Religion or relationship?

Before I proceed to deal with the old “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” saying, I want to preface it by saying this:

1.) Much of what I say is largely observational, and will be provided with anecdotal evidence. I will highlight some trends, but this discussion will be largely observational.

2.) While I find the saying itself problematic, I do want to note the good intentions and sentiment behind it. Most people who will say “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” often merely desire to show the tenderness of the Father through the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. It is true that the Father desires a real, authentic relationship with his people. The Father demonstrates his love to us poor and wretched sinners in sending his Son Jesus to die on the Cross. Highlighting this is gravely important.

I also want to preface this post with my reason for why I am writing on this saying:

It is an incredibly frustrating statement. Let me elaborate on why: I have heard the statement on more than a few occasions throughout my life growing up in the Bible Belt, i.e. the Southern United States. I do not want to be too harsh on the context I grew up in because it was there that the Lord used both my paternal grandmother and my mother to lead me to himself. They often read the Bible to me, talked about the Second Coming and how glorious it would be, and always emphasized a personal relationship with Christ. That sentiment of “relationship” is instrumental to Christians in the United States, but especially in the South. We want a relationship with Christ because it allows us to have a relationship with the Father, that we can call him Abba, and so on. These are very sweet sentiments, near and dear to my own heart since the lasting effects have marked my own Christian life. I certainly have experienced the tenderness, grace, and mercy of the Father via a personal relationship with Jesus. I do believe this is the point that the folks who say “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” want to bring out, that personal relationship with Christ. That is the outcome I think they want.

Yet, here I am, ever frustrated when I hear someone say, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Why would I be frustrated, one may ask? If what I have said is true, what is the exact problem with saying, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship”? The problem arises with the context it comes from; namely, a trendy, felt-needs based, emotion-driven Christianity. Through the remainder of the post I will develop my own frustrations through the following three points: 1.) The Context it arises from; 2.) What it actually accomplishes more often than not; 3.) The conflict between Tradition and the Contemporary.

1.) The Context.

I have no doubt many images come to mind when you see me say “trendy, felt-needs based, emotion-driven Christianity.” As far as concrete examples go, if someone like Steven Furtick or Judah Smith come to mind, or Bethel and Willow Creek come to mind then you would be on target. In those types of churches, style is everything and “feeling” the presence of God is essential. Many Evangelical churches, divorced from denominational standards or creeds, follow the Willow Creek Church model. Willow Creek Church itself was founded in the mid-1970s by Pastor Bill Hybels, long-time pastor of the church, now retired. While it may not be the first, it is definitely one of the more significant churches that made the following points:

1.) Worship ought to be entertaining. It has to be full of relevant preaching (i.e. meeting felt-needs), sensationalist worship music, drama, etc. In other words, worship is more about the experience one gets when you go to a rock concert: you’re entertained and electrified, but at least you are in church.

2.) It has to be non-denominational. I mean, who actually wants to be apart of a denomination, where you have to covenant with a larger like-minded Church in America and abroad? Who wants to subscribe to some stuffy document like the Westminster Confession of Faith? After all, it is the fault of our leaders that denominations exist. No, we need something new to keep the kids in church. Saying, “We’re non-denominational” is a way to down play the doctrinal distinctions of some Christians, while condescendingly saying, “We 20th (now, 21st) Century Christians finally got it right on how to build great big mega-churches, and keep people, especially the youth, in church.” So, many in the Evangelical world, even in those tied to denominations, began to go for this model because “It works.” Nowadays, such churches are the norm, rather than the exception, and you have to really look for old school, traditional churches that sing psalms and hymns, recite the Apostles Creed, teach the Confession of Faith to their children, and emphasize the ordinary means of grace (i.e. preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, and prayer).

Does any of this sound familiar to you in your own local church? It really all began to finally surface after the Counter Cultural movements of the 1960s and early 70s. Many forget how tumultuous those 15-20 years were in American Christianity. Many young people began throwing off the old traditions of the Faith believing it was nothing more than their parents’ faith. Seeing as how the liberalism in the Church at that time provided nothing but a hollow formalism, I can understand why young people would have wanted more in their Christian experience. Since their parents were not going to give it to them, they might as well just go and do their own thing, which is exactly what happened in most cases. When Willow Creek came on to the scene, they seemed to play to those sentiments. Hence, why, in order to seemingly distinguish from our parents’ faith, which is just an old, irrelevant form of religion, we need to emphasize relationship. This is why folks want to emphasize that Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship. Religion is inauthentic faith, relationship is authentic faith. Our parents put their trust in the Moral Majority and conservative politics, we want to put our faith in Jesus. This leads to my second point.

2.) What It Actually Accomplishes

Again, I understand the sentiment of “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Whether the principles of our faith actually lead us to support the Christian Right, or a Republican for Congress or President, or not, we ought not be content with a religion that seems to tout those things up in and of themselves; it is a mere cultural Christianity. But, in throwing off what we perceive to be our parents’ faith tradition, we are really beginning to cast off something more than that. The principles my own parents instilled in me at a young age are what I came back to in college, after a period of wandering from my roots, which I somehow attempted to try to harmonize with my new found obsession with social justice, economic justice, Democratic Socialism, and the whole nine yards. In other words, while I was frustrated and discontent with the principles and beliefs of my parents, I largely abandoned one culture for another, but one that did more damage to the Gospel of Christ.

