“It’s Not a Religion; It’s a Relationship,” and Other Such Nonsense

–Daniel S. Ferguson

If you’ve never heard someone say that Christianity “isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship,” count yourself blessed.

I grew up hearing that truism almost weekly. Almost everyone I know who grew up in church has heard it just as often. It was a powerful cliché in the 90’s and 00’s, one that still permeates the way Christians think of themselves today.

I wrote an article a few weeks ago about the definition of Christianity as “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” I came down against it.

But this post isn’t about that definition. It’s about the presentation of this statement that I and others have heard our entire lives.

You see, religion as such started to get a bad name in the 70’s and 80’s, thanks to nonsense both within and outside the church. In an effort to market Christianity differently, churches started generating verbiage that tried to sound less ‘religious’ and more ‘relational’ in order to appeal to a generation increasingly interested in individualism.

That marketing made sense. It’s the same marketing Apple and Sony were doing at the time. It’s largely the same in advertising now, though there has been some shift toward “We” marketing instead of “I” marketing.

There were all sorts of changes to how Christianity marketed itself because of this trend. We started creating Bibles tailored to specific audiences. We created a newer, more individualistic approach to morality. We segregated small groups by topic and phase of life. We wrote new songs that were far more personal than congregational.

And we came up with the phrase: “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship.”

The idea was that if we made Christianity about a relationship with Jesus instead of about the formal aspects of religion, we would garner more interest. It would seem more authentic and more real to a generation crying out for a “personal relationship” with the divine. It was a grand marketing scheme.

One that didn’t work.

Here’s why.

You can’t say something isn’t what it is.

I can call my marriage a “life partnership” all I want, but it’s still a marriage. I can call my Mom by her first name for the rest of my days; she’s still my Mom. I can call a thief a “freelance wealth distribution specialist,” but he’s still a thief.

The same thing applies to Christianity.

Regardless of the spin that “it’s not a religion; it’s a relationship,” Christianity IS a religion. We can’t spin that away. (Click to Tweet)

We can talk all we want about what it means to have a relationship with Jesus (and we really should), but we can’t get around the fact that the movement Jesus created is a religion. We really can’t. The practice of our faith meets every conceivable definition.

This appears more often than you would think. I can’t even begin to count the number of sermons where I’ve heard the pastor say something like “Religion does [x], but Jesus does [y].” They always juxtapose Christ’s actions against those of the Pharisees of his day.

While those contrasts are relevant in understanding what it means to be Christian, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day aren’t the only faith that matches the definition of religion. Ours does, too. Every church I’ve met, no matter how “progressive,” still has a system of beliefs and an organizational structure of faith community. That’s religion, no matter what we say about it.

So stop it. Stop doing things like this:

Stop drawing a distinction without a difference. I don’t care how cool and different a church thinks it is, it’s still Christian, and Christianity is still a religion. (Click to Tweet)

This is more than an ontological problem. This is a spiritual problem that critics and cynics can see from a mile away. And when they see it, they RUN.

And why not? Why would anyone want to dive into something as fake and intentionally divisive as this? Why would anyone stake their time and money (much less their soul) on a truism that doesn’t even make sense?

Churches, do you really want to reach the people who are ticked off at “religion”? Be real. The statement “it’s not a religion; it’s a relationship” is exactly the kind of religious crap that turns those people off. It’s divisive; it’s cliché; and it’s fake. That’s what they (and I) hate the most.

Christians, instead of trying not to be a religion, just be what you actually are. And you are a religion. (Click to Tweet)

The biggest thing that turns people off, about religion especially, is hypocrisy. If we say we aren’t a religion but turn out to be one (which we always will do because we are one), then we become hypocrites. It takes all of 30 minutes for the average outsider to figure that out.

So I suggest a re-brand. Instead of “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship,” try this: “Christianity is a religion ABOUT a relationship.” (Click to Tweet)

That has a lot more Biblical weight to it, with the added bonus of it actually being true.

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