I was grabbing an amazing beer at the amazing Lancaster Brewing Company in beautiful Amish-country Lancaster, Pennsylvania with one of my best friends, David Schrott this past was weekend. Randomly, he turns to me and says something along the lines of “do you think we’ve sacrificed worship for the sake of relationship?” Brilliant. This got my wheels turning . . .
Surely we’ve all heard that wonderful phrase “Christianity’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” A brief survey of various facebook “Religious Views” statements can find many rearticulations of this principle. But, I think we’re just now starting to see where this principle has perhaps been misleading the church a bit. Now, I have to fight two well-known urges in addressing this. First, an urge in church history to ride a giant philosophical pendulum from one extreme to another. I don’t just want to criticize this because the cycle has run its course and now its time to move back to the other extreme. The other urge is in myself. It is the tendency I have always had to rebel against the current cultural trends of the day just to be novel. Ten years ago, we really needed to hear that phrase, and it would be too typical of an up-and-coming twenty-something theologian as myself to try and cast the whole thing off. All that being said, let’s get going.
I’m in the process of writing this up as a sermon so some feedback would be wonderfully helpful. Here’s my current thought process. Posed David’s question, I think most of us would say something that involved the phrase “both/and”; attempting to merge these two principles (worship and relationship) into the same idea. May I suggest that one of the damning effects of post-modernity has been this love affair in the past ten to fifteen years with the “both/and” in all things. The first person to throw that out in conversation feels both wise and perceptive, and is generally treated as such. Thinking about this, I was reminded that God works and reveals not so much through philosophical exposé but through narrative. This means that things work progressively. Elements used or expressed earlier in the narrative don’t exist later in the story in the same way they existed before. Let me use the current conversation as an example.
I’m wondering if preaching relationship, relationship, relationship has been putting the cart before the horse and has contributed to the shallow and impotent culture we see far too often in the American church. We seem to preach relationship first, expecting (or hoping) worship to flow from it. I don’t see the beauty or the truth in this. It looks like relationship should flow from worship. Is this not the Gospel? The message that there is a huge God through whom and from whom all things receive life, and that this God not merely desires or demands worship, but deserves it. We have not given it, and so the full wrath if this huge God is prepared to be poured out upon us. In view of this, we then feel the weight of our inadequacy to change our estate before this God that deserves our honor and worship. We look up to to feel the indiscriminate fog of anger hanging so perilously above our heads . . .
but . . .
from this fog extends a hand. The hand of that King we have offended, offering clemency and pardon in the name of His Son for the treason we have so callously pursued. It is against the backdrop of all that makes Him worthy of that worship we don’t/can’t give him that this offer for relationship becomes real, beautiful, and romantic.
“Religion” comes from the Latin words “re” meaning “again” and “ligo” meaning “to unite” (as in “ligament”). Religion, then simply means something that unites once more that which was connected, but now is broken. (I know, I know, we’ve turned “religion” into something more than this, but I’m just trying to say that the word itself is not bad, so let’s not stop using it. Just try to use it rightly.) Jesus really did die to establish religion. The Gospel is religion. It is a means outside of ourselves by which God reunites us to Himself. But it starts with who He is which then overflows into what He’s done to join us to Him once more. We need to see and preach a God worth worshiping before our relationship with Him can mean anything of any sort of significance.
As I write all this, I’m starting to wonder if our stress of relationship over reverence has actually caused the problem to worsen. We started doing it because of how people were abusing the beauty of the religion Christ died for, but I wonder if we remove all the weight of this religion under the banner of relationship does it really change anything? Or will people just have new reasons to take this Christianity thing lightly now that they “have the relationship” that apparently this whole thing centers around? Will this not continue to create people that do not understand the standard of holiness, reverence, and awe we really are called and commanded to strive for? Will this not then force us to create more clever cliches to explain why those people don’t act like the Christians they claim to be?
Maybe. I don’t know. But ultimately, I hope we can see the Gospel for what it is: a God-centered means by which God can proclaim His worthiness and still redeem us for Himself. It begins with His worship, then our inability, then His redemption, then our salvation, and it culminates finally in our worship of Him for now and eternity, proclaiming the Glorious perfections and beauties of God, His Son, His Spirit, and His Gospel.