Struggles of a 3 Year-Old Pastor and What’s Been Learned So Far: PART V – Connection to a Person More than a Belief

I would venture to say that most objections to Christianity today are personal, not data-based.

In the first half of the 20th century that may not have been the case.  However, almost simultaneous to the infamous TIME magazine article in April 1966 positing “Is God Dead?”, there was the massive paradigm shift in our culture from Modernism to Post-Modernism.  People realized that science, although powerful, was too cold and impersonal to actually be God himself.

In addition, in 2011, the average person in America can have a conversation with someone on the other side of the planet, face-to-face, through a computer screen or smart phone.  A century ago that would have probably been considered the work of the divine or the black arts.  Technology has progressed at an incomprehensible rate.  Some might argue that this truth would all the more negate the need for God, when we can produce experiences that 25 years earlier would have been deemed near-miraculous.  I don’t think that’s the case though.  I think all it’s done is awaken us to not ever doubt the potentially miraculous, particularly if there is a higher-power god out there who’s involved.  We’ve witnessed so much incredible advancement within our own lifetimes that we almost refuse to doubt what might be possible.  I think that’s conditioned us as a society to be more “okay” with the idea of the miraculous than we were 100 years ago.  Consequently, you just don’t seem to hear as many arguments against God from the science department any more.  Today, they seem to come more from the philosophy wing.

The more common, more intense objections to Christianity in this age are personal.  “I just don’t see how/why God would….” is a popular contention of modern skeptics.  You see, in a society that labels itself as “highly spiritual,” the obstacles are not as much the concept of God or the lack of need for God or certainly not that God is incompatible with the natural data we’ve collected.  The obstacle is the personal character of God – is this someone who really warrants my time, attention, and worship?

As a result, my thoughts have changed somewhat on sharing Christianity.  I used to try to convince people of the Christian belief system.  In fact, if you read last week’s post, you know that I still do this to a great deal.  However, the “convincing” comes mostly in seeking to break down the false belief systems of culture and religion, not in actual evangelism.  However, if attempting to make a set of beliefs intellectually appealing to someone is my main method of evangelism, I’ve really failed to demonstrate how Christianity is fundamentally different from worldly religions.

Why is Christianity so different?  Every religion of the world tries to connect you to the belief system of a dead guy.  Christianity connects you to a warm-bodied, living person.  The theories of religious leaders might have sounded wise.  Jesus teaching was right.  And the proof is in the Resurrection, a real historical event that over 500 saw for themselves, a fact that thousands upon thousands died for in the subsequent years and yet the movement of Christ’s followers continued to gain momentum at incredible rates, despite the adversity – people dying to uphold the most important of truths.

Muhammad told people to believe what he taught.  So did Joseph Smith.  So did Charles Taze Russell.  So did Sun Myung Moon.  So did Siddhartha Gautama.  And so forth.  Jesus didn’t tell people to merely believe what he taught, although it was true.  It wasn’t just a belief system.  Jesus told people to believe in HIM.  He said to the Jews, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life.  These are the Scriptures that testify about me.” (John 5:39) John’s Gospel says that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  (John 1:14)  Do you see what this means?  Jesus is a belief system that came to life, the truth of God becoming human flesh, not having a single flaw, being rejected and deemed foolishness and cast aside into death, and then appearing again alive, showing that he really is undeniable truth.  His belief system actually works.  And he calls you not to merely bond yourself to what he believes, but bond yourself to him – your living God.

The conclusion I’ve stumbled upon…

While I love systematic doctrine and know that the belief system of Christianity is perfectly accurate, that which makes what we as Christians have so obviously stand out from the other dogmas of the world is that our leader proved the effectiveness of his beliefs through his Resurrection.  And he now calls people to take part in his life.  He draws us not just to a teaching, but to himself.

This affects church work too.  As a pastor, I don’t just want people to believe like we believe, i.e. adopt the same belief system.  Yes, that’s obviously an essential part of it.  But even more, I want people to bond themselves to us, the “body of Christ.”  See how that works?  I want people to connect themselves to a person more than a belief system.

