"It's not about religion but about relationship" has become a cliché bandied about primarily by Evangelicals wishing to underscore what it is that makes them distinct from the forms of Christianity that have come before them. Evangelicalism is, indeed, relatively new on the religious landscape, and it understands that it must market itself to a population which expects to be seduced by good salesmanship, if it is to survive. That is, Evangelicalism, particularly American Evangelicalism, understands Americans. It understands that in America success is largely measured by popularity, which is measured by numbers. In order to get one's numbers to grow, it helps if there is a slogan which sets you apart from what is, for lack of a better word, the competition. In a sense, "it's not about religion but about relationship" has become the marketing jingle of America's own brand of Christianity. With these few words it lays bare a critique of the forms of Christianity which have preceded her, and it promises a new, revitalized, version of Christianity. In this new version of Christianity God is not concerned with Himself, but God is concerned with you. He wants to get to know you as a person, because, well, you're that important. And if you get to know God, you'll discover the power awaiting your claim. Americans understand power: we want and expect our cars to be powerful, our military to be powerful, our leaders to be powerful, and we certainly expect our religion, opps, I mean our personal relationship with Jesus, to be one of power as well.
The trouble with this language, with this phrase, isn't the words themselves. There is nothing inherently wrong with speaking of a personal relationship with Jesus, to seek to know and understand Him better. What is troubling, are the connotations it bears within the American religious landscape: it speaks of a Christianity devoid of any certainty, or any assurance outside of one's own personal experience of Jesus. By speaking of Christianity as something that is grounded in one's own experience, and rejecting what it classifies as "religion" which invariably are the rituals and sacraments which Christ has provided His Church, we form a vapid Christianity lacking any depth, and certainly without any personal weakness. In this new Christianity there is no room for failure, there is no room for Job, there is no room for God dead on a cross. It is no accident that this Christianity, or what passes for Christianity, rarely portrays this dead God in their sanctuaries. Here one might trot out the Reformed understanding of the numbering of the 10 Commandments, which places as the second commandment a prohibition against images of the divine, and at some junctures this might be a valid historical claim, however, I believe in mainstream American Christianity, something much more sinister is at work—the Cross doesn't have any value in a religion that is largely about you and your personal success stories. We see this principle at play in the use of testimonies within these churches. Everyone is expected to have a testimony, this is the mark of one's salvation—how bad a sinner were you, and how much have you cleaned up your act since then (of course with all the glory to God alone!)? And no, no one ever says "well I was a three week old rotten sinner at enmity with God when my parents carted me the baptismal font where I was born again in the waters of baptism, and given the promise of life and salvation." No, that's just not exciting enough (debates over infant baptism notwithstanding). When this brand of Christianity speaks of an encounter with Jesus, it will almost certainly be in the form of goosebumps, chills, an internal revitalization, or I cringe to say it, a "special word from the Lord." In this brand of Christianity it's blasé to say one has encountered Jesus by eating His body and drinking His blood, for the forgiveness of sins. Not nearly exciting enough. In this brand of Christianity, salvation itself has become blasé. Or at least salvation spoken of in Biblical terms--you're a rotten sinner, Jesus is a great Savior who loves you, died for you, and there's nothing you can do about it. In this form of Christianity our feelings are a means of grace, our source of assurance, and Jesus is our life coach. He's there to encourage us, and to bless us, to help us straighten up and fly right. This brand of Christianity has done exactly what it claims it does not do: it is a very religious program of personal self-fulfillment and self-advancement.
What do we lose when we define our faith by our experience and our quest for power? We lose Jesus. Sure, there may be much talk about Jesus, but he's a Jesus without any verbs, and is almost relegated to an abstract concept. He is a Jesus who died, rose, and ascended, so we may have "power from on high." He's a Jesus who is the means to a better life. He is no longer the sum total of all theology. With this emphasis on power we lose Jesus, and we lose the prayer of the Church, "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy." There is little place for a cry for mercy when one is busy with the business of being a successful Christian.