"Personal relationship with Jesus." No phrase is more characteristic of evangelical lingo than this one. We all know the phrase, but when pressed, many of us have a hard time explaining exactly what we mean by it.
A few years ago, I wrote an article for another blog in which I wondered out loud about the helpfulness of using the phrase "personal relationship with Jesus" when presenting the gospel. Regardless of what we mean by it, how is it heard? Gina Welch, who wrote a book about her time masquerading as a believer at Jerry Falwell's church, confessed her bewilderment at this terminology:
“You often hear evangelicals use an inscrutable expression to describe their faith. They call it ‘a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.’ For a literal thinker like me, those words had a corporate-speak detachment from content.” (91)
“I still had a hard time holding on to an understanding of these words – a personal relationship with God. As in you and God stay up late talking? As in you and God are secret shares? I mean, I knew the rhetoric – an intimate relationship with God and a willingness to put Jesus first was the outward manifestation of real Christianity…”
“Evangelical language was a language of its own, where the rhetoric often didn’t mean what the words seemed to signify in English. Words were encoded symbols used to describe feelings evangelicals understood. Sometimes I was able to understand these feelings and crack the code on a turn of the phrase. But not so with the personal relationship with God. With this I scraped and scraped for a more direct meaning, but each layer I revealed was just another picture of a picture.” (236)
Asking hard questions about our Christian vocabulary may make us squirm a little. But it’s healthy to ask questions if our goal is to adopt better, more-biblical terminology.
"Personal Relationship" Lingo - Where Did It Come From?
In the last century, evangelical churches grew in number as people (many of whom migrated from mainline Protestant churches) sought a conversion-centered, conservative Christianity. Evangelicals found that one way to gauge a person’s spiritual life was to discover how they viewed Christianity:
- Was their religion simply a weekly tradition, filled with dry rituals and empty ceremony ( i.e. high church)?
- Or was it a vibrant “relationship” with God through the person of Jesus Christ (i.e. evangelicalism)?
So evangelicals began to say that Christianity isn’t a religion, but a relationship. Our emphasis on personal conversion and subsequent transformation separated us from other denominations. The phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” arose out of this context as a way to differentiate between the two types of Christianity.
As the years went by, worship songs and evangelistic crusades pounded the phrase into evangelical consciousness. Songwriters took the “relationship” lingo and began writing more praise songs to Jesus than hymns about him. Evangelists emphasized the personal aspect of conversion, showing how it’s not enough to know about Christ. One must know him personally.
What About Today?
I believe the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” correctly expresses the biblical idea of discipleship and reconciliation with God. Evangelicals are right to use this phrase if through it we mean a personal, ongoing life of discipleship that includes gradual transformation into the image of Christ.
The Bible teaches that upon conversion we enter into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Jesus is our mediator, the one who reconciles us to God. Justified by faith alone, we are united to Christ. We indeed have a relationship with Jesus, and this truth is glorious! Using the language of "relationship with Jesus" makes communion with God central to Christianity. That's not a bad thing. The phrase is evocative, and it has been useful.
But I'm not sure that using the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” in our witnessing efforts helps us gauge a person’s spiritual life like it used to. Times are changing. I have met and talked with people who assure me that they have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” even though their lives show no evidence of Christ’s indwelling presence. Others tell me they know Jesus personally but have no need for the local church. A few are all about “personal relationships” with key religious figures.
What do you do when witnessing to a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness who also claims to have a personal relationship with Jesus? In the shifting landscape of post-Christendom’s rampant individualism, a “personal relationship with Jesus” can mean many things - too many things I’m afraid.
What are the alternatives?
Are there other ways to get across the same message? J.I. Packer gives us "knowing God." The Puritans spoke of "deep communion with God." John Piper emphasizes our "desire for God." And then there are a variety of ways to speak of the life of discipleship: following Christ, serving his kingdom, submitting to his lordship. In recent years, "Christ-follower" has become a popular way of speaking of our faith.
What do you think?
Does “personal relationship with Jesus” still have staying power?
What are some other phrases we might adopt that still express this important concept?
Does this phrase help or hinder your witnessing efforts?
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