Sometimes I hear people say, "I don't like Paul." They're referring to the Apostle Paul. I'll ask, "What is it about Paul you don't like?" The answers tend to be: he was sexist, homophobic, dogmatic, angry, and judgmental. Finally, I'll ask, "Is it Paul you don't like or what people have done with Paul you don't like?" I wonder the same thing about people who have problems with the notion of a "personal relationship with Jesus." Is it really that you object to the whole notion of people having a personal relationship with Jesus or has that concept been used in ways that you find less than godly?
When I speak of a personal relationship with Jesus I mean--(1) the choice to follow Jesus is made by the person; (2) the spiritual practices of the individual are real and significant; (3) Jesus taught that God's reign shoulds influence individual personal behaviors; (4) personal decision-making should be open to Christ's guidance; and (5) the Holy Spirit nurtures the relationship between the person and Christ. There are some things I don't mean:
1. A Personal Relationship with Jesus is not emotional. Christians seem to vacillate between the dogma and dismissal of emotion. The Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening in American and British religious history was a time of emotional fervor. Sermons were often judged as effective or not on the basis of the emotional reaction. Church membership could also be gained or denied on the believability of a person's experience of coming to faith. D. Bruce Hindmarsh explained in The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England that many 18th-20th centuries churches required a person's testimony along with adherence to the congregation's creeds in order to gain entry into the church's membership. His terse description of this time was, "No narrative; no admittance" (p. 289). Emotion wasn't necessarily required in such cases, but it did add to the believability of the testimony. Even today, I encounter people genuinely concerned about the truth of their own faith because they feel they lack sufficient emotion. Somewhere someone has convinced them that true believers have strong feelings about their faith. It is dogma. The dogma of emotion leads some people to dismiss the value of emotion altogether. Emotions are a part of a person. Some people are feelers and others are not. The Bible does not require emotional responses to Jesus. It also does not dismiss the emotional reaction to Jesus. I should probably have said, "a personal relationship with Jesus is not necessarily emotional." But too many modifiers weigh down my sub-headings.
2. A Personal Relationship with Jesus is not private. Few expressions get under my skin and expose my judgmental nature quite like referring to communion as "my private time with Jesus." I serve in a church where communion is passed from person to person in trays. Individual pieces of bread and individual cups. The individual cups did not become our practice through faithful discernment. When some churches abandoned real wine because of the temperance movement, we started using grape juice. In order to avoid the spread of disease (since wine has the natural germ-killing capacity of alcohol), we moved to using individual cups. Disciples, Churches of Christ, and Baptist churches also moved away from requiring an ordained minister to preside at the Lord's table. We preferred the more egalitarian form of elder-presided, deacon-served communion. Yet, these two factors put together mean that people can remain fairly isolated in their pews while remembering the body and blood of Jesus. A private communion is not just an oxymoron it is scripturally moronic. Yet, we retreat more and more into a practice of faith where we shield ourselves from accountability to another with regard to a commitment to truth, purity in conduct, faithfulness in prayer, and righteousness with decision-making. Such privatization of the personal relationship to Jesus leads to the elevation of the person to become a church in and of his or her self.
3. A Personal Relationship with Jesus is not self-serving. It's easy to bend anything that is good and sacred into something that serves the interests of the self. Communal religion isn't immune to this by virtue of its community. Group interest is as powerful as self-interest. The call of Christ is that we would glorify God, make Disciples of Jesus Christ, serve the needs of our neighbor as we do for ourselves. Christian faith beckons us to leave self-serving relgion. Faith in Jesus calls us to unfold the life folded up on itself.