It’s Not About Religion. It’s About A Relationship. Really?

On the sign of a local church: It’s not about religion.  It’s about a relationship with Jesus.

When I first saw the sign I thought, that’s great, they’re trying to reach people – and I know what they’re saying. Christianity isn’t drudgery; it’s not a bunch of tedious rules and regulations we slog through; it’s a joy-filled relationship with God through Jesus.  I commend that church for reaching out to our community.

But the more I thought about it the more it bothered me. Bear with with me here – remember, I’m an old guy and I’m entitled to these kinds of musings.  If you want you can blast me afterwards but hear me out for a second.

The sign bothered me because being a Christian IS about religion.  Religion and relationship with Jesus aren’t mutually exclusive.  Being a Christian is about religion AND a relationship.

Religion is a specific set of beliefs about God and the practices those beliefs require. If we don’t believe Jesus is God, who became a man, lived a life of perfect obedience to his Father, died on the cross for our sins, and rose from the dead, we won’t be saved and can have no relationship with the Father or Jesus Christ. Without religion there is no relationship.

James certainly saw religion as important:

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:26-27

If one can think he is religious yet not be, then it must be possible to actually be. If there is a religion that is worthless, then there is a religion that is true and worth having.  James says true religion will lead us to bridle our tongues, visit afflicted orphans and widows  and live holy, unstained lives.

In other words, it IS about religion – which affects how we live. It affects our speech. It makes us loving and holy.

The problem with the statement “It’s not about religion.  It’s about a relationship with Jesus” is that it’s vague.  It’s undefined, warm and fuzzy.  But it can say the wrong thing.

If taken the wrong way people might think they don’t need to believe specific truths or be a committed member of a church. That they need not gather with others to hear the word preached or learn sound doctrine or serve others or speak the truth in love, confront sin or repent. It’s just me and Jesus; I don’t need all that religion stuff.

Yes, it is about relationship with Jesus which we receive as a free gift of God. But we cultivate that relationship by abiding in his word, prayer, worship, exercising faith, obedience and loving others – by our religion.

So what would I put on our sign? Maybe something like – It’s not about religion – if you think religion means boring drudgery and meaningless rules. It’s about a religion that leads to and fuels a satisfying saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Of course that’s too much for a sign you have 1.2 seconds to read as you drive by. But you know what I mean.  Ok, old man’s musings are done.  Fire away.

  • Jose Mercado


    • Mark Altrogge

      Thanks Jose!

  • Jason Wisdom

    As a middle school Bible teacher, I did battle with this last year when the “I hate religion but love Jesus” YouTube video was so popular. I agree that the vague-ness is the primary problem but I think our desire to be controversial (desire for attention) is also in play. If what we want is a short snippet for t-shirts or billboards, why not “My religion is about a relationship”?

    • Mark Altrogge

      That would probably be a good short snippet. Or something like "Jesus Christ satisfies" but even as I type that I think it's so close to something like Coca-Cola satisfies…. when you solve the problem let me know – thanks for commenting Jason!

  • Jay

    Hi Mark, while I appreciate your qualification regarding how Christianity is not religion (ie, you think religion means boring drudgery and meaningless rules), I see another aspect as more important. For me, this is in keeping with the problem that one encounters when studying comparative religions. The philosophy and religion gurus in college (Mircea Eliade, Karen Armstrong, etc) try to show how every major religion basically has all the same elements. Any Christian who sits in such a course cannot help but see how Christianity is markedly nearly opposite all other religious systems. Yet, secularists continue to find ways to say things like all religions or all monotheists are essentially the same. Therefore, I don't have a problem with saying that Christianity is primarly about a relationship and not a religion.

  • Jay

    Here is a quote from Ravi Zacharias in Jesus Among Other gods:
    "First, all other religions exhort man to reach up to God and grasp hold of Him through their own efforts. Christianity is the only religion where God reaches down to man. Second, other religions are systems of do’s and don’ts to appease God; whereas Christianity is a relationship with God… Finally, Christianity is based upon truly the most amazing event in all of human history—the resurrection." I could say more, but I'm out of space, I think.

    • Mark Altrogge

      Hey Jay, I really can't contradict you and can agree with everything you said. It's interesting for me to think about. I would say Christianity is a religion that is the only religion where one can enter into a true relationship with God because of the most amazing event in human history – the death of Christ and his resurrection. thanks for your comments!

      • Jay

        Okay. ThanKs. I guess it makes sense for us inside the Church. I only bring it up when I'm working with folks that aren't in the church and "religion" is a sticking point for them (for the reasons you mentioned, as well as the one I mentioned).

  • Kristin Richardson

    Crazy, I just read that James passage this morning and was also contemplating our disdain for the word "religion." I would agree, Jesus and religion are not mutually exclusive. Although, I would flip your last statement around – it's a relationship Jesus that fuels pure religion.

    As for a better mental picture, Jesus had a good one when he accused the Phariasees of being "white washed tombs," beautiful on the outside but full of decay on the inside. What I think James is promoting is a proper dialog between our inner "faith" and outer "religion." If you lack one of those, you are lacking.

