our relationship with God may be close but still distant because we don’t have that human like interaction. It is so practically one way and seeing/sensing the Holy Spirits working in ourselves is difficult to see. I just happened to be talking to God yesterday about this very thing.
“Reverend” may i remind you the word Bible is not found in the bible either. But we all know what it means. Did you ever pray the “Our Father..” That’s a personal relationship.
The last “reverend” I knew who drew the same conclusion as you, that all this talk about personal relationships with Jesus had sexual overtones, ended up in a federal prison convicted of sex with a minor in his congregation. I think you had better be ready to do some explaining…I find your response very troubling.
“Reverend” – I must ask if you have read John 15 (and 16-17 for that matter). You will find the concept there. “Reverend” means a person who is to be revered, which is not in the Bible. Clergy/laity distinctions were not recognized in the church until it was mixed with paganism by the Roman emperor in the 4th century.
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Rev. 3:20.
Lawrence, have you forgotten about the final chapters of John, and Pentecost, and specifically the Holy Spirit passages in John 14? I don’t understand your comments. I have a personal relationship with God, and I have had such a relationship for over 50 years. Let me testify to you that it IS real.
Thom, thanks for a thought-provoking post. I think our Protestant approach to Scripture being THE authority brings us constantly back to an educated clergy who has been taught to “preach the Word” to an uneducated laity. I am so glad the words I have spoken in my life have not taken on greater significance to my adult children than the life I have lived with them. I love that they know me and are not just pontificating on what I said. You have expressed the possibility of relational learning through the church in a hopeful way. I believe our love for God and each other would be cultivated and nurtured through what you have suggested.
This is exactly the heart of our fellowship! Truth is… academically we don’t always “get it.” But one thing we do is “get IN it.”
Yesterday one of my young 20 somethings spoke to a group of middle school kids in the library of a public school and 3 kids accepted Jesus as the result. We spent as much time answering questions as they asked.
Last night there was a drive by shooting in front of my sister’s house and a neighborhood young man we’ve all known all his life was killed. My sister and her daughter-in-law spent hours simply praying with and over the man’s mother and family as they were taught to do at Parkland House.
Today I will be available for grief counseling at the schools as the mom is also an employee of the school district.
Being a church is simply being willing to do what we feel urged by the Holy Spirit to do. Jesus mixed it up with people’s lives. That’s what the church should do.
Easter “service” for us will consist of Communion over breakfast in which all of our houses are coming together. I’m cooking omelets. We will break bread and pray and give testimonies. I will teach a little then we will talk about how each of us can be more like Jesus. When we finish, we’ll join one of the other local church’s afternoon activity as our children will “hunt” for eggs together.
Being in a relationship with Jesus is more than occasionally praying. It’s knowing that the more you meet Him and talk with Him, the more He’ll engage you and place you to represent Him in your community and friends and relatives. It’s funny, have you ever noticed that you begin to behave and even talk just like those you spend the most time with?
This is silly. There may be lots of necessary navel gazing that should happen concerning American Christianity, but the idea that we gather for worship (singing, praying, and hearing from Scripture) and that we do it in rows isn’t one of them. Protestants didn’t make up this idea. It’s an ancient practice dating to at least Ezra. Let’s self flagellate about something else.
No one thinks that learning about physics (or any other topic) in a class room/ lecture hall is actually DOING physics… but learning in that setting is often conducive doing better work as a physics practitioner. People don’t (or shouldn’t) think sitting in front of a marriage counselor is actually DOING marriage… but it sure can help when you leave the room.
Similarly, hearing from God’s Word from someone who has studied carefully can help us all actually DO the work of seeing the character of Jesus, falling in love with him, and learning to imitate his heart.
Erik, as I mentioned in my final paragraph, there’s a place for academic learning in the church. I’m not advocating muzzling those who have “studied carefully.” I’m simply advocating that we also include time for everyone to engage in spiritual conversation.
Great coversation starting topic here.
