You’ve heard the question before. You’ve asked the question before, or at least, you’ve had someone ask that to you. The language of “personal relationship” is very prevalent in our modern day evangelical culture. Its on our tracts, its in our books and its in our sermons. If you would just have a personal relationship with Jesus then (fill in the blank). The personal relationship with the second member of the Triune God has been repeatedly communicated as the peak of piety and Christian spirituality, but what does it mean? What does it mean to have a “personal relationship” with someone? Aren’t all relationships personal by definition? Can I have a relationship with someone that is not (at least in a basic sense) personal? I’m not sure I can answer the question, I’d like to offer a suggestion to those who find themselves in the same boat as me.
To answer this question in a sentence: Come to church. Okay that may seem over simplified and perhaps naive, but this is the scriptural and historical answer on how to grow in one’s relationship with Jesus Christ. Of course no pastor is going to discourage you from spending time in the word and prayer at home on your own, but those things are not the ultimate expression of Christian spirituality. It is worship, rather, that allows an individual to grow–but there can not be true growth outside the context of the church community. This is why Christians since the beginning of the church have gathered together to hear the Word of God read, to pray for one another, and to break bread in the same manner as Christ did in order to experience the presence of Christ in the gathered body of believers (Acts 2:46-47, 20:7; 1 Cor. 10:16, 12:26; Eph. 2:21-22, 4:15-16; Col 2:1-2)
The act of worship from the very beginning was an experience of sights, smells, tastes, sounds and touch. This is what is to happen in the worship service, we are to experience who God is and what he has done for us through Christ who came in the flesh and ate, breathed and walked among us. The incarnation informs us regarding our interaction with God. As the Son of God physically came to man, we come physically to him and worship demonstrates this. We celebrate the reality of Christ in our lives and expect his return and experience this through worship! Hearing the Word of God, having teaching that explains the Scriptures, hearing and singing songs of joy and sorrow, tasting and feeling the bread and wine and coming together to encourage one another is the essence of Christian worship. And this is how we grow. We come together to experience this one faith and continually learn what it means to be a disciple, in community, with others.
To wrap up this short answer to a big question, here is what God’s word tells us. Paul speaks of our one faith when he says, “There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6 ESV). This one body cannot be experience if the members are not present. Jesus says, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5 ESV). Of course this verse has individual implications, but where is Christ most readily experienced today? In worship! If we do not abide in the body of Christ, how can we possibly expect to produce fruit. And finally, the writer of Hebrews gives us this familiar encouragement, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:23-25 ESV). We can not stir up one another to good works if we are away from the body! We are meant to experience the hope of Christ in the body of Christ. Apart from that, we can not grow in our relationship with him.
So the answer to the question, “How do I have a personal relationship with Jesus,” is to personally experience the body of Christ through worship. We experience the personal nature of the community, we personally express our hearts in prayer and worship, we personally sit under the teaching of the Word, we personally participate in the supper of our Lord and we continue to grow in our personal affections towards the triune God. To have a personal relationship with Jesus one must personally relate themselves to the community in which he inaugurated, the church. Anything less than this and one’s spiritual growth will be severely deficient.
If you truly wish to grow in the faith you proclaim, you will be involved in the body through service and worship. Individualism is not spiritual growth, it’s a indication of our selfish pride and arrogance. One must be in the body of Christ to truly experience the grace of God and to grow in one’s relationship with Christ. Is faith personal? Of course! But it’s only personal in so far as it is fully expressed with other believers in the church. May God encourage our hearts and reveal to us our need to be connected to the body of Christ in order to experience Christ.