Why we call it “a personal relationship with Jesus”

Why we call it “a personal relationship with Jesus” July 10, 2013


Holding hands with Jesus
photo – iStockPhoto.com

If you’ve attended an Evangelical church lately, you’ve probably been invited to enter into “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

That phrase, “personal relationship with Jesus” has become the number one metaphor modern Evangelicals use to describe their faith. They use it to draw a contrast between a living faith (personal relationship) and a dead one (going through religious motions).

What I find interesting is that Evangelicals, who pride themselves on hewing closely to the Bible, have chosen to encapsulate their faith with a phrase that never appears in scripture. Nowhere in the sixty-six books of the canon are the faithful called to enter into a personal relationship with God or Jesus.

Admittedly, there are a number of passages where a relationship is implied, including many in the Gospel of John. A healthy walk with God is in some ways analogous to a relationship. I believe God is personally involved in my life and he cares for me.

However, it’s ironic that we who believe so fervently in the sufficiency of scripture regularly go beyond it when we describe our faith.

Why does this matter? As I’ve pointed out in Why Men Hate Going to Church:

…despite its extrabiblical roots, personal relationship with Jesus Christ has become the number one term Evangelicals use to describe the Christian walk. Why? Because it frames the gospel in terms of a woman’s deepest desire—a personal relationship with a man who loves her unconditionally. It’s imagery that delights women—and baffles men.

Women are obsessed with relationships. They watch movies and read books about relationships. Women’s magazines are all about relationships: Who is Kim dating now? Did Brad and Angelina have a fight? Do William and Kate really love each other? On a personal level, when a woman’s relationships are happy, she is happy.

Men on the other hand, are obsessed with mission. They watch movies and read books about a hero who goes on a dangerous mission: Spider Man, Batman, Superman, Iron Man, James Bond, Jason Bourne – the list of heroes and their missions is long. On a personal level, men are happiest when they’re on a mission, and that mission is going well.

Don’t misunderstand – men also enjoy good relationships, but they are often a secondary concern. And women enjoy mission – but mission is rarely foundational to their sense of well-being (Leaning in, notwithstanding).

Now to my point: whenever we speak of the gospel as a relationship, we’re using the native language of women. When we use romantic imagery to describe our faith (intimacy with God, falling in love with Jesus, a passionate relationship with Christ) we further alienate men. Imagine the mental gymnastics that must take place inside a man’s head as he imagines himself becoming intimate with a long-haired, bearded man wearing a robe.

For years I’ve been curious about this little phrase. If it’s not in the Bible, where did it come from? When was it first used? I never knew until I stumbled across a fascinating new tool from Google called Ngram Viewer. Type in any phrase and Google will search its vast library of books for references to that phrase. Best of all, it organizes the references by date, so you can see when a saying came into popular use.

I typed in “personal relationship with Jesus” and got the following graph (click on the graph to see it full size):

According to Google, the phrase was never used until the late Victorian era, and then only sparingly. Here’s the first known reference to the phrase in Google’s book collection, a book titled Rest By The Way, written by Caroline M. Hallett in 1881:

Interestingly, the phrase becomes briefly popular in the late 1910s and during the early 1940s, during America’s World Wars (while the men were off fighting, the women were at home having a personal relationship with Jesus).

The phrase falls out of use during the postwar years. Hardly anyone was referring to the Gospel as a personal relationship in the late 50s and early ‘60s, and these were the golden age of church attendance. Men’s participation rates were never higher.

But toward the end of the 1960s men began to drift away from the church, and the tendency to refer to the Gospel as a relationship began growing exponentially (click on the graph to expand):

1970 - present

This was the growth era of the evangelical subculture and its focus on female consumers. Christian books, music and media outlets proliferated, all heavily dependent on women buyers and viewers. Savvy authors and preachers realized this and began using female-friendly metaphors in their books and sermons. Chief among these: a personal relationship with Jesus.

But the unintended consequence of this shift has been to alienate some men – particularly young men, who do not think relationally. It takes men’s eyes off the dangerous mission Christ gave us.

This phenomenon has gone largely unnoticed because the men who manage our churches tend to be relational types. These men have a hard time understanding how a guy might be confused by the idea of faith as a relationship.