In reality, to say “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” is quite the counter-cultural mantra. We look at our parents’ and grandparents’ Christianity in a way we believe to be a faith abused and used by conservative politicians to gain support. We now associate “conservative Evangelical religion” with any hint of formalism, conservative politics, pro-life agendas, and anti-gay marriage sentiments.

Religion is too stuffy and harsh, relationship allows us to break the chains of formalism, and allow someone to be a (politically) liberal Christian, a pro-choice Christian, and a gay-affirming Christian.

In a word, what it takes to be an Evangelical is so broadened that it seems that just about anyone can be an Evangelical. In this model, to be loving is to be inclusive, not argumentative or confrontational, and all that comes with that. This is why, at least in 2019, you can be an Evangelical while also being pro-choice or an advocate for Socialism. Christianity, then, is reduced all the way down to relationship: you can be anything you want to be, believe anything you want to believe, but so long as you have that relationship with Jesus, that is okay.

3.) Tradition v. Contemporary

I hate pitting people against each other, and I especially hate to argue. But, there are some things I will go to the mat for. Personally, I would go to the mat for the inerrancy of the Bible, the deity of Christ, the vicarious atonement, the bodily Resurrection, the Second Coming, Old School Calvinism, and the Westminster Confession of Faith and historic Presbyterianism. I find these hills worth dying on because I believe that the historic Reformed tradition allows for a real, authentic Christianity to flourish. This sort of tradition demands, dare I say, “religious formalism.”

Let me explain: in the Reformed tradition, we have a call to worship, where we recognize that we are getting to the business of worshipping the Triune God. This is, after all, man’s chief and highest end (WLC 1, WSC 1).

  • We follow the regulative principle of worship by singing psalms and hymns of preparation, adoration, etc.
  • We have a confession of sin and a pastoral prayer.
  • We make the preaching of the Word the most central component because it is through the written Word of God that we know God’s will for our lives.
  • We partake in communion and baptism because we recognize them as signifying the faith through the death of Christ and God’s faithfulness to his people, respectively.

Historic Reformed Christianity teaches and demands this sort of formalism, traditional approach because it is self-consciously aware that the only way we grow in our relationship with Christ is by using these formal elements. These formal religious elements mean more than just, “That’s what I grew up with.” No, they communicate the holiness of God, God’s love to his people by sending Christ, and that we can approach this ferociously holy God, through Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit with confidence and great joy. However, this ferociously holy God demands we approach him in the ways he has specified.

In Leviticus 10, we see Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron the High Priest, and Moses’ nephews, learn just how particular God is on worship, and what kind of judgement this receives when God is approached any old way one wishes to, which tends to be irreverent and casual. One may “feel” that this makes God too distant, too transcendent a figure, but God in holiness is, by definition, too transcendent for us. Hence, why we approach him in worship with reverence and awe, not in a casual way.

We do need a relationship with Christ, but we do need religion. We do not need religion for religions’ sake, but these formal elements, i.e. the ordinary means of grace, is what the Father has given us to grow in grace and truth.

But, this is not the mindset of many Contemporary Christians. Again, this picture of God makes him too distant, too remote to have any sort of relationship with him. No, we need a God who is close by, and worship that communicates that. Singing, “How Great Thou Art,” does not do that in the same way singing, “Reckless Love,” does. This truth for many gives us the point that when the Contemporary Christian goes to church, they aren’t seeking something eternal and permanent anymore.

People want to have an experience, a real and authentic experience. Thus, religion does not cut it, but a relationship does. In other words, and I say this with sadness, the ordinary means are simply no longer enough for many Contemporary Christians to be satisfied with what God has ordained for our own spiritual growth. They demand, what B.B. Warfield would call, a mystical Christianity. That is what seems to be behind the “relationship” in “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Therefore, anything that hints of tradition and formalism must be done away with. It is irrelevant, removed, and standoffish. But for the minister of the Gospel, this is a time to be ever more faithful to the ordinary means. God will reward faithfulness, not how trendy and popular you are.


I do not want the reader to come away from this and believe that I am saying they are not Christians. That is the last thing I want, let alone the fact I am not God and He alone knows the heart and mind. I am not even trying to suggest their desire to experience true union with God in Christ is a bad thing. To be sure, I wish more Americans were actually seeking to experience this true union.

But I am challenging their methods for achieving that experience. I am asking, what is better? Is it better to have a Christianity that plays to your emotions, leaving you wondering of your own assurance because you are not experiencing God in this super-spiritual, mystical way? Or, is it better to have a Christianity which has simple worship and serious discipleship, that leaves you spiritually filled and assured of the work of Christ done on your behalf? Are you tired of being entertained, and want something that more and that is truly better? My plea is that you really seek this in the Reformed tradition. You will be satisfied in this because it is God’s remedy for a weary soul.

Christianity is indeed about faith in Christ, which is nurtured in that personal relationship with the Father in Christ. But, there is much more to this faith than just reducing it to, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.”

Dale a religious studies and philosophy student at Appalachian State University, and hopes to enter seminary at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Dale is also a member of a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America. Dale blogs here.

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