What is relational Christianity?

What is relational Christianity? June 2, 2014

When I was just four I became a part of a family of churches that was subsequently called Newfrontiers. Terry Virgo was the founder of that group. One of our rallying calls was a call to “relational Christianity.” This call is as relevant now as it has ever been. A few days ago Terry posted a couple of tweets about this:



I immediately knew what he meant. But it struck me suddenly how this concept is something that I am in danger of taking for granted. It’s also something that is open for misunderstanding, and even for misapplication. So, I have started a stream of tweets about it. I’d love for you to suggest further additions in the comments section or on Twitter.

Here are my bite-size comments on relational Christianity:

  • You know you are experiencing relational Christianity when the “business” meeting isn’t just called a family meeting, but it FEELS like one.
  • Relational Christianity means that you have real friends at church even if you are one of the pastors. It values people over programmes.
  • Relational Christianity is not being a cosy pastoral group patting each other on the back, but a prophetic people prodding each other onward!
  • Relational Christianity means that pastors don’t feel they are alone at the top of a pyramid, but have people they can be really honest with.
  • Relational Christianity is not so much about applying to join a movement/ denomination but rather about joining hands in brotherly partnership with friends around the globe.
  • Relational Christianity is simply biblical Christianity where we follow the great commands to really love God and love each other.
  • Relational Christianity: involves fulfilling the Great Commission TOGETHER with others not building the empire of a denomination or group.
  • Relational Christianity means that you have church friends you could ring at 2am in an emergency and they’d take your call, and get up to help
  • Relational Christianity recognises that although creeds and statements of faith may have a place, godly & gifted PEOPLE ensure Church purity
  • Relational Christianity: I will never forget collapsing in a lecture, rushed to hospital, brain scan, then my pastor @colingeorge45 visited (a number of years ago).
  • Solo Christianity like solo sex is ultimately unsatisfying. We were built for authentic relationship, not business-like companionship.
  • Relational Christianity forms churches that love a pastor too much to bleed him dry, burn him out, and spit him out. They ALL learn to pastor.
  • Relational Christianity: If a member of “your” church will clearly be better served by a different church then you should encourage them to go in peace.
  • Relational Christianity would never dare to hate ANY part of the Church: the bride for which our Lord Jesus died to save and be betrothed to.
  • Relational Christianity is based on an exclusive relationship with the One who saved and loved us, but it leads to an inclusive love for ALL


See Also

  • Relational Christianity: If a church must part with a member of the pastoral team, it will be over-generous remembering the sacrifices that have been made.
  • Relational Christianity is about people not processes, trust not contracts, friendship not leadership, organic structure not org charts.
  • Relational Christianity is about forging a community, and allowing it to flourish not using business principles more astutely than others.
  • Relational Christianity does not see the other churches in your city as rivals, but as allies fighting in the same army against the same enemy.
  • Relational Christianity does NOT have to be small minded. It loves everybody and so wants them all to be saved. Growth is not bad!
  • Relational Christianity uses the language of the family not business. Father, son, beloved, brother, imitate vs boss, employee, client, obey.
  • Relational Christianity builds communities where grace is lived out and embodied not merely studied as a doctrine.
  • Relational Christianity doesn’t exist if before the service everyone sits in silent reverence, are passive during and after they all rush straight home
  • Relational Christianity: God designed us to need each other if we want to be sanctified E.G. marriage helps us realise we’re still selfish.
  • Relational Christianity gives honour to other Christians because we realise that only TOGETHER can we all reflect God’s multifaceted glory.
  • Relational Christianity is more interested in forging a culture and transmitting it to others than writing standard operating procedures.
  • Relational Christianity is sacred. The church corporately embodies the experience of the Trinity who eternally relate.
  • Relational Christianity probably doesn’t exist in your church if none ever eats meals with each other. Jesus ate a LOT of meals with people.
  • Relational Christianity is not friendships based on common interests but fellowship with a common Lord causing fellowship with each other.
  • No matter how good your church service, relational Christianity can never happen in 1 to 2 hours of passivity on a Sunday and nothing else.
  • The truth is the Work of the Spirit is required to forge the kind of relationships required in relational Christianity: supernatural bonding.
  • Many Christians know the joy of hearts being knit together in an instant as Jonathan and David were and friendships that survive separation over great distances and time.
  • Relational Christianity: Something is seriously wrong with your church if it contains only people you’d naturally have chosen to be with.
  • I would challenge anyone to show me how pursuing the “homogenous unit principle” and not diversity is compatible with relational Christianity.
  • An ideal local church reflects the make up of its local population in terms of race, gender, and socioeconomic status as God loves everyone.
  • If your church is not attracting local people of a certain race, gender, or socioeconomic group ask, “How are we we putting them off?”
  • If your town is 99% one racial group don’t beat yourself up if your church reflects that. But do seek ways to specifically love the 1%.
  • Relational Christianity is about being “brothers in arms,” together on a mission, not a social club together for the sake of being together.
  • Relational Christianity is really simply about loving God first and therefore loving your neighbour who is made in God’s image.
  • Relational Christianity: because of love the prophetic will always trump the pragmatic and the pastoral will always trump professionalism
  • Church should be God aware first and foremost so they may not seem “seeker friendly” but they must be “seeker aware” & not “seeker hostile!”
  • Relational Christianity: There should be no conflict between the missional purpose and the pastoral because our task IS the people


