Do you know what the expression spill the tea means? Or what if I told you that something was a cap? Language is always evolving. Each new generation seems to come up with its own special slang and terminology for things. What one generation called groovy, another called cool. What was once a beau is now called bae. There are countless examples of how each generation uses words differently.
The same principle applies to how we speak within the church. While words like revival and surrender were commonplace twenty years ago, now we hear words like community and relationship. Like clothing trends, churches often change their words to go along with what’s in style.
The word relationship has especially grown in popularity among churches today. It is particularly popular in the context of evangelism. For example, I was recently told by a group of Christian ladies that to believe in Jesus means to have a relationship with Him. Therefore, unbelievers are now being called to have a relationship with the Lord in order to be saved.i
While I am all for a fun new trend, I would like to caution those who are evangelizing from using this expression. First, and probably most noteworthy, is its absence from Scripture. The word relationshipii is not found anywhere in the NT in most English translations, and the expression relationship with Jesus never occurs in the Gospel of John. This is significant in light of the fact that John’s Gospel was written to tell unbelievers how they can receive eternal life (John 20:30-31). Since the Gospel of John is written to tell unbelievers how to be saved, and the word relationship never occurs in the book, that should tell us that the word is not necessary for evangelism. Much like the word surrender, the church has brought this term into its vernacular, thus following trend rather than Scripture.
Someone might think I’m being picky. For example, the Bible doesn’t use the term Trinity, yet the church uses it all the time, and it is certainly a Biblical concept. So why shouldn’t we use the word relationship when we evangelize?
Let me offer a few examples to show why this term could be confusing. I have a friend who does not have a relationship with her mother. Due to some unfortunate choices her mother made, my friend has lost contact with her. This example could be fleshed out in many variations. The reverse–parents not having relationships with their wayward children–is very common. Grandparents are sometimes cut off from their grandchildren. Friendships are infamous for coming and going. There are many people who have been in and out of romantic relationships their whole lives. Parents divorce and are said to no longer be in a relationship even though they have children together. In short, many people do not see relationships as permanent.
Further, we often speak of relationships as involving hard work. For example, many would agree that marriage takes effort and time. If we tell an unbeliever that they must have a relationship with Jesus in order to be saved, we are presenting them with a salvation message that is uncertain and that involves maintaining the relationship via hard work over a long period of time–at least, the unbeliever could interpret it that way. In other words, telling an unbeliever that they must have a relationship with the Lord undermines the clear message of eternal life being a free gift that can never be lost (John 4:14; 10:28). Salvation is being presented as a lifelong requirement rather than as a gift received at the moment of faith. My friend is still her mother’s child, regardless of their relationship. The same is true for a believer. The moment a person believes in Jesus for eternal life, they become His child. However, a person can have eternal life but not maintain an abiding relationship with the Lord.
If you think a cap is something you wear on your head, you might be surprised to find that to many people it actually means you’re telling a lie. If you want to spill the tea, some people won’t think you’re talking about Earl Grey, but about telling them a juicy piece of gossip. These examples demonstrate that the words we use can be twisted and redefined very quickly. While you may define the word relationship as a synonym for belief, or view it as a permanent reality, to many it can mean the exact opposite.
How do we overcome these word trends? I would encourage us to use the word that Jesus used. It’s timeless and will never fall out of fashion. He used the word believe. In the Gospel of John, when the Lord spoke to unbelievers, He never once called them to have a relationship with Him. The Lord always called the unbeliever to believe in Him for eternal life (John 1:12; 3:16; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 11:25-26). In fact, the word believe is used 100 times in the Gospel of John. We should strive to imitate the language of the Scriptures, especially those spoken by the Lord when He evangelized. While no one does this perfectly, it should be our aim to share a clear gospel message. In light of that, let’s lose the slang and just use the word believe.
While the word relationship is an inappropriate synonym for believe, the church today uses it in other ways. This begs the question: “Is there a good way for today’s church to incorporate the term?” I’ll explore that question in my next blog.
i Normally, relationship evangelism is the idea that we develop firm relationships with unbelievers and then evangelize them as friends, not as strangers. But if you call people to enter into a relationship with Jesus in order to be saved, that could rightly be called relationship evangelism, but with a different meaning.
ii The NASB has one use in Matt 19:10 about “the relationship of the man with his wife.” The word relatives occurs three times in the NKJV and most English translations (Luke 1:61; Acts 7:3, 14).