It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship?

It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship? January 13, 2012

When I was growing up, and people asked about my religion, I would parrot the phrase I’d heard from countless well-meaning pastors, Sunday school teachers, and friends. You know the one…

“It’s not a religion. It’s a relationship.”

Then, there’s the viral video that’s been going around lately. I’m sure you’ve seen it making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, and the Blogosphere:

“Why I hate religion, but love Jesus.”

(side note: for an excellent response to this video, check out Elizabeth Esther’s blog!)

I know what those phrases are trying to imply, and, to some extent, I agree with the spirit fueling them. Religion carries a highly negative connotation in our culture. Rather than wrestling with the definition of religion and working to change these negative connotations, it’s easier to distant ourselves from religion without trying to understand it.

But what if religion isn’t as bad as we think it is?

In fact, what if religion and a love for Jesus are inextricable?

How we answer those questions depends on how we define religion. That’s not the world’s easiest task. I’m in a class now called Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, and we spent most of today’s class discussing our definitions of “religion” and “spirituality.” Even when trying to come up with a broad definition, answers varied, and if we tried to paint pictures of what religion looks like in practice, we could fill museum after museum.

One man in our class discussion described it as this: “Spirituality (which I believe the idea of “loving Jesus” falls under) is like the act of getting into shape. Religion is like joining a gym in order to get into shape.”

I might describe it this way, “Spirituality is an emotional love for Jesus. Religion is an active love.”

We can disagree on the semantics. I understand that the term “religion” has seriously negative connotations, and using the term might scare people away and shut down conversation. I won’t argue with you if you feel the need to drop the word. But don’t just repeat these “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship!” without stopping to think about what they mean to you.

Yes, relationship with Jesus is important, but…

If we want a relationship with Jesus, we have to do.

We have to love Jesus.

Not just be in love with Jesus.

If I love my partner, Abe, I’ll feel attraction for him. I’ll want to be with him and get to know him. I’ll be in love with him.


I’ll also do things for him. I’ll schedule time out of my busy college schedule to spend with him. I’ll compliment him and let him know I appreciate him. I’ll celebrate important days–birthdays, anniversaries, etc.–with him. I’ll wash his dishes while he’s at work. I’ll meet his friends–I’ll learn to love the people who he loves. I’ll love him.

Relationships are about action, not just desire. That action will look different in every relationship, just as different people approach religion in different ways. But if I “love me some Jesus,” then I’m going to do things for Jesus. I’m going to love the people that Jesus loves. I’m going to help him accomplish his task of redeeming a hurting, broken world. I’m going to embrace rituals and ceremonies and organizations that bring me closer to him and that provide an outlet for me to love his people.

This “love for Jesus” that so many evangelical churches support seems like the immature love of a 13-year-old girl scribbling  on a bathroom wall a heart and the name of her crush.

I’m tired of settling for that shallow, intangible, romantic emotion of being in love with Jesus.

Let’s get off our asses and love.

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  • Kiersten

    Wow. I think I agree with every single line of your post (which, honestly, has not yet happened in the two-ish months I’ve been following your blog). Thanks for saying it so well.

    I actually really liked this video; based on several comments I’ve seen, though, I think his word choice was merely a bit poorly chosen. I don’t think he was saying we should do away with religion; I think he was saying we must reform it to consist of active love, and the starting point for that reformation has to be demonstrating grace: “hate the sin, love the sinner”.

    But, yes. Ultimately, it’s not just about our individual relationships with Jesus; it’s demonstrating who He is to everybody. I believe church—which technically constitutes “organized religion”, even though I do dislike that term because of the stupid things “organized religion” has historically done—is absolutely vital to a Christian’s spiritual health. I’ve had emotional love for Jesus aplenty at various points in my life, but I often still don’t feel truly close to Jesus until I do things that are an expression of His character, and I build up and am built up by others who believe the same. Christianity is not *just* a religion, but it is in part. It’s not *just* a relationship, even if that is the core. It involves heart and mind and body, and grace empowers us to live it.

    Thanks for the post.

    • I think I agree with you that Jefferson Bethke wasn’t trying to knock religion all together. I think he missed the point a bit, and I think he contradicted himself a lot, but I understand his spirit and I agree with it to some extent.

      And yes, though I have been struggling lately with the traditional view of “church,” I feel like Christians need to be part of a community of believers if possible for our spiritual health. I’ve found that community online and it’s been so helpful!

  • Good point. For me, the word “religion” automatically makes me think about petty church politics, sexism, homophobia, legalism, and Mark Driscoll. I know that Christianity is more than all that crap, but I still have trouble separating the two.

    • I’ve had a lot of trouble with that too. Most of the posts I write are written 90% to myself, and this one is no exception.

    • And yeah, maybe it is okay to distance ourselves from terms like “religion” as long as we don’t forget that relationship requires action. Either that or we could work to reclaim the term. I’m not sure which option would be better. But anyway, it doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as you’re acting on your desire for Jesus!

