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Saturday, February 27, 2010 

"What Would You Rather Have; A Religion Or A Relationship?"

I received an email earlier this week that I wanted to address but couldn’t because of my work schedule being ramped up to get ready for a couple of weeks out of town. A friend of mine has written me that she has been visiting a very traditional congregation that uses the historic liturgy and sings the time tested hymnody sung by conservative congregations across denominational lines to supplement her Sunday morning worship at a congregation that has departed from, by all outward appearances, looking like a historic Lutheran church that your grandparents would recognize and be pleased with.

Let’s look at two of the more bizarre practices before I ask my questions:

The pastor has rewrote the ecumenical creeds for the congregation to
confess.

The people get to stand up at a point in the worship service and say
like the good folks at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church: “The bible I hold is God's word from cover to cover. It makes me wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. It is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking,and training me how to live. I need to read listen and learn from God's word every day. This is most certainly true.”


If I had to endure either of these situations this I’d be looking for a way to supplement my Sunday worship just like my friend has choosen to do. I’ve wrote several posts detailing why I can’t return a home church because the pastor not only rewrote the creeds to the point I wasn’t even sure he was talking about a confession of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but he rewrote the Lord’s Prayer in such a way that even the Dali Lama could agreed with the text. Nope, ain’t gonna go back there…

So, since it’s become public knowledge that my friend is supplementing her Sunday morning worship with visits to a more traditional worship setting she has been under a good deal of pressure to stop visiting the more traditional congregation and “looking deeper into liturgy”. She writes:

Pastor doesn’t' really approve of what we are doing and has already challenged us with questions like "what would you rather have; a religion or a relationship."

What? Religion or a relationship? Is that what a liturgical, traditional congregation is, just a religion? Really?

Now, I promised some folks that since I’m a bit busy I’d give my readers the opportunity to address the question; “what would you rather have; a religion or a relationship?” I said I’d put this post up a few days ago but I wanted to get my friends permission to include actual quotes from her email.

So… for the discussion please address the dichotomy of religion versus relationships in the context of visiting or being a member of a traditional, liturgical congregation (and is that a false dichotomy?) and what does Scripture say concerning religion versus relationship when speaking of the faithful gathering to worship the crucified and risen Lord.

Discuss. What say you?

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I was *this* close to talking about this issue on my own blog. I still might, because there are a lot of interesting aspects to it all.

Ecumenical creeds that the pastor has rewritten = not ecumenical, of course. I'd like to assume that this pastor isn't simply ditching the idea of "walking together" in fellowship with his own synod in favor of having his own, private, independent church club with its own cult of personality running the show. But I can't pretend to know just what's going through his head-- other than he's clearly been exposed to American evangelicalism with its theology and practice, including its stupid slogans.

It bothers me to no end that so many modern Christians have ceded the word "religion" to the secularists. They have basically agreed with atheists that religion is all about empty forms, meaningless rituals, and works righteousness. Then they try to say "But Christianity isn't a religion, it's a relationship!" and of course no one's buying it. We all know that according to the most basic definition of the word, Christianity is of course a religion. Evangelicals do the same things with other words, like "Christian," as though they can fool the unbelieving world into liking them and thinking they're cool. But unbelievers aren't stupid and don't buy silly word games. And, to boot, it's caused so many evangelicals to see "those other Christians over there" as practitioners of "a religion" (i.e. empty rituals), lacking a true "relationship" with Jesus.

If traditional, historical liturgy means having "a religion, not a relationship," then real relationships with Jesus didn't really start in earnest until the mid-20th century.

If having a "relationship" with Jesus means singing to him with songs that could be easily addressed to a boyfriend, or basically any other God, then "relationships" with Jesus didn't really start in earnest until the 20th century.

If you think that having a "relationship" with Jesus means proving that you're really serious with Jesus because you're so much more obedient and hard-working than those other people in church who "claim to be Christians" but don't go to small group studies or seem as outgoing and spontaneous as you are, well, self-righteous delusion has been around for a long time.

If your assurance for the reality of your relationship with Jesus is how well you're doing in private devotions or how strongly connected you feel to him at any given moment, I sure hope you're not married and don't judge other relationships you have on those merits. We are in relationship with the Triune God because he applied his Gospel to us individually through his Word of promise. "Relationship" rightly understood can be good, but it so often is not properly understood, as this pastor demonstrates.

In contrast, a Christian religion suggests that there is such a thing as objective truths to be believed, and that God is working in the midst of his creation and drawing us out of our sin and to himself. It means that when we look at the world and see the darkness, we don't need to despair because God has revealed through his unchanging Word that he isn't angry with us, and that we have a present and future hope in the death and resurrection of Jesus for us. A Christian religion means that we're not just making this up as we go each Sunday, but there is universality in the church of the past 2,000 years. If all of that other stuff is what is meant by "religion or relationship?" I'll take religion every time.

The Liturgy is relational: it is the event in which we encounter God in Word and Sacrament. At the consecration we sing the Sanctus with the angels, archangels, and the company of heaven. We receive the gifts of God through the Liturgy, the greatest gift of which is His Son, Who comes to us in the words of the pastor (vox Christi) and in the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist. To claim that none of this is a "relationship" is outrageous. Not only is it a relationship, it is better than any relationship of which one could hope to be a part in a non-sacramental, non-liturgical, experiential worshipping community that only roughly adheres even to Reformed tripe. If there are no Sacraments or Liturgy (the context for the proclamation of the Word), then there is no encounter from which to form a relationship.

Jonathan: great point about the objectivity of our encounter with God in the Word and Sacramnents, which forms and supports our ongoing relationship with God.

