Pastor's Blog

Evangelicals often say “Christianity is not a religion;  it’s a relationship.”  The roots of that notion can be found in the 1600’s with the Pietist/Puritan reaction to “dead orthodoxy”.  Religion, they insisted, was more than just affirming doctrine by reciting the creed in a church service.  Religion had to move outside of the doors of the church, into your everyday life – and that meant each individual – each person – had to voluntarily live out what he believed.  There was no sitting back and letting religious professionals handle “religion” for you.  You handled it yourself, and that made it personal.

At the time, no one referred to it – at least in any of the literature that we have – as a personal relationship with God.  But by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the terms appear scattered sparsely throughout Christian literature.  Christian leaders created and applied the label to identify the concept – and the label stuck.

But then the label started to take on a life all its own.

When you play “Whispering Down the Lane”, the first person whispers a phrase to a second, who whispers it to a third, and on you go down the line.  The last person says the phrase aloud and it’s usually nothing like the phrase that began the game.  Each person hears, misunderstands, and introduces his own understanding of what he thought he heard.

It seems to me that personal relationship with God got whispered down the lane throughout the early 1800’s.  It doesn’t start to appear in the literature until a little after the Civil War, but by that time it’s clear that it’s already been in popular usage, and people have begun to put their own spin on the meaning of personal.

A preacher could call people to a personal relationship with God – meaning that formal participation in religion – church attendance – was not enough.  He was calling each person to a choice:  believe in Jesus and then live out your faith.

But people began to interpret personal relationship a different way, in terms of human relationships. Relating to God was like relating to your friends.  “Personal” meant you interacted with them on a one-on-one basis.  You were in their presence.  Saw them, heard them, talked to them, touched them.  That’s how a personal relationship works – right?

Having a personal relationship with God started to shift from taking personal responsibility for my religious and spiritual life to experiencing – sensing, feeling -- a mystical connection with God.

Since it is a mystical connection, all that matters is that you feel somethingWhat you feel is of no consequence.  It is, after all, your relationship to God and like any personal relationship is exclusive and therefore unique.  It is beyond definition, beyond doctrine and theology, and beyond criticism.  No pope, no bishop, no theologian, no pastor, no one, has anything to do with it and so nothing to say about it. 

It is about your personal spirituality, not religion.  And in the literature the terminology of personal relationship with God (or Jesus) skyrockets…after 1960.  Are you surprised?

 

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