First I have to remember that God already knows me intimately and is seeking a relationship with me. He knows me, all my inner thoughts before I was born. So…
I must seek him, but how. For me I have found if I study who God is, the character traits of God, the attributes of God, I quickly begin to know him.
God gave us His Word in the Bible. We are shown the truth and are encourage every moment of our lives by His Holy Spirit.
Lastly, when I talk with others about what I have read and learned I find they too have view points on the topic. Many times it is different than mine yet still accurate and valid. Thus, when I share my beliefs with others my relationship with God grows!
I know this may sound like I’m a simpleton, but for me it has worked very well!
[…] bringing hope and good news to our world. Here is a great article by Thom Shultz on the subject: http://holysoup.com/2015/03/31/when-jesus-becomes-a-fill-in-the-blank/ Permit me to share an […]
Reblogged this on relationaltraction and commented:
Something to think about here…connecting the church journey with relational traction.
Relationship means how we’re related. Jesus is not your buddy who will go along with what you want. Your relationship with Jesus is subject/King. I can’t understand why someone would think that they can worship Him and have no reverence toward Him. I saw a comment about “our father…”. If you understood that fathers in biblical times were honored and revered, you might begin to understand your “relationship” to Him, also. I grow weary of the idea that God is passive, that He’s your buddy and you are His equal. You’re related to Him in the way that He chooses to relate to you, having paid a huge price to make it possible. You’re not worth it, except that He decided you are. You have nothing to offer Him. That He asks you to serve Him is an honor beyond what you deserve. How we are placed in relationship to Him is at His choosing. So, this whole, “daddy God, I want….” thing will get its due reward. And if you really think that His commands no longer matter because He’s your buddy now, you might want to look at what He said about keeping His commands. “If you love me…” He can already see your heart, He already knows if you love Him. The “if you love me, you’ll keep my commands” standard is for us to measure ourselves. So, if you have adapted your god to, say, accept homosexuality, then you have created a graven image. The Pharisees weren’t wrong for keeping the law, they were wrong for changing it.
Wow, Carl, you’re making a few leaps here, and imagining some things that I did not write. As for the type of relationship God desires to have with us, Jesus invited his followers into friendship with him. See John 15:15– “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
Support you there Thom. I have seen one of my best friends fall into Carl’s trap (leading to a subtle legalism, even if denied), and it is becoming more and more difficult to fellowship with him in Christ. However, I am determined to keep in fellowship from my side any way.
Carl, I agree with you 100%. We get so into saying God is our friend that we forget He is almighty, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, ever-powerful, ageless, timeless, and forever. We have, at large, lost our reverence for Him as God Almighty. Yes, it’s awesome to have a relationship with God on a personal level as far as it means having a regular and intimate prayer life, spending time in the Word, and communicating with God on a daily basis if not more often. However, we cannot lose sight of the holiness, the righteousness, the awesomeness of God. After all, He created us!!
Yes, He longs for our fellowship, but not in a buddy-buddy kind of way. He is God. He is the great I Am. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He can make the sun stand still, part the waters, flood the earth, and command the moon. I see every day evidence that we have lost our reverence for Him. Look at what people wear to church….shorts, ratty t-shirts, mini skirts, jeans….when Sunday used to be dress-up day, wearing your best out of respect for the power and might of Almighty God. People dress for church like they do for an afternoon of yard work!! The reverence has all but disappeared. It’s also reflected in the casual attitude toward cohabitation outside of marriage, sometimes including raising children without the benefit of the marriage contract; accepting and even embracing homosexual couples in church without preaching about the sin these people are living in….the crosses have disappeared from the front of the church so we don’t offend anyone…we don’t hear about the wages of sin any more because we need butts in the seat to fill the offering plate…..even in Bible schools we have students having sex and taking drugs!!
