“Well, that’s your truth”.
“This is what the Bible means to me”.
“I do not need to go to a church. I know Jesus and I don’t need a church to have a relationship with Jesus.”
Each of the above statements has been frequently lamented in today’s evangelical church. We are not only waging a cultural battle of relativism but also we are finding ourselves having to combat the “in-house” skirmish of Bible-study subjectivism. Is it possible that these errors are actually the rancid fruit of an overemphasis on a biblical truth?
Consider this from Michael Horton:
According to the well-known “secularization theory” of Max Weber, religion—under the conditions of modernity—goes through various stages. First, religion is privatized, its domain shrunk to the island of private subjectivity. Statements such as “Jesus is alive” and “Jesus is Lord” are no longer regarded as objective, public claims based on historical events but become references to one’s personal experience. As for “Jesus is alive”, in the words of the famous gospel song, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” And typically “Jesus is Lord” refers to my personal decision to make Jesus my Lord and Savior…Once privatized, religion becomes relativized. No longer truth, its your truth. Since religious beliefs are no longer claims about public events, they can only be justified now in terms of what each individual finds meaningful, useful, and transformative. (Horton, Christless Christianity, 50)
A “personal relationship” with Jesus is only one step away from a relativistic relationship with a Jesus of our own imagination. Who are you to tell me about my relationship with my Jesus?
Living in an iJesus culture
We live in a world of personalization. If you don’t like the music playing on the overhead speakers at the grocery store you can pop in your earbuds and listen to whatever you want. If you don’t like what is on the television stations you can turn it to On Demand, Netflix, your DVR, or any other streaming service and pick your own shows. Burger King tells you that you can “have it your way”. We live in an iEverything culture.
The church is not immune to this. Why do you think we have “cowboy church”, early services with contemporary worship, late services for traditional worship, church plants that attract twenty-somethings, small groups for parents with kids that have spiky hair and like to wear the color green? We have those because we have created an iJesus culture within the church. We all have a “personal relationship” with Jesus and we like to hang out with the people whose personal Jesus looks an awful lot like our own.
Unfortunately for iChurch, the New Testament does not emphasize the “me” as much as the “us”. Seldom in Scripture will you see a "personal relationship with Jesus” the emphasis. Now don’t get me wrong every person must believe on his/her own. You can’t live on borrowed faith. But you can’t live out that “personal relationship”—that is very real and very personal—outside of the context of an also very real community of blood-bought believers.
Life in a Different Setting
The emphasis on a “personal relationship” over and against a religion comes from a cultural context that has long been dead in most of America. Religion (even Protestant religion) was once an assumed fact in our culture. You can even go as far back as 1600s England and find a culture of assumed faith.
In a different setting where faith is assumed an emphasis on a personal relationship might be necessary. And it is an important truth. It is amazing that Jesus really loves me. Individually. Personally. It is true that all believers have a personal relationship with Jesus. I do not want to ever lose that truth.
But we live in a culture where individualism and the “personal” is an assumed truth. In our culture it is more beneficial to emphasize the offensive claims of a Christ-centered meta-narrative. In other words “Jesus is Lord over all” and not simply “Jesus is Lord of my life”. Both are true, but one of those truths gets muddied up by our cultural context and will not cause people to ask the necessary questions to walk in that vibrant personal relationship that they are claiming to have.
Therefore, I do not often emphasize having a personal relationship with Jesus. I urge people to personally respond in repentance and faith but not to an individualistic Jesus. I urge people to personally respond in repentance and faith to the Jesus that is bent on cosmic reconciliation…to a Jesus that draws out and binds together really diverse people into one fellowship and calls them the church.