One of the delights of my life is being part of Jubilee Church that is seeking to embody these ideas.  We are an international family together for a purpose. And we have a lot of fun along the way.  This was well demonstrated in our recent International Day. I will close this post by embedding a video from that day, and you can see more here and here.

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  • I agree that relationships being primary is how church ought to be, but in a fallen world with sinful people, there’s also a need for structure, procedures, clear lines of accountability, and so on, as a safety net when things go wrong.

    I’ve come across several stories of people being hurt in newer church movements in particular such as New Frontiers in part because of the very informal structure. In the case of disagreements and church discipline, the lack of structure and “due process” means that if relationships break down, there’s nothing else left to help restore them and it just dissolves in bitterness.

    So churches should be relationship-led rather than structure-led, but formal structures can and should be used to protect relationships, especially in situations where relationships are threatened by sin and disagreement.

    • I don’t disagree that structure is also needed for sure. Having said that formal structures may equally tend to exacerbate bitterness not reduce it. I have also come to realise that some relationships like Paul and Barnabas have to split for God’s purposes to be fulfilled.

    • Jeff Featherstone

      Caleb, Absolutely it is important that issues are handled well when difficulties arise but Jesus set out the approach to deal with that and its interesting that what he set out is based on relationship-if your have an issue with someone talk to them, if they won’t listen, bring a couple of friends. If they still won’t listen, bring it to the wider church. Now, clearly sometimes it is a leader, or leaders, who the issue is with and I recognise that makes it more complex but I think it is important that the same principles apply. If necessary, the friends involved can be Christians from outside your own church. If it’s an issue that can’t be resolved with leaders, then involving friends from outside the church who are trusted and respected by both yourself and the leaders can be a way forward.

      The key issue is keeping it based on relationship. It musn’t be based on relationship until difficulties come, and then rely on process. When difficulties come,it’s relationship that is the bedrock that will get everyone through.

  • Peter

    The only local church I know that has split up with bitterness is a Newfrontiers one, which happened comparatively recently. The more formal traditional churches seem to be more stable and have better relationships between churches, but maybe they are more humble and understated about their ‘relationships.’

    • Lets not get into talking about specific cases. But I assure you the sad truth is that church history is littered with church splits right back to Barnabas and Paul, and it really doesn’t seem to make much difference what structure you are. There were plenty of traditional churches that ejected many of their young people in the 60s and 70s, without which there probably would never have been a Newfrontiers. In any family there are painful times. But, like Barnabas and Paul (and John Mark) it is important that with the passage of time personal (tho not necessarily organisational) reconciliation be sought for the sake of unity. Sometimes division is inevitable. It can even be turned around for good.

    • Peter, I have deleted your follow up comment because I believe it violated my blog comment policy (See in particular the second bullet point). I do not want to turn this blog comment section into an opportunity for people to rehash painful and tragic church splits. I have tried to be consistent in the application of this point.