Great points, Kelly and Jonathan!

I'm with Kelly in preferring religion if it means being connected with the church as it has existed for millennia, and rejecting the individualized, all-about-me-and-my feelings sort of worship. Yet as Jonathan pointed out, the liturgy is very much a relationship with God as He comes to us in Word and Sacrament.

I think the old "it's not a religion, it's a relationship" line has become so pervasive that it's gotten to the point where people are now saying, "If it's all about relationship and not religion, why do I even need Christianity to have a personal relationship with God?"

Recent discussions that I've had with one of my family members have demonstrated this quite vividly to me. The whole concept of "relationship with God" no longer necessarily has anything to do with Christianity at all but has to do with my personal experience of "god" whoever he/she/it/they may be. I doubt that is what was intended by those who originally started using the "it's not a relationship, it's a religion" line but that's what we've ended up with.

And regarding what Kelly said about evangelicals playing word games ... it's the same way with "I'm not a Christian, I'm a Christ-follower." When I hear someone say this I want to say - probably along with the unbelievers who are not buying it either - "Come on, we all know you're a Christian. Stop making yourself sound so self-righteous!"

Dawn K: Yeah, these slogans have really been a case of the modern American church shooting itself in the foot. Church members have grown more and more indifferent about doctrine or even about showing up on Sunday. If it's not a religion with real, concrete rites, then all you're left with is a "relationship" that exists mostly in your head. By disliking even the word "Christian" (as well as the name of their own proper denomination) and historic liturgy, modern Christians cut themselves off from their own history and basically declare all believers but themselves to be fools. And unbelievers listen to them and agree-- only, they also include those Christians among those they think foolish.

Lurking behind all this is an unwillingness to bear the cross. We know the Gospel is great news, but sometimes in a zeal to make it sound winsome, Christians will think that if they only use the right terms and offer the right perks to the seeker (whether the Gospel really promises those perks or not), then anyone will become convinced of the message, and Christians will be liked and popular as well. If only we could shed the negative associations, it is thought, everyone would love us. But we're not called to play word games with people. As St. Peter wrote, you're going to be persecuted and misunderstood by the world, but that doesn't mean that you should be ashamed of the name "Christian," but rather rejoice that you bear the name. Semantics won't change the very real problems and failures of historic Christendom and today's church; it won't change the fact that we struggle and fail as we follow Christ; it won't make the false Christians disappear from our midst.

The onus, the focus, the emphasis on the self (feelings and actions) IS religion.

Religion being that which WE DO to ascend to the divine.

God hates that. He has come all the down TO US (already) in His Son Jesus.

Traditional worship helps to keep us anchored to that Truth, without our having to internalize and emotionalize the whole thing.

Since most (all?) Evangelical churches do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Sacraments, they must internalize the faith and that is why everything always ends up back pointing to themselves.

No thanks. I'll stick to tradional worship forms and the Word and Sacraments.

Steve: I agree with the gist of your comment, of course, but again... why do we have to yield the definition of "religion" as "works righteousness" and "trying to ascend to God"? Why not just focus on the fact that Christianity is the one true religion, completely different from the rest of the world's religions?

I just think that telling unbelievers that "Yeah, religion IS terrible!" is more likely to confuse them and reinforce their negative view of Christianity than not.

A Lutheran pastor, at his ordination, swears (before the altar of God and the Church) to conduct his ministry in accord with Holy Scripture an the Lutheran Confessions. A pastor who rejects the creeds (that is, by confessing another creed, which is no true creed) is thus being unfaithful to his vow.
A pastor that introduces the alternative style of worship under the guise of "evangelism" is being unfaithful, but at least is doing so with "good intentions" - much like Peter in Matthew 16. After all, it can be argued, some may prefer one style over another, and so we should offer all things. (Such an argument is NOT valid, I am merely saying it can be done with good intentions)
However, a pastor who belittles those who prefer to use the language and worship of the church and to confess the faith of the church is acting in direct contradiction to the office he holds. This is not for "evangelism" (whatever that word may mean), but is because the pastor refuses to confess the faith of the church, and refuses to pray the prayer of the church. Is he then a part of the church, and is his congregation even "church", in the sense of the bride of Christ where forgiveness of sins is given? Doubtful. If his sermons are simply moral admonition, as the sermons of such persons almost inevitably are, then there is in fact no Gospel in his preaching. Without that, and without the sacraments, there is no church.
If the congregation is fighting against this unfaithful pastor, then by all means stay and work with the congregation to try and effect change for the good. But if the congregation refuses to listen to you, and the pastor refuses to preach the Gospel, you have no choice. You need to be fed with the word of God, and if this man will not do it, and the congregation will not stand up to him and say, "you are not feeding us with the word of God", then you must go where you can be fed.
It is not a transfer seeking greener pastures, or abandoning the church of your youth. (both of which, to my shame, I did) It is finding a place where Jesus is actually present to bring you his gifts. In other words, you don't need to find a new church, you need to find a church. Where you are a member does not appear to be one.

I would like concrete examples from the pastor who stated, "What would you rather have, a religion or a relationship" that demonstrate how liturgical worship prevents a "relationship" with God.

I think the onus is on him to prove that those who worship liturgical do not have a "relationship" with God, or rather, that God doesn't have a relationship with them.

Lots of things in life have a "liturgy." Baseball, for example. Does winning a game not count because both teams followed a set of rules and traditions to participate in the game?

Great thoughts. Thanks for posing these questions Frank!

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  • I'm Frank Gillespie
  • From The Haut South
  • Confessional Lutheran
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