The Christian world is full of different labels, labels which have got progressively more complicated. When you start the process of getting a curacy in the Church of England (remembering that this is already one “label”, as you’re already not Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox, or Baptist, or whatever!) you need to fill in what “label” you are, so they can find you an appropriate church. You may think this would be relatively simple … you’d be wrong. I prefer to stick to the term “Christian” (I try, however badly, to follow Christ, that’s it!), but when forced I normally tell people I’m an “Open, Charasmatic, Evangelical with Conservative tendencies.” Why? Well, for two reasons: firstly, I think it gives the best description of where I am and secondly (and perhaps most importantly), I love the look of confusion and enforced polite nodding that people greet the description with (I recently found out that my Grandad, when forced, used to tell people he was an “evangelical radical, NOT a radical evangelical”, which I like to think means he shared my like of confusing the kind of people who try to insist we label ourselves!).
I say all this, in order to qualify my next statement … I am, I think, an “Evangelical”! In light of this, the title of this blog may come as a surprise to many. It’s a phrase that gets banded about a lot in evangelical circles, especially charismatic ones (which, again, I like to think I am), but one that has made me uncomfortable for a long time.
A couple of things have triggered me writing it here though, one was something one of my theological lecturers shared on Facebook (see here) about a pastor with similar concerns and then the full danger of it triggered yesterday. Yesterday I was “on holiday at home”, so at home, but not officially working. As such, we decided to go to a different, local “ish”, church (which shall remain nameless), in order to see what happens there. For me the service demonstrated the danger of this type of language. I’ll come back to why later.
Let’s first of all explain why I don’t like to language of “personal relationship with Jesus”. Let’s ignore that fact that any “relationship” is, by definition, “personal”, and, therefore, the phrase doesn’t make grammatical sense. Let’s just ignore that and worry about all the other, much more important, problems. Like the fact we normally use the word “personal” to mean “private”, or “individual”. The Christian faith is NOT, nor should it ever be, private. It is also, emphatically NOT individual. We become part of a community, a community which exists for God, in the world. If your Christian faith does nothing more that give you a “warm, fuzzy feeling”, then it’s pointless, shallow and not worth having (I’m not in the least bit worried about destroying this kind of “faith” [not that it deserves that word] as, at the first sign of trouble, it will disappear like a waft of perfume in a breeze). This kind of “Christianity” is nothing more than the result of our post-modern culture’s obsession with the individual and experiential. Let me share a paragraph from the blog which helped trigger me writing this:
“The bottom line is that the huge emphasis contemporary evangelicals put on a great personal experience of and with Jesus as the be all and end all [don’t overlook this “be all and end all”] of Christian faith has little or nothing to do with Scripture and everything to do with taking from our culture [individualism precipitates a longing for the personal] what it thinks human happiness is all about” (150). In other words, they are creating their own designer religion. It demythologizes God, humanizes God, shrinks God, and makes religion therapeutic — it’s self-talk too often.
Well exactly. Perfectly expressed. So, back to yesterday, and the service we went to. I don’t wish to put down any of my brothers and sisters and will gladly admit that I am making snap judgements based on nothing more than one Sunday morning service. Maybe I got an off day, maybe I am being too harsh. This is all possible. Nevertheless, let me describe what I saw. Firstly, there was music. Lot’s of music. I’m normally very much in favour of this, but, somehow, the disco lights, and the five/six singers who wanted to enforce clapping, jumping up and down and generally behaving like we were at a concert, didn’t do it for me. (I’m aware that I sound like I’m about 80 and know that I’ve heard this said about my own worship preferences, but, even as a charismatic who is use to modern worship bands and worship styles, I could see that the focus was on the band, and not on God, and that the point of the worship was to whip everyone into a frenzy). Then came the talk, which did make some passing references to scripture, but never in much detail, and emphasised our need for a “personal relationship with Jesus”. Then we had more music.
That was it. No, honestly, that was it. No prayer (although we did say a very, very, short prayer before the music started, asking Jesus to come and touch us etc). No Bible reading … honestly, not kidding, no Bible reading. The speaker held, what I assume, was a leather Bible in his hand while he spoke, but it was never opened and I assume was just to give the impression that what he was saying was in the Bible (a bit of it was, and quite a bit wasn’t!). The service was all about, and I really do mean “all”, generating an emotional affect in the congregation. And, judging by the looks of the many young people who were there, they succeeded. But, I was left wishing that some more “meat”, some more “substance”, had been provided.
Don’t get me wrong, the Christian faith should touch our hearts, it should stir the deepest longings of our soul and leave us changed and moved. But this is not the goal, this is simply to power us and make us ready to aim for the goal. Never once, in the whole of Scripture, do we see someone ask the question “do you have a personal relationship with Jesus”. This isn’t the message. Instead, the Gospel, or the Good News, is proclaimed (e.g. well, the whole of Acts for a start!). In other words, Jesus followers go round proclaiming that he is now King, the true King and that the New Creation has begun. People are invited to become part of a movement, a mission, a dynamic, earth altering, new way of being. The aim is not to have a “warm fuzzy feeling” (although that may, or may not happen), but to acknowledge Jesus as the Lord, Savour and King of all (not just your own life, although that’s true, but of ALL) and to help spread that Kingship by acting with New Creation values in this world.
So, no, I never ask people if they want a personal relationship with Jesus, as this is far too shallow a description of what the Christian life is about. Instead, I invite people into a movement, a movement which began with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and will be full implemented when he comes again, restores the creation and God is “all in all” (Rev 21, 1 Cor 15:28).