  • Peter

    Adrian, Sorry I violated your blog comment policy. I was really making the point again that there is no real association between the amount of formal structure in a church and the likelihood that there will be good relationships in the church and it could go in the opposite direction from your claim. I was saying that the relationships notion can be overblown and there is a danger that it can fool people into not realising that there can be hidden hierarchies and power struggles/ manipulation going on in churches, that become apparent when things go wrong and then people can get very hurt because they thought they were ‘in a relationship.’ The lack of structure can be the cause of bitterness because there is no formal mechanism for sorting things out when relationships break down. Also the concept of ‘relationship’ as you portray it can potentially give the confusing message that people in churches with structures do not have ‘relationships’ with each other. When people get disillusioned, say with a Newfrontiers church, they have nowhere else to go because they have been convinced that they are not going to get true fellowship elsewhere.

    I was trying to make this concrete by relating to a specific example involving an acrimonious split in our local Newfrontiers church, but I realise you don’t want discussed on your blog and I respect your wishes here.

    You give the positive example of your church in your post, so permit me to provide a positive example of my own church. Disagreements arose over the way forward for the church and these were in danger of creating a negative split. But some formal processes kicked into place (which included meetings and a certain amount of democratic process – yes – voting) and helped keep things on an even keel until the matter has eventually been resolved. In my view this would not have happened if the church only had ‘relationships’ to fall back on, as you characterise them.I suspect churches such as Newfrontiers have less checks and balances and are actually more vulnerable in this regard.

    By the way, in a previous post you mention you are a baptist and in this post you mention you were from age four in ‘Newfrontiers.’ Of course the baptist church is more than just baptism (e.g. priesthood of all believers; democratic processes) so I am wondering how this all works for you?

    • Hi, thanks for keeping away from the specifics. I think that one thing that is important in any church is that nobody gets the idea that is the only good church.

      I think that human nature is such that whatever structures (or lack thereof!) we create that there is always going to be a danger of splits, and negativity. I’m not altogether sure that it is possible to determine which church structure is the most healthy, not without a large prospective trial. Of course, we would also have to take account of all kinds of conflicting variables, so that for example if there was more division seen in a particular type of church then we’d have to check to see if that kind of church somehow attracted more divisive people, or had a tendency to be lead by less effective leaders, for example….

      Ecclesiology is something that is rarely properly examined. Most of us simply structure our churches the way we have always done so (and I include those of us in Newfrontiers too, as I fear we sometimes don’t really grasp why we do what we do).

      We also all have a tendency to marvel that others could structure churches any other way. So for example the Anglican probably can’t imagine how churches can survive without bishops, and the congregationalist probably believes elder-led churches are always oppressive.

      There is no doubt to me that some people are more suited to a particular type of ecclesiology. And so they should consider that in their choice of church. And until we all grow to unity on a particular position (or the Lord returns) then we are likely to continue having a choice of church in most towns.

      I happen to believe we should each search the Bible for what we believe is the most biblical structure. No doubt we will disagree on what that is, and in my view there is nothing wrong with that disagreement, nor in the fact that we separate and organise around certain views on these and other issues. It is important that we do not vilify others from other traditions, however. And, that is why I mentioned several points above including the following three:

      “Relational Christianity does not see the other churches in your city as rivals, but as allies fighting in the same army against the same enemy.”

      Relational Christianity: If a member of “your” church will clearly be better served by a different church then you should encourage them to go in peace.

      Relational Christianity would never dare to hate ANY part of the Church: the bride for which our Lord Jesus died to save and be betrothed to.


      Now, interestingly to me, I don’t think that ANY of the points I made above are in any way incompatible with churches that could be seen as having a less leadership defined structure (i.e. congregational votes etc) nor in those which have a clearer hierarchy outside of the local church (i.e true Episcopalian structures).

      Arguably the Newfrontiers structure is similar to many other evangelical models in that each church is officially independent (as far as I know you will never find Newfrontiers named in church deeds for example) and yet there is a voluntary association which brings in a form of outside authority at the invitation of the local church leadership team. Can it get messy sometimes? Yep. But when it works well, it can combine good features from systems that are on different ends of a spectrum to it.

      This is turning into a LONG comment, sorry….