What has happened to our reverence for God? Yes, we should be intimate with God but never, ever, EVER forget that He is GOD. He is our Creator, our Lord, our Maker, our Shepherd, our Healer, our Helper, our Rescuer, our Comfort, our Protector….our Refuge….but, in the end, he is not our next door neighbor or the guy we have a beer with while we’re barbecuing steaks on Saturday afternoon. He is GOD. He deserves and demands reverence, honor, praise, adoration, worship, and devotion. We are brothers to Jesus because we have been adopted by the King of Kings, but it should never, ever be a buddy-buddy kind of relationship. We are and never will be God’s equal. He created each and every one of us to give Him praise and worship and to live our lives for Him.
It’s time to stop playing at Christianity and put the reverence back in our relationship with the Father and Maker of us all. Come on….even Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane….”Nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done….”(Luke 22:42) Even the Son doesn’t claim a “hanging out” relationship with the Father. We have forgotten our place, and we will pay the price. Thanks for calling it the way it is, Carl.
Emerging Clarity, for one thing, how can we dress up for Church if we are the Church? – check out the Pauline Epistles. Evangelical Christian tradition does not necessarily = NT Christianity. People only started ‘going to church’ round about 300 AD with the arrival of Constantine and professional clergy.
Secondly, Jesus can be my best buddy (brother) without any irreverence! Experienced that for 55 years.
Thirdly, is God the Father somehow ‘different’ to Jesus?? Jn. 14:8ff.
God is all about relationship, as reflected in the Trinity.
Back when I had gone to a Baptist church they would have an alter call almost every week and there was often mention about a personal relationship with Jesus. The part they missed was a good explanation of what that is and suppose to look like. When I then went on to a Christian reformed church, there was barely any gospel messages and not one mention of a personal relationship with Jesus.
Teaching is necessary to help people understand our mysterious, invisible, seemingly unresponsive God that the world can’t see. For us, we can have a difficult time sensing His presents and working in ours and others lives. This makes it important to share our experiences with God and explain and show how God does His work. People pray for God to do physical things and are going to be disappointed.
Ryan, Jesus gave us the very answer to your observation when He gave us our great commitment, He told us that as we go, make new disciples and teach them all the commands you’ve learned. We are called to enter into discipling relationships with each other just as we are changing day by day toward being more like Christ. Like Jesus’ Apostles, we are more apprentices of agape than we are students of the law!
I want to bring up a comparison. I’ve had cats since childhood and one that lived 20 years. Cats are the craziest people and so we human beings are the craziest gods.
Our relationship with God is done on a human level and we often treat God like another human. My cats are the same with me. They have a relationship with me on a cats level. I understand this and I try to play and interact with them on a level they understand.
My cats know few words. Kitty treats is their favorite words. Their natural curiosity in getting into everything can be frustrating. Their wanting to see what I’m having to eat gets annoying and it is hard to get them to understand not to jump up on tables or get in my face while eating. It takes patience and time for cats to learn and know me as it does for me to know them with their unique different personalities.
When it comes to God and us with our individual quirks and personalities, it take a lot of time and patience with God through the Holy Spirit to build a relationship with each of us and in turn make us into the individuals that reflect Him. I am purposely putting a lot of time with my current new cats who are still a bit of a kitten to build a relationship and end up with nice well rounded cats. I am working with them gently this time around. I’m not swatting or yelling. I am working with them as God is working with me. So far so good. I see a great difference from previous cats I did not spend the time with. A distant God will not get reverence except through threats of punishment and open examples made on sinners through judgement. What good is a pet that cowers or runs and hides when you walk into the room? Yes, the animal reverences you. It fears you. Is that what you want in a pet? When you lift your hand to pet it, does it duck and shy away because you’ve been hitting it as a way of training? That is what many make God out to be… that we should cower in fear at His presents because of the treat of hell fire.
You get a lot farther with people to whom we have a relationship with than a distant authority figure dictating commands and making threats of eternal punishment for none compliance. I understand my cats will never be a human and so I would think God can understand we as human beings cannot be a holy god. Cats by nature going to be a cats and so we by nature are going to be human.
