Relationship vs Religion


Do you have a "relationship" or a "religion" approach to God? Jud Wilhite offers interesting comparisons between the two mindsets.

I’ve been doing some thinking lately about the difference between religion and a relationship with God. Sometimes it can feel like the old organized religion is just another ball-and-chain dragging people down. You’ve probably heard people say such things as, “I don’t need the church and religion; I have my own relationship with God,” or “Organized religion is for mindless people,” or even “Organized religion and the church are human creations; Jesus didn’t start a church and so I don’t need any of that non-sense.” Jesse Ventura became famous when he said that “organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people.” Maybe you’ve even felt or said some of these things yourself. Maybe you think all you need is a “relationship.”

The main difference between “religion” and “relationship” is our approach or attitude. It has less to do with whether or not Christianity is organized or structured, and more to do with what we expect to get out of it. Religion is often more human-centered—what we can get out of God. But I suggest that a relationship is the more fulfilling approach because it is God-centered—what God gives to us.

Religion approaches God as one might approach a salesman. The salesman wants to get as much out of you for as little as possible, and you want to get as much out of him for as little as possible. You both negotiate and compromise until you reach an agreement that you are both happy with. Once you have completed the negotiations you are both under certain obligations to each other—usually you are obligated to give the salesman money, and he is obligated to give you a product.

This is how religion approaches God. It says that God wants certain things from us—our time, money, attention, worship—you get the idea. We want certain things from God, too—a successful job, health, a happy marriage, a nice house, etc. We do certain things for God, like praying and going to church, and we expect him to do certain things for us, like provide us with a well-paying job and a happy family. Or maybe it isn’t material blessings we are after. Maybe we think that what we want from God is forgiveness and eternal life. Now, certainly none of those things are bad in themselves—a good job and happy family, especially forgiveness and eternal life. But if our approach is still that we have done certain things for God, so he is obligated to do certain things for us, like forgive us, we are still approaching God with that same religious salesman attitude. Instead of selling cars or life insurance, God is selling forgiveness and eternal life insurance.

So what does it mean to approach God with a relationship mindset, then? The “relationship” approach radically challenges the “salesman” picture of God. You don’t want a relationship with your car salesman and he doesn’t want a relationship with you, unless of course it will help him make the sale. But Christianity is different; it opposes this picture of God.

God isn’t a salesman trying to sell us something, he is personal and seeking to have a relationship with us. God gave us life because he loved us and wanted a relationship with us; he redeemed us because he loved us and wanted a relationship with us; he gives us eternal life because he loves us and wants a relationship with us.

This shift in attitude affects how we approach a lot of things. For example, I listed out some comparisons below between these two mindsets. Note that not everything in the “religion” category is bad, some of it is good, but insufficient and the “relationship category adds to it.

Religion says:

Relationship says:

1) Follow these rituals and you will be loved by God

2) The point of Christianity is to be saved from hell (fire insurance)

3) Christianity is a set of abstract theological propositions

4) You are a servant

5) God is distant

6) Make rules to avoid sin

7) Religion is for Sundays

8 ) I serve God so that I can enjoy other things

9) I pray in order to get things from God

10) I tithe in order to be blessed by God

11) I read my Bible in order to know what to do

12) I worship because a powerful God demands it

13) It’s ok if you do bad things—you will just have to do extra good things

 14) I share my faith because I want others to know that I am right and special


1) Follow these rituals becauseyou are loved by God

2) The point of Christianity is to love God and be loved by Him (relationship)

3) Christianity is a story about God’s work in the mess of history to redeem a people

4) You are a son

5) God is near

6) Grow in wisdom and maturity

7) Relationship is everyday

8 ) I serve God so that I can enjoy him

9) I pray in order to get time with God

10) I tithe because I have been blessed by God

11) I read my Bible to know about the God whom I love

12) I worship because I am overcome with love for God

13) It’s wrong to do bad things, but Jesus has forgiven your sins and loves you like a son

14) I share my faith because I want a relationship with others as Christians and because I want them to have a relationship with God like mine

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