By way of illustration, historian and sociologist Rodney Stark records that when one of the more famous plagues hit the Roman Empire, there was a surprisingly high survival rate among the Christians.  Can you guess why?  While most Roman families would banish anyone with the disease from their household, left for dead, the Christians (who actually didn’t fear death as much because of their convictions about eternal life in Christ) took care of their sick.  Their connection to Jesus was what was vital, and it led an inherently better and truer belief system – one that, as demonstrated here, actually led to the love of others.

It’s one thing to have a neat and systematized set of beliefs.  But when push comes to shove, which of those belief systems actually hold up?  Which system can do more than temporarily pacify some internal anxieties.  Christianity contains a belief system, but it comes to life in Jesus, and tangibly expresses itself through his body on earth.  Let’s not pretend that all belief systems point to the true God.  Christianity is different.  It is more personal.

So, my advice for others…consider your relationship with God personal

If your faith has ever felt a little cold or hollow, my guess is that you’ve probably considered it at some point more of a belief system than a connection to a real, living person.  Practically, this has all sorts of ramifications.  For instance, if public worship is merely about reviewing and refreshing a belief system, then yeah, I can probably take a couple of weeks off and still “pass the test.”  However, if public worship is more about connection to a real person by joining with his body to communicate with him, and if personal relationships are really predicated on regular communication, than can I really have a relationship with this personal God without this sort of regular communication?  Put another way, could a husband/wife or parent/child really have a quality relationship if their “quality communication” with one another is infrequent?  Probably not.

Belief systems are fairly easy to adopt and leave alone without touching.  Personal relationships crumble without quality communication.

Your connection with God is not ideological.  It’s personal.  Sometimes well-intentioned Christians talk passionately about “getting in the Word” and “connecting to the Word.”  As a pastor, I certainly encourage people to be studying God’s Word as much as anyone.  However, I’d always want to make sure that those I’m encouraging understand clearly that I’m not merely hoping for them to improve their belief system, but am desiring for them to know their Savior better, a pursuit through which the Spirit actually does correct our false beliefs.

I don’t just want you to know what Jesus taught.  I want you to know Jesus.  And that journey will invariably lead to the revelation that we’re more damaged than we ever thought, and yet we’re more loved by a personal God than we could ever imagine.

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7 thoughts on “Struggles of a 3 Year-Old Pastor and What’s Been Learned So Far: PART V – Connection to a Person More than a Belief

  1. Shawn says:

    I really am grateful to have been able to read this. I have often found myself feeling empty even though I have studied all the right doctrine and can make a great argument for it. There just isn’t a bond to Christ. I don’t have any kind of communication with him. I really long to have the desire to pray, to worship and be closer to him. I can see how God has blessed my life far above anything I could ever deserve. I want to be able to really tell him how much that means to me beyond my “thank you Lord for these blessings” prayer. I want a real connection.

  2. As Lutherans, we don’t normally speak of a “Christian belief system.” Our trust is in the living and active Word of God.

    It is not possible to separate our relationship with Christ from the Word we hear and read. I cannot introduce someone personally to Jesus as I would introduce one friend to another. What I can do is introduce them to God’s Word, the Scriptures which will make them wise to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

    Our bond with our Savior Jesus is only through the gospel. He is the Vine, we are the branches; but we only remain in him if his words remain in us. He is with even just two or three who gather together in his name, in his Word.

    John and the other apostles had personal relationships with Christ. They heard him speak, they saw him with their eyes, they touched him with their hands. But when Christ returned to heaven, they proclaimed him to us so that we might have fellowship with them and with God. Through the apostles’ inspired message we come to faith in the One we will not meet until his return.

    What will comfort me on my deathbed is not that “I know Jesus personally,” but rather trust in the so-called “belief system” which are the many promises of God and the many assurances that a Man I never met died in the place of all sinners and that all who believe and are baptized shall be saved.

    Then I shall see him face to face and know him even as I am known!