      But you also asked how I can call myself baptist and Newfrontiers. Well, Newfrontiers is in many ways best seen as a baptist movement. It has always been clear that any group that wanted to join Newfrontiers would have to exclusively practice believers baptism. My recent dialogues with the Baptist Union showed me (and I checked their statement of faith) that really there is nothing that we would not hold to. In fact, a little known fact is that many Newfrontiers churches (especially in the early days) were actually Baptist Union churches. Some remain in the BU as well as Newfrontiers, including the one we got married in and were members of at the time: http://www.baptist.org.uk/Groups/221161/The_Baptist_Union/Church_Finder/Church_Finder.aspx?location=bermondsey

      So our marriage certificate says we were married according to the rites and ceremonies of the Baptists.

      Most people who joined Newfrontiers in the early days had baptist roots, or in some cases Brethren (who are of course also in a sense baptists). The value of the priesthood of all believers runs very deep in Newfrontiers. We do not tend to have votes, I do accept, but most well led churches will be led in such a way that the people feel very happy to follow the prophetic direction of the church. As I say, to the outsider sometimes Newfrontiers is hard to fathom as we value both strong anointed leadership being alowed to lead, and also ensuring that the whole church feels caught up on a mission together and plays their part.

  • Peter

    Adrian – a long an interesting reply. We seem to be agreeing now on the main points. A few remaining ones:

    You mention my rejected post as being in the direction of turning ‘into an opportunity for people to rehash painful and tragic church splits’ (you didn’t actually say I was doing it but you hinted at it – your writing style often uses this type of insinuating hyperbolic language, which can be difficult to interpret – this is not a criticism but it’s how it is). In my comments I didn’t do this – readers who cannot now read my comments should be reassured that I said approximately what has been said in accepted comments concerning Newfrontiers, but in relation to a specific church, not revealing the identity of this church. I, like you Adrian, I think it is important not to brush things under the carpet and my tone was essentially no different from your comments or the style you use (e.g. in this post you write ‘there were plenty of traditional churches that ejected many of their young people in the 60s and 70s’ – which if read literally doesn’t pull any punches). Again I suspect we are in agreement here, in that too much caution and ‘sanitising’ accounts of church life is not helpful, and creates unrealistic expections for people joining churches or being in them. Perhaps we should have classes for people when they become Christians concerning how to cope with church disappointments and conflict – it might save people from going out the exit door from Christianity.

    Regarding being Newfrontiers and a Baptist, again I found this very interesting. I suppose I have limited experience, having only been in one Newfrontiers Church and had a long time in several Baptist Churches. I have listened to national Newfrontiers church leaders expressed their distain about Baptists having meetings that made decisions through voting (e.g. electing elders), making it clear they didn’t think it was biblical. For example, I heard John Hosier say ‘people who want democracy in a church want to do things their way’ (by implication they were being individualistic and selfish). I heard Terry Virgo express something similar. I always thought John Hosier was a sort of theological engine room of Newfrontiers, so hence my impression gained that the Baptist Church value placed on using democratic voting was not generally accepted by Newfrontiers – although I know some churches use voting (some admit to membership people who have had infant baptism, so I saw this as exceptions to the rule). Of course I understand the theology behind the Newfrontiers approach to decision making, linked to charismatic theology.

    The second main thing that struck me was the Calvinistic theology which is very strong in Newfrontiers, including Terry Virgo’s viewpoint on this matter. I found it initially odd that because the original leaders of Newfrontiers were Calvinists, it then followed that all the other leaders appeared to have this viewpoint in a church that was presenting itself as being non ‘rule bound.’ But perhaps I was forgetting that like any other denomination, Newfrontiers signs up to particular theological positions stemming from it’s routes (sorry I know Newfrontiers don’t really like this term because of the connotations, but I am using the strict dictionary definition). Most Baptists I have come across are Arminian and there is quite a striking difference in outlook as a consequence. People tend to believe what they are taught and are used to but then get hot under their collar about their beliefs.

    Finally, I have found leaders in Newfrontiers churches generally to be less tolerant of other churches – I used to experience this when I was attending a Newfrontiers church and the leaders would fairly frequently make disparaging remarks about other churches, including Baptist ones (I am not going to mention any of these because of your policy, but some were quite damming). This initially concerned me (because it kept happening) until I came to realise that many Newfrontiers leaders had come out of other churches through disillusionment and this meant they had developed a narrative that included an ‘us versus the disappointing them’ narrative. (I detected this in your comments about ejection of young people in the 1960s and 1970 – my narrative is a little different – groups of people wanted change but found they weren’t empowered to create change so decided to leave to achieve what they wanted i.e. disagreement). I then became a little more sympathetic when the rubbishing (not rational criticism) occurred, even if my church heritage was being rubbished.

