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.
Let’s consider the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus.” In the last century, evangelical churches grew in number as many people fled the mainline churches for 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)?
Evangelicals began saying 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.
A generation of worship songs and evangelistic crusades pounded the phrase into evangelical consciousness. Songwriters took the “relationship” lingo and began writing praise songs to Jesus instead of 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.
Where does all this put us today? I’m convinced that 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 holiness. 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, and justified by faith, we are united to Christ.
But I’m also convinced that using the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” in our witnessing efforts does not help 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 do not show 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, including Buddha.
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.
The other problem with the phrase is the way it sounds to men. When I’m witnessing to another guy, it seems weird to ask them if they want to have a relationship with Jesus. It’s not because I’m embarrassed by the concept or by the gospel. It’s because the terminology sounds, well, feminine. How many men want to talk about relationships? That’s why I think it is wise to find other phrases to get across the same message – a life of discipleship, following Christ, serving his kingdom, submitting to his lordship, etc.
What do you think?
Does “personal relationship with Jesus” still have staying power?
Will evangelicals eventually adopt other terminologies to express this important concept?
Does this phrase help or hinder your witnessing efforts?
written by Trevin Wax