Excellent article Thom. I’ve been thinking about this subject myself. I believe that Sunday School is an outdated model, exactly like you describe it. Confirmation takes on the same tone. There are other ways to teach about God without it being a one way bullhorn telling people what to believe and what to think. Thank you so much for being so bold to bring this up. BTW, a seminary professor I had once said “architecture trumps theology every time. You made this point in your article. It’s so true.
I have thought a great deal about what you wrote here, and since I’m a Seminary grad, I wanted to offer some additional ideas:
1. Almost all teaching institutions present the religious life as a life of information, not of relationship. This may be why Seminarians are so easily led to believe that’s what church is–the passing on of information.
2. We regard “good sermons” as the key to good Christianity. The reason is that many people are a bit afraid of experiential Christianity, and pastors are especially so. There’s good reason for this. Some of the televangelists are perfect examples of the way Christian experience can be faked and then manipulated.
3. An information-oriented approach to Christianity is comforting, because it’s “safe;” everything is under control. By contrast, the OT prophet was often called a “NABI,” meaning someone whose presentation bubbles up from within him–i. e., from his personal experience with the LORD.
4. Not only is Christianity primarily didactic, it’s rules-oriented–meaning that a “good” Christian is someone who follows all the rules. Jesus, of course, spoke against this, pointing out that even rules can be manipulated and altered to benefit those who make them.
5. Rules are comforting. They provide a safe way for us to evaluate one another, and thus “pass judgment” on who fits in. There is, of course, a need for some rules, but many of us “live by the list” of things we should and should not do, believe, say, or think. I’m not advocating unrighteousness, just a change of focus.
I could say a lot more about this, but the real point of all this is, “what do I do to change?”
1. I believe that most of us need to individually and honestly seek a “personal Pentecost;” not an event like Pentecost so much as the initiation of a living relationship with the Lord through His Spirit.
2. I believe that it’s a “given” that far too much time is spent on entertainment (that’s what draws the crowds, right?) and far too little on reality. What I mean is this: most of our lives are amazingly mundane, like John alone on the isle of Patmos–worship should put us in a similar place as John in Revelation:
“I was in (actually, “came into”) the Spirit on the Lord’s day…” I am still thinking about how to do that. I know that back in the day, when I was a Pastor, worship leaders (who do love to be up front) are many of them the problem. Not very many really want to “lead worship.” I have found a couple of them who wanted to get us into the presence of God as a church, and the desire seems to be the basic requirement and also the path for the accomplishment of that.
It seems that the small group is almost a requirement for a healthy relationship experience, and that it is in small meetings that we can most fully express our hearts to the Lord, and also receive from Him what He has for us. simply because of time constraints.
3. Pastors sort of rule this issue, because many of them don’t like to give up control, and offer people the chance to have a relationship with the Lord. They are obsessed with “leadership” (which, as Jesus so candidly pointed out, usually means “servantship,” if it’s done right). After all, if people start worshipping on their own, someone might come up with one of the “forbidden gifts,” and actually start practicing it. So many ministers pretty much excise from the congregation any opportunity to exercise relationship in any church context. Everything is instruction. Instruction is safe. Instruction is good. Instruction is all. And when we come down to it, the “instruction” is based on a few passages that everyone teaches. So even that is not full and complete.
I have more to say, but these are sort of “seed thoughts” for now.
Steven is spot on. From a past ‘senior pastor.’
This is a great article! Very thought provoking and a serious message for the Church (the people) to really consider. I have seen too many “pew sitters” in our Church who are there on Sunday and maybe a Bible study class once per week. But the relationship with Jesus is rarely mentioned and when it is, the topic is quickly changed..Why? I know I feel uncomfortable discussing my relationship with Jesus, so maybe they do, too. I think this article touches on something that is missing in many Churches today and may be one reason many of them are dying, unable to attract new people.