Beyond Bad Religion

By Jud Wilhite

We’ve all heard people say such things like, “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.” Maybe you’ve even felt or said some of these things yourself.

Lots of conversations have me thinking about these distinctions. For years I’ve said the faith journey is about a “relationship more than a religion,” but only after being questioned by someone did I realize that I hadn’t thought the differences through very well beyond that phrase.

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. James writes, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (James 1:27). So there is such a thing as good religion that cultivates and restores both our association with God and the people who need help in our culture. When I use the term religion, however, I’m talking about the not-so-good religion that reduces faith to ritual acts of devotion done for the wrong reason.

Religion in this sense approaches God as one might approach a car salesman for a transaction. 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, passing notes with final amounts, until you reach an agreement that satisfies you both. Once you have completed the negotiations, you are both under certain obligations to each other—usually you are obligated to pay the salesman money, and he is obligated to give you keys and a vehicle to drive off the lot.

This is how religion often approaches God. It says 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, good health, a happy marriage, a nice house, the latest cars, and more. We do stuff for God, like praying, going to church, and giving money when we have to and we expect him to do certain things for us, like provide us with a well-paying job and a healthy family.

Or maybe it isn’t material blessings we’re after. Maybe what we want from God is forgiveness and eternal life. So if we do all the right things in this life, then we’ll have our mansion in heaven in the next. Now, certainly none of these things are bad in themselves—a good job, happy family, 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 or dump the blessings truck, then we are still approaching God with that same religious car salesman attitude. Instead of selling cars or life insurance, God is selling forgiveness and eternal life insurance.

With this approach we do things not out of love, but in order to negotiate with God—to put him in our debt, to broker a deal. Of course, there are some major problems with this kind of viewpoint. The Bible says God owns everything since he made it all, so negotiating with God is like borrowing a lawnmower from your neighbor and then trying to sell it back to him.

The religious approach distorts our picture of who God is—his character, his personality, his passion. It gives us a picture of a god who is reluctant to give us things, who grinds us down with constant ongoing negotiations and adherence to the minutiae of a legally binding contract (think of all that fine print on your phone service contract!). He only gives us forgiveness and eternal life because he needs things from us and must barter with us. This god is stingy, petty, capricious, and indifferent. He is not the living God we see in the Bible and in the lives of so many people who know him.

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. 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 because you 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 for 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

The bottom line is that God has revealed himself in the Bible as a personal God seeking to share life with us. He created us because he loves us and wants a relationship with us; he redeemed us through the life and death of Jesus because he loves us and wants a relationship with us; he gives us eternal life because he loves us and wants a eternal relationship with us. And more than anything, he wants our whole hearts dedicated to our relationship with him.

Jud Wilhite, author of Pursued, senior pastor of Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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