(cont. from previous post)
7. Nearly all traditional Christian language is belief-based instead of relationship-based. Christians claim that knowing God is about a relationship, not about rules, right? But what are doctrines and creeds, other than rules and statements about what you are supposed to believe? The religion of Christianity is a set of rules about what you must believe in order to be in a relationship with God, just like any other religion. Any Christian who attempts to dance around this is being disingenuous.
Of course the message of Jesus is, in fact, very highly relationship-based. In fact when read with relationship eyes rather than religious eyes, even his sterner sayings take on new meaning. And why should they not be read that way?
Consider this: the things you believe about your spouse and kids are not based on beliefs you had to adopt about them to begin with, but are actually things you came to know and believe in as a direct result of that relationship. A vital relationship with God should develop this way as well. When a “seeker” comes to church, we can follow one of two paths: 1) start teaching rules (doctrine) hoping it leads to relationship (which it may or very well may not), or 2) assume God in his prevenient grace (term comes from Wesleyan theology) has brought them to you, that they are being attentive to God already, and simply teach them how to keep listening to God. If this can be done, the person’s beliefs about God (many/most of which are already affirmed by the church) will grow up around the relationship, instead of the other way around. This is the way relational beliefs are supposed to develop.
When I speak about my wife, I rarely speak of what I believe about her. I speak of what I already know from experience to be true. These are not statements I memorized, or ripped out of song books, describing her character. They are stories about conversations and experiences we have had. Many of today’s Christians can’t even make any sense of this, because modern Christianity is so belief-based that we have precious few experiences of God to draw on. Modern Christianity actually exalts belief in God over experience of God, which is the reason why so many people can claim to be Christ-followers and yet still be racist, judgmental, unloving, unforgiving, petty, and callous toward the poor. I will go so far as to say most modern Christianity actually fears talking much about experience with God until we have first safely locked God in our various doctrinal boxes so people know how to interpret their experience of God in ways that feel safe and comfortable.
Nearly every Christian I know would say their deepest desire is to have God “blow the roof off” their church with his power, love,and grace. The problem is that nearly every church has defined God as being so small they often wouldn’t recognize him if he showed up, just like the Jews of old could not recognize Jesus — God in the flesh — standing right in front of them because their religion had actually taught them not to look. Christian language often reflects this same rigidity. Curiously, we have found a way to read the gospel and dismiss one of its main messages: that those most in danger of failing to see God are those whose religions are preventing them from looking where God is most often found — at the edges.
Back to language. Belief-based language (that is, most traditional Christian language) is over-used, dried out, stagnant, something you grow to expect. Relationship-based language will almost always sound fresh or, at the very least, like a striving for words, which often happens when we are trying to find words to express experiences that go beyond words (love, ecstasy, suffering, etc.). The words and language in the Bible are helpful only when we find ourselves there, when those ancient texts give voice to our own experiences. I don’t feel comfortable with language used to talk about God that feels, to me, like it was chosen off the shelf at Kmart. I never criticize others for using it and realize that it says something real for some people. But my choice not to use it is why I sometimes find people suspicious of whether or not God is even real to me at all.