Maybe you’ve heard it in your own church. Maybe in your grade-school Sunday school class. I know I certainly heard the phrase (and believed it) when I attended church camp for the first time in 7th grade and ‘got saved’.
And you might even see it on well-meaning facebook pages today or in a tweet.
“Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”
But I’ve got news for you.
The Bible doesn’t teach that. Nowhere in scripture, unless someone is really trying to make certain verses mean something they don’t, does it say we, as believers, are to have a ‘personal relationship’ with Christ.
How did such a theology come to pass, then?
It’s generally impossible to trace the origin of the idea, some will say it began in the 60s and 70s with the “Jesus People” movement. Others might recall hearing it earlier from the pulpits of Southern Baptist churches in the post-WWII era when men were coming home, trying to make sense of the horrors of war and trying to find peace.
However it started, one of the go-to verses used to ‘prove it’ is the story of the Prodigal Son. God, the father, watching for his son, embracing him when he returns home.
It’s all so warm and fuzzy, isn’t it? God loving each of us so much that He wants to be our personal Father as if no one else mattered, not even the son that stayed home the whole time.
But that is not the lesson of the Prodigal Son.
As with any verse or story in the Bible, context is everything. The Prodigal Son story is part of a lesson containing several parables. All of them about lost things. A lost sheep. A lost coin. A lost son.
What started this lesson was some Pharisees and ‘teachers of the law’ muttering about Jesus welcoming ‘sinners’ and eating with them. The lesson is about going out and finding those who need love and forgiveness the most. Not about a personal God.
So what DOES the Bible teach if not a ‘personal relationship’?
The opposite, actually. Christianity is supposed to be a communal experience. There can be no such thing as a ‘lone ranger’ Christian.
No, it’s not.
I know some of you are thinking “what about those who have to remain in hiding? what about those alone in prison? They’re alone and they are still Christians.” Ok, sure, but how did they become Christian in the first place. Someone somewhere taught or gave them what they needed to make them part of the Body of Christ.
That is the lesson of the Bible. That we are together. The Body of Christ. Brothers and Sisters. Fellowship of believers. Before Saul/Paul’s conversion, he was searching for “those who belong to The Way”.
When Jesus taught us to pray he said “OUR Father…” not “My Father…”
More than anything, belonging to Christ means belonging TOGETHER. Our relationship is to be with the rest of the Body and worship God. Not a relationship with God and worship the church.
Isn’t it time we got back to real relationships (in whatever form those take, be they in a physical location like a church building or a digital location like a facebook group) rather than a personal relationship with our idea of God?
Recommended reading: “My Imaginary Jesus” by Matt Mikalatos