Furthermore, describing our faith as a relationship may be contributing to the widespread immaturity among today’s churchgoers. Relationships rise and fall based on feeling and sentiment, but mission is about achievement and purpose. Relationships are about being – missions are about doing. The very word “relationship” implies a certain equality that can cause men to revere and fear God less.

So how about you? Have you used the phrase, “Personal Relationship with Jesus” when sharing your faith with men? When preaching or teaching? How have the guys reacted? Comments are open.

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  • Herman Grobler

    This is a most interesting post, opening my eyes to something I struggled with for a long time. Thank you.
    In order not to be in a bad relationship with my wife, I accepted the idea of having a “personal relationship” with Jesus, but always felt uneasy. On the other hand I needed some way to describe the personal reverence and personal open contact I had with Jesus, more as a Teacher, or older brother. For this I do not yet have an answer, but at least I understand my unease!
    God bless,
    Herman of bibledifferences.net

  • Jeff

    I’d be interested to see the results of similar but different search terms. For example, instead of “personal relationship with jesus” how about “relationship with jesus” (drop the personal and see if it makes a difference) or “relationship with christ”.

    • Go to Google Ngram viewer and research it. Let us know what you find.

  • Tom Hilpert

    Your posts are usually very thought provoking, and I appreciate that.I do see your main point, but perhaps you are looking this a little lopsided.

    You provoked two thoughts for me:

    First, Jesus DOES call his followers to personal relationship with him, many, many times through the gospels. The phrase “follow me” was not uttered metaphorically. He actually asked people to leave their homes and families, and make Him the center of their lives, relationally. He invited his disciples, over and over again, to travel with him, eat with him and learn from him, personally.

    Jesus didn’t say “If you don’t accomplish my mission you are not worthy of me.” No. What he actually said was, “if you don’t *love* me more than your family, you aren’t worthy of me.” Whether or not the exact phrase was used, personal interaction with Jesus is at the heart of his message, the heart of how he dealt with his disciples.

    Second,you wrote: “Relationships are about being – missions are about doing.” Exactly. And the heart of the gospel is that our *doing* is not enough. Jesus said people would *do* all sort of miracles and good works in his name, and he would say “But you never *knew* me.” He said “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.” The Way is a person. You come to the Father by a person, not by a mission. How do you “have” a person? How do you “have” Jesus? Through a faith-based relationship. The New Testament always calls us to trust first, and to let our action flow out of that trust.

    I hear your main point, David, I do. I agree with you that we have made it unduly difficult for men to feel at home in most churches. Just be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Relationship with Jesus is not bath water.

    • Thanks Tom. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written – but the emphasis must remain on mission if we’re to involve men.

    • kat_xk8

      Yes people who knew him here on earth while he was could be in one . We aren’t in those times are we ? Um no

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I’m Catholic, and this mirrors the time after Vatican II that I was growing up, and CCD Class became “Jesus loves you, Jesus was nice, you should be nice too” with NONE of the higher theology.

    Today, out of my friends that were Catholic and in my first communion class in 1978, 3 out of 20 are still Christian at all.

  • kat_xk8

    The phrase ” personal relationship with Jesus ” has screwed me up much of my life as I know there is no such thing . Jesus died for me and rose for me but we aren’t in a relationship let alone friendship . I can’t handle metaphors well . Glad to have found this article

  • Jon MacDonald

    This is a great and very thoughtful post, especially in deconstructing the phrase ‘personal relationship w/God.” It’s not just that that particular phrase isn’t found is Scripture, but that it feeds our Western individualism, which is obviously opposed to the Gospel. It shouldn’t appeal to men or women. I strongly doubt that there are very many women in our churches who are there b/c a call to a ‘personal relationship w/Jesus’ resonated deep in their hearts.

    I feel this post reinforces negative gender stereotypes. Especially of men. Men die w/o life-giving relationships, and women need a purpose to their lives beyond having someone to share a chai latte with. I guess my discomfort is in separating mission from relationships, as if they were mutually exclusive. As a pastor, a man who says, “Pastor, just tell me what to do & I’ll do it” is probably hiding from his responsibility to his family, friends, and work. A call to follow Jesus is an invitation to know the father and to join a community (see John 14).

    If a woman has The Notebook on a loop on her TV, and a man has Die Hard, ought we not challenge both?