I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve gone down to an altar and “given my life to Jesus”.
Growing up in an evangelical denomination, especially one with roots in the revival movement, a church service doesn’t go by without an invitation to “come down and lay it all on the altar.”
That’s true for church camp too. You may spend the day playing ultimate frisbee, swimming in the pool, or finding your next significant other, but once service begins in the old outdoor tabernacle it’s time to get down to business. It is time to make sure you have “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
I’m not sure that there is anything more intrinsically attached to evangelicalism than a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Today it seems so fundamental to the faith. In order to be a Christian you must have a personal relationship with Jesus. However, historically speaking that hasn’t been the case, at least not in the way we speak of it today. In fact, it was American Evangelicalism that gave birth to the modern notion of a personal relationship with Jesus. The phrase itself is found nowhere in the Bible. Now, is the idea of humanity having a relationship with their Creator in the Bible? Abosolutely! It’s written across every page and is the very reason for the Bible’s existence.
However, I believe that the relationship between God and man, between us and Jesus, that we see described in the Bible is very different that what we in evangelicalism describe as a “personal relationship with Jesus.”
For starters, “personal” is a very American phenomenon. Our country exists because men and women wanted to live and worship how they “personally” saw fit. This isn’t always a bad thing. However the American, and with it the evangelical, concept of “personal” is a concept foreign to both the Bible and the Christian faith. When we speak of the “personal” today, we are usually talking about individualism, our own personal taste, beliefs, preferences, desires, etc. Personal is what I what to do, what I want to believe, what I like. In other words, “personal” is primarily about “me” and doesn’t require the input of or interaction with anyone else. So, when we talk about a personal relationship with Jesus we are describing an internal, individual relationship that is confined to our own prayers, meditative thoughts, and the occasional act of worship (by which we mean singing songs).
While maturation as a person is usually part of this equation, the primary goal of the “personal relationship with Jesus” is heaven. We are sold on the need for a personal relationship with Jesus because it will get us out of hell and into heaven. We “accept” Jesus as our “personal” Savior so that we can get to heaven. And we make sure we never screw up too bad so that our personal relationship with Jesus will continue and we’ll make it into heaven.
Though this all might sound good, it’s actually not very Christian, it’s certainly not very Biblical, and it’s actually not Christ-like at all.
To begin, the individualism that defines evangelicalism’s personal relationship with Jesus is antithetical to concept of the “people of God” and the “body of Christ.” The Bible is a story about God’s chosen people, not individuals. God chooses Israel the nation, not just one man. When Jesus arrives on the scene, not even the Son of God walks around alone. Instead, he surrounds himself with others. When the church is established, it’s not a bunch of individuals saying prayers alone by their bed at night. It’s a family of faith that is constantly interacting with one another and inviting others to participate in that community.
This community is but a reflection of the God she serves. When we speak of God as Triune, we mean that God is in a community of relationship. Just as there is no such thing as “Jesus and me”, there is no such thing as just “Jesus and the Father”. We often forget about the Spirit, but the Spirit plays a critical role in both the Godhead and in our own lives. It is the Spirit that is the breath of life. It is the Spirit that empowers and emboldens the church to go out the very ends of the earth. And it is the Spirit the calls us all together reminding us that, like God, this is not a one-on-one relationship. We are one Body with many parts. So, despite what the famous Footsteps poem may claim, Jesus wasn’t the only one carrying you on the beach. The Father, the Spirit, and the Church were there too.
Perhaps most importantly, and this is probably going to sting a bit because it’s the core tenet of evangelicalism, but Jesus did not die on the cross for “you” or “me”. He died for “us”. Are you and me are a part of that us? Absolutely, but when we individualism salvation, then the faith becomes primarily about us. In the process, we turn inward, putting our own needs, wants, and desires before those of both the church and rest of the world. In short, when salvation is about “me”, when Christianity is exhausted by “I”, then it becomes a form of idolatry in which we make Jesus into our image and transform him into a personal servant we call upon whenever we need something fixed.
That’s not to say that a personal relationship with Jesus isn’t important. It’s absolutely fundamental to the faith, but we must understand what that personal relationship looks like. To do that, we have to look no further than the Gospels. There we learn that a personal relationships is not something that happens inside your heart. They are something which is embodied.
