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.