    I worry about this because the Newfrontiers churches tend to have a quite a high turnover and it concerns me that people who come into Newfrontiers and get disillusioned with their particular church (it doesn’t suit them) then feel they have no where to turn to if they have been drip fed negativity about other churches. I am essentially with you on this one, in the sense that not all types of churches suit all people (but note Terry Virgo doesn’t have this viewpoint if you read his books).

    In the Baptist churches I have attended the leaders don’t seem to pass judgement on other churches, or at least not in public . I suspect this might be radically different in other parts of the world relating to Baptist churches and I am only speaking regarding my experience over the last 30 years.

    Having said all this, locally, there are now some good initiatives between the Newfrontiers churches and other ones.

    So thanks for taking the trouble to reply and I appreciate the time you have taken to do so and I hope this post will lead to greater understanding.

    • Just to be clear, I did not think that your comment alone did “rehash painful and tragic church splits” I was just concerned it opened the door to that possibility, as it did at least mention a specific case. I think the Apostle Paul was sometimes a bit hyperbolic, so perhaps I am in good company if your interpretation of my language is correct!

      I appreciate you trying not to implicate specifics. I have seen in various different churches some antagonism or negativity towards outsiders. It is far from unique to Newfrontiers. It is always an ugly thing wherever it is found. The whole church is the bride of Christ.

      And, I still believe in the restoration of The Church, i.e. that we should all be campaigning to help both our local church and the whole church become more like God intended. What I now am very much more clear about than when I was younger is that I am sure I do not have all the right answers, nor a monopoly on the truth. I believe that God has designed things so that there are things that we can all learn from each other.

      Now to be clear, I personally believe that I am in the church I am in not just because of my personality, or my preference. I am here because I believe it is where God has placed me, and I believe in the values, the doctrine, and yes, the church structure are biblical. BUT I am aware that not everyone would agree. I am aware that there are godly men and women who take the bible seriously that would disagree.

      Those people are better off being in a church where they agree on those secondary issues. I think that Terry would agree that examining our assumptions about how churches should be structured is important when we are considering which church to join. As an example, anyone who is used to regular and repeated votes driving the decision making process and believes that is the best most biblical way to lead a church are perhaps unlikely to find a comfortable home in the average Newfrontiers church, unless of course they first see how it works and decide that what they see seems to be working just fine.

      There are definitely other calvinist baptists…Al Mohler springs to mind.

      I actually don’t think that Newfrontiers is a denomination per se. The oxford dictionary defines it as “A recognized autonomous branch of the Christian Church” I think that in common with most evangelical groups the amount of interplay between Newfrontiers and others means that it probably doesn’t really stand on its own feet as it were (we have no seminary for example, and so rely heavily on outside theologians). By the same token, you could easily argue that each individual church in Newfrontiers is autonomous, does that mean they are all denominations? Many churches outside of Newfrontiers share our dislike for the word denomination and call them selves non-denominational,

      The Free Dictionary defines denomination as follows “A large group of religious congregations united under a common faith and name and organized under a single administrative and legal hierarchy.” And we are definitely not that.

      And Miriam Webster says “a religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices” Note the idea that the congregations in some sense belong to the denomination. Churches in Newfrontiers do not have any legal ties to a head office.

      So to summarise, we should see the WHOLE church as Christ’s Church. We should think and speak the best of each other. But we can and SHOULD come to a view about how we think church should be structured and what we believe. This fixity of belief does not give us an excuse to denigrate others who may see things differently. If we would all remember that, coupled with the fact that sometimes we do just have to leave a church and move on, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, then a world of pain could be avoided.

  • Peter

    Adrian – interesting points made and I am quite surprised how we seem to be agreeing so much! Views on churches and theological preferences in my view so much derives from experience, even though we pride ourselves on being rational. So perhaps it is all down to relationships as you started your post explaining. But then again, you cannot ignore ideology and structure, implicit or otherwise. Finally, I realise that if you want to wind up a Newfrontiers person, tell them they are in a denomination – apologies!

    • I’ve even seen some of us “accidentally” misspell it “demonination” 😉 Thanks for the chat.