One of the greatest benefits I received from my youth pastor and Young Life leaders in high school was the critical observation that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. Having grown up in the 1980s and 1990s American South, where church attendance was often a compulsory cultural behavior, this delineation needed to be clear.
The terminology of a “personal relationship with Jesus” remains an important part of communicating the core of Christianity to teenagers. Many initially misunderstand the Christian faith either as “just another religion” or as a set of moral behaviors. Consistently articulating the relational aspect of following Jesus reinforces the true nature of Christianity and the core of the gospel.
In recent years, however, I’ve questioned the wisdom of the “personal relationship with Jesus” phrase to describe Christianity’s core—for two reasons.
First, kids have numerous personal relationships, many of which are not particularly healthy. Adolescents may have a contentious or broken relationship with their parents or siblings. Betrayal, competitiveness, and comparison might mark their relationships with peers. Perhaps relationships with teachers and coaches involves pressure, criticism, and performance. By virtue of the tumultuous nature of adolescent social lives, many kids have mixed or conflicted associations when they hear about personal relationships.
Second, given the rise of technology and social media, postmodern kids may have an underdeveloped paradigm for personal relationships. The majority of their communication occurs in electronic form via texting, SnapChat, and GroupMe. When they hear “personal relationship,” then, what they perceive is actually rather impersonal. What they hear may not match our intent.
Over the past three years, I’ve started describing our relationship with Jesus in terms of union with Christ. While union with Christ may be the most important and prevalent theological concept, many believers never hear about it. Marcus Peter Johnson’s book One With Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Crossway) opened my eyes to the richness, beauty, and centrality of this neglected truth.
While you may know little about union with Christ, some view it as the most comprehensive aspect of Christian salvation. Michael Horton, for example, shows how union with Christ draws together the various aspects of salvation—including “the past, present, and future, as well as the objective and subjective, historical and existential, corporate and individual, forensic and transformative.”
Paul’s letters mention this doctrine of union with Christ nearly 200 times, using terms like “in Christ,” “with Christ,” and “through Christ.”
Jesus also describes this reality: “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20). In simple terms, union with Christ captures the mysterious reality that Christ dwells in the heart of believers, and believers, simultaneously, dwell in the heart of Christ. Thus they are one.