Right after Christmas, I received three cards in the mail from three local churches (one is pictured above). This is not unusual; lots of churches advertise this time of year. What was unusual was the fact that all three churches were advertising sermon series on the same topic: relationships.
In my last blog entry I explained why the Evangelical church’s “core product” has recently shifted from personal salvation to personal relationships. Church used to be the place that saved your soul; today it’s the place that saves your messed up family.
As a young man growing up in church, I can’t remember ever hearing a sermon about relationships – much less a series. Sermons of the 1970s focused on evangelism, mission, personal holiness and discipleship. Most pastors didn’t see relationships as a topic worthy of the pulpit.
Boy — do they now.
American Christianity is in the process of rebranding itself. The gospel is no longer described as a life-and-death mission, it’s a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Many pastors and churches have embraced a slogan like this: “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Evangelistic organizations are dropping their mission-oriented names. As an example, Campus Crusade for Christ is in the process of renaming itself, “Cru.”
These marketing moves are bringing people in the doors. With more than 40% of U.S. children born out of wedlock and family disruption common, people are looking for help with their relationships. A Gospel focused on relationships addresses a felt need in today’s broken world.
There’s only one problem: the Bible hardly devotes any attention to interpersonal relationships.
First, that term: personal relationship with Jesus. It never appears in scripture. Across 66 books of the Bible, never once are humans commanded to enter into a relationship with God or Jesus. This metaphor is the creation of 20th century preachers who wanted to make the Gospel appealing to their core constituency: women.
Second, if you read what Jesus really said about relationships, you’ll be shocked. He did not come to bring people together, he came to divide them (Matt. 10:34-35). He said that any man who did not hate his family members was not worthy to be his disciple (Luke 14:26) He promised lavish rewards to those left their families behind for His kingdom (Luke 18:29-30). Not exactly the kinds of things you hear on Family Life Today.
And third, if you step back and examine the broad themes of the Bible, interpersonal relationships would not even make the top ten list. The apostle Paul addresses relationships infrequently, often for the purpose of keeping the early church from slipping into immorality. Almost every Christian book and sermon on relationships is taken from the few things Paul had to say about them.
Don’t misunderstand me. There’s nothing wrong with the church dispensing relationship advice, particularly in small groups. Parachurch organizations such as Focus on the Family and Family Life are doing commendable work. Churches are wise to offer counseling and conflict resolution. The Bible clearly endorses marriage, fidelity and comity between individuals. The greatest commandments are to love the Lord and our neighbor.
But is this what the Gospel is really about? Is relational harmony the main reason people should come to church? Is it “core product” we offer to the world?
Here’s my concern: if people come to see the church as “in the relationship business,” we set ourselves up for a number of unpleasant consequences:
- More women and fewer men involved in church, since women are so much more relationship-focused than men
- Fewer young men in attendance
- Further alienation of singles as teaching focuses increasingly on marriage and children
- Less focus on mission, evangelism and outreach
- More passivity among the men who do go to church
- A growing reputation as a feminized institution
- Increased pressure to accept alternative relationships (unmarried, homosexual, polyamorous, etc.)
- People blaming the church when their relationships go sour
- Fewer people accepting Christ’s gift of salvation
The Gospel is relevant to every area of life – relationships included. But Christ did not die a horrible death on the cross so you could have a regular date night. We need to keep the main thing the main thing. Men are interested in relationships, but they’re motivated by mission. The Gospel’s message of redemption must remain front and center, even if it doesn’t bring as many people in the doors.
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