    • Funny thing about your comment. Judging by the site he runs with another guy putting together multimedia spiritual presentations, he appears to like Driscoll, so I doubt that’s not the “church” he had in mind with his video.

    • Anonymous

      This has already been noted by Scott Morizot, but Jefferson Bethke is a fan of Mark Driscoll. And Mark Driscoll himself has bought into the cliche “it’s a relationship, not a religion.” He rants against “religion” (which he equates with works-righteousness) all the time.

      The irony…

  • I saw this video last night, and the first thing I thought was “This guy sounds like he’s been hurt by the church”.
    And I could certainly relate because I faced my fair share of hurts and wounds from my church (but to be fair, I’m sure I hurt and lashed out at people at my church too). The notion that Jesus hates religion sounds awesome for people who were abused by religion (or more importantly by people within their specific brand of religion) because it would mean Jesus identifies, affirms, and desires to rectify their pain. But while Jesus certainly wants to do that, He also wants to do that for all his people, which, last time I checked, includes the Church.
    I liked what you had to say about the hard work of relationships. It does require action and a willingness to work through the messiness of others. While our vertical relationship with God is taken care of by the Person of Jesus, our horizontal relationships with others in need of both God’s grace/redemption and work on our part with how we treat one another.

    • Yeah, being hurt by religious organizations is one of the hardest things to deal with in my opinion.

  • Oh yes! I understand the point that people are trying to make by saying it’s not just about religion but all too often people either make religion an idol, or they make not being ‘religious’ at all an idol….. that’s where I think the problem lays.
    Great post, it really made me do my deep heavy thinking for the day 🙂

    • “people either make religion an idol, or they make not being ‘religious’ at all an idol”

      Excellent point! I think each individual needs to decide what religion means to him/her and make decisions about whether to embrace it. But even “non-religion” can become a form of religion when we put all of our focus on it rather than putting our focus on redeeming the world with Jesus.

      • Definitely. I was in that non religion trap this spring…

  • Marcus A.

    You know, I’m going to do the same thing with this video that I did with the one with the homeless guy with the voice that got all these bogus job and house offers that no one really followed through with that everyone was going on and on about in church because of the miracles that Jeezus worked in the man’s life to bring him into such instant fame and prosperity and healed his life miraculously through that video and then no one followed up on the guy’s story to find out that none of those inital things everyone said they were going to do ever actually came to be – and just not watch the dang video. It gives the most beutiful sense of detachment and objectivity to something like this when you just follow the story around it and simply observe how people get swept away by it.

    • Yeah, I almost didn’t watch it at all. I saw the title and figured, “Oh, I’ve heard this a million times. Not going to waste my time.” But I caved and it was exactly what I expected.

  • abekoby

    I just imagine how this video would come off to a non-Christian. I assume they would see it as a goofy man arguing semantics. The fourth dictionary definition of religion is: “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.”

    He’s trying to come off as cool by shitting all over religion. It’s like those modern churches who make their worship service like a rock show to show the world Christians can be cool (like bow ties and fezes). But he’s really just offering another form of religion, one which many people have been burned by already. And that’s likely the first thing that made those people start to question religion or even the actual reason that made them abandon it in the first place.

    And like the rock show, it just comes off as cheesy and dorky.

    • Yeah, I agree that it probably comes off as cheesy, and not at all cool like bow ties and fezzes. Great thoughts, Abe!

      And you know that Dr. Who reference made my day! 🙂

  • I actually tend to like spoken word done well in most cases, but didn’t much care this video. Lots of it had to do with the content. I did enjoy Fr. Andrew’s response to it (which I also noted on EE’s post).

    And I liked your post and EE’s both. Not sure I have much to add.

  • Question: Does Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour really and truly hate anything religion? Let’s do some search in the Gospel.

    “Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.” (Matthew 23:1-3 KJV)

    Read: Does Jesus Hate Religion Too?

  • I used to believe that we are all human beings that are doing what we can to become spiritual. 5 years ago, however, my whole view of the world began to change as I saw Jesus in a whole new light. You see, I no longer see the gospel as a call for us to Love Jesus, but rather a revealing of how much Jesus loves us!!! There is a reason that Jesus said talked about not doing your deeds before men for the acknowledgment and loving our enemies and forgiving everyone no matter what they do to us… ALL 3 of these things, God is in violation of if Jesus wonderful deed on the cross doesn’t count for everyone, including non-believers. Christ didn’t die for the acknowledgment… God loves His enemies and love never burns people… and God forgives everyone – no matter what!!! We are not humans trying to become spiritual… We are spirits that are having a human experience… We don’t have to try to be spiritual, because we are all spirits and we are ALL connected to God through the work of Jesus on the cross!!! There is NO religion in that message, because the rules we thought we were supposed to follow in order to make God happy were burned away with Jesus last breath. 🙂

  • Suzette

    Love this article you did Sarah, it really is succint and relevant!