    • Mark Altrogge

      Hi Kristin, I appreciate your comments – thanks. It is definitely a relationship with Jesus that fuels pure religion. And it is our religion that reveals to us who Jesus is and how to enter into that relationship. totally agree with your statement that James is promoting a proper dialogue between our inner faith and outer religion – our faith must be backed up by our lives. thanks again for commenting.

  • Sapphire

    I was raised in a strict, liturgical "religious" home. Many years later, I was introduced to Jesus Christ and shown how I could have a personal relationship with Him. That was the pivotal point of my life. When Jesus sets you free, you are free indeed! I've heard it said, "Religion is man's attempt to please God and God hates it." From my own personal experience, I couldn't agree more.

    • Mark Altrogge

      Hi Sapphire, I too was raised in a strict religious home and my experience of religion growing up was formality, ritual, and lifelessness. THAT kind of religion is definitely not pleasing to God, but the kind of religion James talks about that is pleasing to God, helping widows and orphans in their distress is pleasing to God. But I totally agree with you – God hates the kind of religion that is man-made and man attempting on his own to please God. Thanks for your comments and it is so exciting to hear how God saved you!

  • C. Seth Rima

    Honestly, based on how society views relationships these days, it's not exactly a ringing endorsement.

    • Mark Altrogge

      That’s one reason the phrase seems a little vague

  • Ros Barrett

    Without a living relationship with the Lord of the Universe, which impacts your thoughts and actions to practically love others, your religion is worthless.

    (A bit long I know).


    • Mark Altrogge

      A bit long, yes, but pretty good! Thanks Ros!

  • Pete Smith

    Excellent and very well written!

    • Mark Altrogge

      Thanks Pete!

  • Vickie Noel

    Mark, I feel that you are a cute old man and are permittted to muss. (?) I think alot of good points and great thinking minds have responded to you post. I have a picture of God the Almighty and all knowing sitting in heaven with a smle on this face that we care to discuss this so deeply.
    Thank you so much for your post.

  • Mark Altrogge

    Thanks Vickie – I’m glad you think of me as a cute old man. That’s sort of how I imagine people talking about me when they see me – “Look at that cute old man.”. Anyway, thanks for your encouragement!

  • lisa

    There are two important things I have learned — often the hard way — that have been of great benefit to me, as I tend to be a "blurter." They are "Ask a few questions" and "Define your terms." When Jesus saved me in the mid-seventies, it was out of a dry and lifeless "religion." So I can relate to the distaste some have for the word — to me it represented my proud efforts to get right with God by being good and going to church — and what a relief to be freed from that by the gospel of grace!!! I suspect that it means that to a lot of people. Also, Christianity is the only faith that isn't based on some kind of works righteousness (I like Jay's/ Ravi's points about this), so that could cause some confusion too. __But if by religion we mean "a set doctrines that inform our ideas about God," and/or "the things we do to live out our faith AFTER Jesus has saved us by grace through faith," that's a whole other story….

  • lisa

    ….which is why, for a bumper sticker or a church marquee, I wouldn't use the word at all. Needs too much explanation. I think something better would be "Prevent TRUTH decay — brush up on your Bible."__Kidding, I'm KIDDING.

    • Mark Altrogge

      Hey Lisa, thanks for these comments! And for a second you had me going until you said I'm KIDDING….

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  • Brian

    Ok….. since I am a pastor and I am working on my sermon AND I am using this phrase I gave it a Google and found you AND since I like the mantra I find myself feeling a bit defensive. HOWEVER… you are of course right with the exception that you decided that you completely understand how everybody takes the statement and of course it has just enough ambiguity that you can't really know that. For example, I understand it to mean…. Don't focus on religion because you can do so an d miss the joy of the relationship RATHER focus on the relationship with Jesus and the religious aspect will follow. It's a mantra and therefore is open to interpretation to some degree. So, for me it's not that you are wrong…. except that you said "religion – which affects how we live. It affects our speech. It makes us loving and holy." No it doesn't make us loving and holy." Only God can do that… which I am sure you would agree with.

  • Ben

    I think this whole "it's not about religion; it's about relationship" is a "butts-in-the-pews" recruiting tactic, and a rather poor one, at that. Most of today's churches have been infiltrated by the "Purpose-Driven/Emergent" recruitment program, and they've basically thrown doctrine out the door so they don't offend the young generation or young families with children who have never once heard of things called "hymns", or of reading Scripture verses from actual PRINT Bibles, or of music from instruments other than electric guitar, synthesizer, or loud drum sets. This absurd paradigm shift from what made churches worthwhile (i.e. hymns from HYMNBOOKS with "thee", "thou", and "thine" in the lyrics; music by ORGANS or PIANOS, doctrine taught from the Scriptures, and preachers who wear SUITS WITH TIES) to what made them unbearable (i.e., the direct opposites of everything I just listed) is the end result of the "relationship-over-religion" program. And in actuality, most churches will SAY they're not about "religion", but will then demand that their members obey those "bunch of tedious rules and regulations" once they're sucked in. It's all love-bombing nonsense. This is why churches are becoming obsolete.