For an Evangelical Christian the “personal relationship with Jesus” has very little to do with the Church, the sacraments or any external, objective verification of the religious experience. Consequently, while this sort of conversion experience and lifestyle is to be welcomed, Catholics also have some criticisms of it. We don’t criticize it for what it is. We criticize it for what it isn’t.
That’s to say, we don’t criticize the experience, the sincerity, the heartfelt religious zeal or the undoubted energy and love for Christ that most Evangelicals present. The problem we have is not that this experience is highly subjective and emotional, but that sometimes this is all it is. Because it is highly subjective the “Jesus” the Evangelical has a personal relationship with may simply be a projection of his own desires, his own culture or the values, goals and dreams of his own context.
Furthermore, because the religious experience is pleasant he may only seek the “Jesus” experience that makes him feel good. This sometimes leads Evangelicals on an endless quest for the church or the religious experience that promises to give them the same wonderful “relationship with Jesus” that they had before.
Catholicism (and mature Protestantism) says there is more to this than your emotions. Don’t trust your emotions only. The real Jesus is bigger and more dangerous than your pleasant emotional experiences. Remember you must take up your cross and follow him if you would be his disciple.
Catholicism also insists that there is an objective truth and reality that strengthens and validates the personal experience of Jesus. The Church, the Catechism, the lives of the saints, the Scriptures, the sacraments–all these are the solid, sure and secure objective aspects to the faith which ground and make real the “personal relationship with Jesus”.
This is why, in the end, Catholics should be happy for the faithful to have “a personal relationship with Jesus” but that relationship is made solid and real and substantial by day by day commitment to prayer, the sacraments and the works of mercy. So do Catholics “have a personal relationship with Jesus”? Of course. Every time we go to confession we go down on our knees, repent of our sins and accept the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and vow on to sin again. Do we receive Jesus by faith? Of course. Every time we go to Mass we begin by asking forgiveness, repenting of our sins, we read the Bible, affirm our faith and then come forward for the “altar call” when we receive Christ not only into our hearts, but into our mouths and stomach. In these ways and many more we re-affirm and re-experience our “personal relationship with Jesus” but this is done so through the normal routine of Catholic religious life. Sometimes there are wonderful experiences associated with these things. Many times there are not.
Finally, the best way to think about this is marriage. It’s great to fall in love. It’s wonderful to have those feelings and emotions of passion and affection. All of that leads to a wedding. But a marriage is the daily grind–the hard work of love. Marriage is “for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health until death do us part”.
Same with the “personal relationship with Jesus” and it’s no mistake therefore that Jesus calls the church his “bride” and that he is the “bridegroom” and there is so much nuptial imagery in the Bible. This is what our relationship with Christ is like. We’re married to him, and marriage is full of hard work and sacrifice, but it is also full of love, and life and ultimate glory.
More Christianity is the book I’ve written which helps to explain the Catholic faith to Evangelicals in a friendly and non threatening way.
This article from the Archived Articles section of the blog explains the theory of More Christianity and how it helps Catholics and Evangelicals discuss the faith together.