It’s Not About Religion … It’s About (a really crappy) Relationship

Hope that’s not too crass.

For the past 15-20 years, there’s been a very popular catch phrase amidst my faith tribe:

“It’s’ not about religion; it’s all about relationship.”

(Meaning relationship with Jesus.)

So people say things like, “Well I used to go to a church but it was all about religion and not about relationship, so I left it and now I go someplace else.”

We create sermon/teaching series called, “The End of Religion.”

Mostly, that’s great: we want people to know this Jesus, and to be “in relationship” with him.

But I think there’s another dynamic at work.

At some point, I think what people mean by “all about religion” is that a church is demanding behavior from people. Externalities.

And yes: this is not a great thing.

But what troubles me is how people then try to define “relationship.”

Occasionally, I ask people who are “all about the relationship” how they work on their spiritual lives. What I hear is…

  • “Well, my spiritual life isn’t so great…”
  • “I really don’t have time to pray/read my Bible/meditate…”
  • “I pray when I think about it… (which isn’t often)”

In the end, I’m left wondering if people left churches that were “just about religion” just because they didn’t like being told what to do.

To put it another way, religion is not—in and of itself—a bad thing.

In fact, what if we actually need “religion” of some sort to lead us to “the relationship”?

I need the “religion” of communication to maintain the relationship with my wife. I need the “religion” of coffee with friends to cement and deepen connections with them. I need the “religion” of hearing stories about my childhood from my parents to remind me of who I am at my best and most innocent.

What if it’s not so much a matter of “religion v relationship” as it is “good religion that leads to relationship v bad religion that leads nowhere”?

What religion does at its best is to help lead us to the relationship, and then frame that relationship in the most fully-formed beautiful way. It’s easy to just throw the frame away, but it does no good to substitute a “relationship” that you think makes no demands on your time, your self, your thoughts, your attitudes.

That’s not love.


7 thoughts on “It’s Not About Religion … It’s About (a really crappy) Relationship

  1. Thank you for putting words to this. It always rubs me the wrong way when I hear people of faith putting down “religion”. Bashing “religion” has become so popular. It may be well intentioned (aimed at helping people to not be driven by the Law, but motivated by a loving relationship), but it’s a confusing message to the watching world. Maybe instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, people of faith could stop bashing religion and begin to follow Jesus in greater and bolder ways. 🙂 When I hear the religion bashing, it seems to be aimed squarely at legalism and various church traditions that probably aught to admit that they’re not helping to reach people anymore. When the laws and rules we came up with to reach people… stop reaching people… it’s time to change them up. “Religion” doesn’t like change very much, but true religion is NOT an enemy to change or to the life of a church, or to our relationship with Jesus. I believe legalism and adhering to ineffective traditions is.

    • Great thoughts, Ed … I was just thinking that Jesus was an INCREDIBLY religious person… he went to Temple, prayed (ALL NIGHT! BAM!). I think “religion” is actually a backdrop of the Gospels … it’s assumed. But we’ve forgotten how to translate it thoughtfully and compassionately to our culture.

  2. Good stuff, Eric. From my POV, I believe that people bash religion because religion by itself is empty. Religion can be the container for relationships and relating, like how faith without works is empty (dead). When religion tries to replace relating, instead of facilitating relating, then I think this is why people buck against it. I believe It’s a healthy impulse, to reject a container trying to be the actual stuff it holds. But you’re right–religion itself isn’t bad. It’s how it’s used. We also have to think about and remember how religion has been used throughout time, for both uniting and dividing. And lots of people remember and have experienced how it’s used to divide.

    Finally, when I think of religion, too, I think of rites, and how those too, can end up being empty when the relationship part is missing. Communal remembrance, celebration, and sorrow–all of these can facilitate relationships. It’s really interesting to think about this in a very individualistic, Western concept, where relating is already somewhat challenging, and that’s putting it mildly. Maybe religion could be a way to “fake it to make it somehow,” (e.g. being in a worship space will usually conjure it some sort of emotional resonance and, heck, spiritual response from me) but there’s a lot of historical baggage that needs to be checked, opened, and explored.

    Relationship status with religion: It’s complicated.

  3. As for the church gathering it is a religious activity of teaching and worship. Outside the gathering, living out our faith in relationship with God and others as the Body of Christ is the Church. Church services are a valuable tool helpful in many ways. As for Salvation it is all about a awesome LOVE and a relationship were we walk with God the Father in Christ, with obedient love. The religion is the loving obedience to His word, that is all about God teaching us to walk with Him as he fills us with His Spirit, and transforms our character into the likeness of Christ. I have tried to limit any form of religious activity to following God’s word and the instruction in it, such as,
    Exodus 20 The Ten Commandments
    And Proverbs 3: 5-7 Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil.
    And 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.
    And Hebrews 10:25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
    Thank you Eric, you have brought newness to these verses of God’s Holy word.
    Love and Thanks, Monte S.

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