Muslims do it.
Even non-Christian religions do it.
Let’s do it. Let’s evangelize and disciple on the basis of something better (and more biblical) than a personal relationship with Jesus.
Cole Porter references aside, the 2012 Religious Congregations and Membership Study points to a pivotal insight that ought to urge us back to a more Scripturally faithful approach to evangelism and discipleship, namely:
When Christians evangelize and disciple on the basis of inviting people to a personal relationship with Jesus, not only do we undermine the fundamentally corporate nature of our relationship to God that is portrayed in the Scriptures, but we also inadvertently, grievously construe church as a stumbling block in our “personal” relationship with God.
Or, as Church of the Nazarene researcher Dale Jones puts it, his work on the 2012 study leads him to believe that “our chickens have come home to roost”:
Churches have talked about needing to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ — what you hear is, ‘I need a relationship, I need to be born again,’ but not, ‘I need to be involved in a congregation.’ Guess what? That’s where we are.
Permit me to recast Jones’ insight into discipleship language, since our Work of Mercy focus for the month is Making Disciples:
“Born again” is a birth reference. When we are born again, we enter a new family and find ourselves enmeshed in a rich, deep family framework where God is father over the whole brood and Christ is not ashamed to call us brothers. In one of the least quoted verses in the New Testament, the Apostle John states very straightforwardly that the very sign of our being born again is love for our new brothers in our new family:
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.
John is talking here about brothers, not neighbors, as is made clear by his reference to Cain in the wider 1 John 3:11-18 passage. It is doubtful he would be much sympathetic to Christians explaining their absence from the weekly family dinner known as the Lord’s Supper by noting that our brothers and sisters in Christ are “a bunch of hypocrites.”
As ensconced as it is in the parlance of modern evangelism, the Scripture does not use “personal relationship with Jesus” language. And this is of course not because it commends or even comprehends an impersonal relationship with Jesus. (Parenthetical note: the “Lord, Lord” passage is not about Christ’s spurning of someone who has an “impersonal” relationship with him but rather of someone who claims a relationship but does not obey him.)
Instead, it is because just as your family is at the center of your heart, God’s family is at the center of his. A family in which the children have personal relationships with the father but no relationships with each other is not a very good family, as I can personally attest from my experience with my birth family. Instead, a very good family is one where all the members enjoy rich, deep, full, loving, caring relationships with each other, according to the rules of the house laid out by the father.
Jesus thought this was such a big deal that he puts it in the climax of his “high priestly prayer” before his death, in John 17:20-23 (ESV):
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
With apologies to Dale Jones, the moment we talk about the necessity and importance of congregational participation, we’ve officially missed the point. We’re not born again into a congregation. We’re born again into a family.
That this is such a straightforward and noncontroversial and basic proposition biblically is undermined by the dearth of evangelical Christian websites out there that address the topic. Grievously, there are scores of cult sites that focus on the family-of-Christ nature of God’s design, and, as Jones’ comment attests, the religions that stress the corporate nature of faith are thriving these days, even (perhaps especially) in our individualistic age. Even book clubs promote book reading as a group activity; that is, participants read and grapple with contents in light of their relationship with the club as a whole. But in an eerie twist of church history, evangelical evangelism strategies have perfectly de-emphasized the inescapably familial nature of the Christian life, omitting its mention completely from, for example, the Sinner’s Prayer and day-to-day church life. Church is often portrayed as a non-hierarchical association of believers rather than brothers and sisters joined at the hip by a praying Jesus.
Maybe it’s an effort to staunchly hold on to the idea of the priesthood of all believers, i.e., talking about a personal relationship with God means, rightly, that there are no intermediaries between us and God. But if by that we mean that God is willing to relate to us each in a vacuum, that is very, very wrong. In a human family I can of course have an unmediated relationship with my father, but this does not mean that that relationship dissolves, neutralizes, or minimizes the importance of my relationships with my brothers and sisters. In fact, were we to minimize relationships with our brothers and sisters in an effort to have a personal relationship with our earthly father, our earthly father would almost certainly say, “Why are you treating your brothers and sisters like that?”
And if that’s true of earthly families, how much more so of our heavenly one. Which is all the more reason why our evangelism and discipleship strategies must not only be ones where we teach everyone to obey the commands of Christ in an accountability framework; they must be ones where we understand that we are being obedient to our Father in a family of many brothers and sisters.