    • Hey RevGuy,
      I guess I’m not exactly sure how a Lutheran is supposed to speak then, but I don’t know as that using phrases like “Christian belief system” to highlight the differences from other religions of the world makes me less Lutheran, less Christian, or less of a faithful Bible student.

      Anyways, “It is not possible to separate our relationship with Christ from the Word we hear and read,” depending how you mean it, is either simply not true or not at all what I was suggesting.

      In one sense, it’s entirely possible to make that separation – the Jews certainly embraced the Old Testament Scriptures yet rejected Christ. Today, Muslims, Mormons, JW’s, and others certainly separate a true relationship with Jesus from the reading of his Word. And Satan himself was able to abuse God’s Word in rejection of Christ while tempting him in the wilderness.

      On the other hand, if you’re saying that Christians cannot separate Jesus from the reading of his Word, then you have no argument from me, nor do you find any contention to that in what I wrote here or any other post. Of course Jesus is known through his Word. I wouldn’t suggest otherwise. My encouragement in the post was to make sure our goal isn’t finally to connect people to a powerful book or right set of beliefs (religion), but to the central figure of that book, the Word become flesh (gospel).

      It sounds like you may have a little bit of an issue with the phrase “relationship” when it comes to our Savior. I know some do. My opinion is that since Scripture presents God in relational terms and relational ways, I don’t see why talking about a personal relationship with God is inappropriate. It’s a unique communication – through the Means of Grace and through prayer – but it’s no less of an intimate relationship.

      • Pastor Hein,

        I’m sorry that my comment must have given you the impression that I was attacking you and/or what you wrote. And I’m not sure what I said that made you feel that I was accusing you of being “less Lutheran, less Christian, or less of a faithful Bible student.” Although I don’t know you personally, I’m thankful for your ministry, your faithfulness to our Lord, and your dedication to getting the message of Christ out to as many as will listen. That’s why I’ve stopped by to visit your blog here from time to time.

        I understood and agree with the point of your post: that many wrongfully see the Christian faith as simply a catalog of dogmas or affirmations (a “belief system”) rather than trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

        My comment was not meant to correct or disagree with what you wrote, but to add a further (hopefully) helpful thought to the discussion. My thought as I read your blog post was that many Evangelicals would agree with what you wrote, but for the wrong reason. As you said in your reply, many do try to separate Christ from the word of Christ. They would also see worship as a time and place to “get to know Jesus.” But they don’t understand the power of the means of grace alone to do that. They are looking for an experience — mysticism really, rather than trusting that the words about Christ will actually give them Christ.

        So my comment was meant as a coda or an addendum, not as an errata. I only wanted to highlight the truth which you and I preach but is so hidden today: that our relationship with our Savior Jesus only happens through the gospel promises.

        God’s continued blessings on your ministry, Pastor Hein!

  3. Shawn says:

    So how can you develop a deep, personal relationship with Christ and still be true to the Word and have proper doctrine without letting that doctrine be what you are worshiping?

  4. Shawn, Jesus told his disciples to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” If we love Christ, we will love his word, because the gospel is the only thing that empowers us to have God in our lives.

    Read through the longest psalm in the Bible, Psalm 119. The psalmist doesn’t distinguish between his love for the Lord and his love for the word (law, commands, knowledge, decrees, promises) of the Lord.

    If you study the Bible with the intent of finding Christ there, as Pastor Hein talked about in this post, you won’t be worshiping doctrine, you’ll be glorifying the One who revealed himself to us through Scripture.

    • Hey RevGuy,
      Replying to this thread cause we’re apparently only allowed to do so many “replies to replies.” Anyways….Thanks for your clarification. Makes good sense. We’re on the same page – It’s all about Jesus, who is certainly most clearly seen to us through his inspired Word.

      I’ve probably heard one too many “Lutherans only _____” statements that I’ve perceived as unnecessary and borderline legalistic, and just had an impulsive reaction to it. That’s probably only my ax to grind though, and shouldn’t have been assumed on my part. My apologies for that.

      Again, thanks for the explanation and thanks for reading. Blessings to you as well 🙂

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