Monday, July 5, 2010

What Evangelicals Teach Us: Personal Relationship

I once knew someone who had been raised Catholic their whole life, then in high school attended an evangelical youth group a few times with a friend. It was there, they told me, that they first heard that they should, or even could, have a personal relationship with God. This realization greatly invigorated their Catholic faith.

Let's not react against this term 'personal relationship'. I admit that it gets thrown around a lot these days, especially with how it's different from 'religion'. (See my first post ever, It's Religion AND Relationship.)

Scripture does call us to a personal relationship with God: "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." (Jn 15.15) The Psalms are people's honest feelings towards God.

God is indeed God and should be respected as such. But God is both transcendent and personal. That's the mystery of the Incarnation.

Now, Evangelicals do a very good job of communicating the more personal aspect. It's in their sermons, it's in their conversation, and it's in their lives. The songs they sing are personal. The prayers they pray are personal. Jesus is a real person to them. When they keep each other accountable, the question they ask is, "How is your relationship with God?"

Of course, as some evangelicals will freely admit, evangelicals often miss the transcendent aspect. At its worst, the personal emphasis in evangelicalism can be downright sacriligious (see left). But most evangelicals do not embrace such attitudes.

The Catholic Church seems to do a very good job of communicating the transcendent part, particularly in the old Tridentine Mass. But do we also communicate God's personal nature? It seems there's been an attempt at it in the Novus Ordo, whatever your ultimate assessment of it might be.

Is our religion something we simply do? Or does it really mean something to us? When we pray, are we really praying to God? Or, in the words of Bill Hybels (pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, who I heard preach recently), are we just lobbing up formulas hoping that some of them work?

Evangelicals reveal to us our tendancy toward missing this. But they are not our only examples to whom we have to look for inspiration. The lives of the saints offer us a myriad of examples of Christians who have had personal relationships with God. Pope Benedict XVI recently taught on the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus, noting particularly the personal faith of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Jesus called us his friends. In awe and reverence, let us be his friends.


  1. Hmmm, Maybe I'm a weird cradle-Catholic, but I have always felt the personal nature of a relationship with Christ amid the practice amid and the reverence for the transcendant God. I'm not sure I could articulate how this came about...but I know that I have always felt I could pray my "own" original prayers to the Lord. The bible instruction to "pray unceasingly" is something I learned from a young age (either through my parents or the Catholic school which I attended...not sure which) ... to live my life as a prayer unto the Lord. Singing is praying twice, and even a quick petition unto the Lord was still a prayer even without the formula, Praise, Thanksgiving, Petition.

    Good food for thought, though.

  2. Hey Michelle,
    Oh, I don't doubt that you do. I do as well. I'm not saying here that people don't or can't, but that this seems to be something that we could do better at, and that evangelicals seem to do well.

  3. It's one thing to preach it and quite another for it to be fostered in the institutional practices of the Church, which I don't think happens very often. I know I don't feel it was engendered into my childhood as a Catholic. I still don't know if I have it. :S