Jesus has numerous personal relationships with people in the Gospels, but none of them are defined by inward thoughts and emotions. The personal relationships that happen with Jesus in the Gospels are something that happens on the outside, between people, not inside their individual selves. For the Gospels, a personal relationship with Jesus was something incarnated. It was dynamic. It required someone to reach out beyond their own “person” and love, embrace, and care for the other.
Clearly, Jesus doesn’t physically walk the earth today, but that doesn’t mean we are exempt from participating in this same form of relationship. But to do so we have to understand that despite what we have been told our entire lives, Jesus does not live in our hearts. I know that may come as an intolerable shock to your system, but Jesus never said he would dwell there and it is not until the advent of American Evangelicalism that this idea becomes orthodoxy. What does dwell within us is that which Jesus promised to give us, the Holy Spirit. He gave us the gift of the Spirit that we could be empowered to encounter and embody him. And where do we do that? In our relationships with others.
Jesus says very clearly, “when you do these things to the least of these you do them to me.” In other words, our personal relationship with Jesus happens when we reach out to love, embrace, and care for the least, the lost, and the dying. Simply put, it is impossible to have a personal relationship with Jesus that only exists inside your heart. Through the power of the Spirit, you must incarnate that faith, so that in your relationships with “the least of these” you encounter and befriend Jesus himself.
Additionally, this sort of personal relationship must exist among the persons who make up the body of Christ. As I have quoted here many times before, the hand cannot say to the Body ‘I don’t need you’. Likewise, a person cannot say ‘I have Jesus in my heart, so I don’t need the Church or anyone else’. There is no personal relationship with Jesus apart from our personal relationships with his Body and the people he came to serve….
….which makes the evangelical obsession with “getting out of here” and on to heaven so problematic.
We get so focused on an eternal encounter with Jesus that we miss the opportunities to meet Jesus in the here and now. N.T. Wright does an incredible job of articulating this issue in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, so I won’t pretend to try and top him. Just go buy the book. But I will say this, heaven is an already and not yet present reality. We live on earth as it is in heaven when we do the work of extending grace to the least of these which Jesus has called us to do in the here and now. And it is in those moments that we both meet and embody Jesus in the world.
In closing, it is this obsession with a “personal relationship with Jesus” is at the heart of all my critiques of American Evangelicalism over the past several days. It’s the thing that we hold over people’s heads to control them. “They” must have a personal relationship with Jesus, but if it doesn’t look the way we say it should, then they’re going to hell. It is the thing that allows us to read Scripture however we choose and then weaponize it in order to defeat our enemies. Worst of all, it is the thing that causes us to exhaust the mission of the Church in the making of converts. If all that is required is a “personal relationship”, by which we mean intellectual ascent, warm feelings, and prayer, then the least, the lost, and the dying are left to fend for themselves and we will have failed in our mission.
Contrary to what you might assume from reading this series of posts, I believe that the church does have a bright future. I see glimpses of it everyday when the teenagers in my youth group reach out to one another in times of need without me creating a program or telling them to do so. I see it when broke college students turn out their already empty pockets to give millions of dollars in the effort to end slavery. And I see it when drug addicts and prostitutes sit in the pew on Sunday morning next to business executives and stay at home moms. But in order for this bright future to become our present reality I believe that the church must abandon American Evangelicalism and all the follies it has brought with it.
Instead, we should pursue an authentic relationship with our Lord. One which begins among his people, but extends out into the world to love, embrace, and care for the lost, the least and the dying. In doing so, we must never use our gifts to manipulate or oppress. Neither should we turn the Bible into an idol, or worse, a weapon to destroy our enemies. And throughout it all, we must always remember that the Christian faith is something to which we belong, it is not our possession.
There will surely be many more challenges for the church in the future. And I’m sure several of them will be ghosts from her past. But if we can learn from our past, rather than ignore, I believe that we will find vast resources to help us carry out the mission of the church in the 21st century.
God has called us to go and to great things. But to answer that call we have to be willing to stop focusing on “me” and actually go. If we can find the humility to put ourselves last, if we cling to another, and if discover the courage to trust in the Spirit to work through broken and imperfect people, then as John Wesley once said, we “will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth.”
Grace and peace,