It’s Not About Religion. It’s About A Relationship. Really?


On the sign of a local church: It’s not about religion. ?It’s about a relationship with Jesus.

When I first saw the sign I thought, that’s great, they’re trying to reach people ? and I know what they’re saying. Christianity isn’t drudgery; it’s not a bunch of tedious rules and regulations we slog through; it’s a joy-filled relationship with God through Jesus. ?I commend that church for reaching out to our community.

But the more I thought about it the more it bothered me. Bear with with me here ? remember, I’m an old guy and I’m entitled to these kinds of musings. ?If you want you can blast me afterwards but hear me out for a second.

The sign bothered me because being a Christian IS about religion. ?Religion and relationship with Jesus aren’t mutually exclusive. ?Being a Christian is about religion AND a relationship.

Religion is a specific set of beliefs about God and the practices those beliefs require. If we don’t believe Jesus is God, who became a man, lived a life of perfect obedience to his Father, died on the cross for our sins, and rose from the dead, we won’t be saved and can have no relationship with the Father or Jesus Christ. Without religion there is no relationship.

James certainly saw religion as important:

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. ?Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:26-27

If one can think he is religious yet not be, then it must be possible to actually be. If there is a religion that is worthless, then there is a religion that is true and worth having. ?James says true religion will lead us to bridle our tongues, visit afflicted orphans and widows ?and live holy, unstained lives.

In other words, it IS about religion – which affects how we live. It affects our speech. It makes us loving and holy.

The problem with the statement “It’s not about religion. ?It’s about a relationship with Jesus” is that it’s vague. ?It’s undefined, warm and fuzzy. ?But it can say the wrong thing.

If taken the wrong way people might think they don’t need to believe specific truths or be a committed member of a church. That they need not gather with others to hear the word preached or learn sound doctrine or serve others or speak the truth in love, confront sin or repent. It’s just me and Jesus; I don’t need all that religion stuff.

Yes, it is about relationship with Jesus which we receive as a free gift of God. But we cultivate that relationship by abiding in his word, prayer, worship, exercising faith, obedience and loving others – by our religion.

So what would I put on our sign? Maybe something like ? It’s not about religion ? if you think religion means boring drudgery and meaningless rules. It’s about a religion that leads to and fuels a satisfying saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Of course that’s too much for a sign you have 1.2 seconds to read as you drive by. But you know what I mean. ?Ok, old man’s musings are done. ?Fire away.

Never Miss Any Goodness

* indicates required


  • Jose Mercado says:


  • Mark Altrogge says:

    Thanks Jose!

  • Jason Wisdom says:

    As a middle school Bible teacher, I did battle with this last year when the “I hate religion but love Jesus” YouTube video was so popular. I agree that the vague-ness is the primary problem but I think our desire to be controversial (desire for attention) is also in play. If what we want is a short snippet for t-shirts or billboards, why not “My religion is about a relationship”?

  • Mark Altrogge says:

    That would probably be a good short snippet. Or something like "Jesus Christ satisfies" but even as I type that I think it's so close to something like Coca-Cola satisfies…. when you solve the problem let me know – thanks for commenting Jason!

  • Jay says:

    Hi Mark, while I appreciate your qualification regarding how Christianity is not religion (ie, you think religion means boring drudgery and meaningless rules), I see another aspect as more important. For me, this is in keeping with the problem that one encounters when studying comparative religions. The philosophy and religion gurus in college (Mircea Eliade, Karen Armstrong, etc) try to show how every major religion basically has all the same elements. Any Christian who sits in such a course cannot help but see how Christianity is markedly nearly opposite all other religious systems. Yet, secularists continue to find ways to say things like all religions or all monotheists are essentially the same. Therefore, I don't have a problem with saying that Christianity is primarly about a relationship and not a religion.

  • Jay says:

    Here is a quote from Ravi Zacharias in Jesus Among Other gods:
    "First, all other religions exhort man to reach up to God and grasp hold of Him through their own efforts. Christianity is the only religion where God reaches down to man. Second, other religions are systems of do’s and don’ts to appease God; whereas Christianity is a relationship with God… Finally, Christianity is based upon truly the most amazing event in all of human history—the resurrection." I could say more, but I'm out of space, I think.

  • Crazy, I just read that James passage this morning and was also contemplating our disdain for the word "religion." I would agree, Jesus and religion are not mutually exclusive. Although, I would flip your last statement around – it's a relationship Jesus that fuels pure religion.

    As for a better mental picture, Jesus had a good one when he accused the Phariasees of being "white washed tombs," beautiful on the outside but full of decay on the inside. What I think James is promoting is a proper dialog between our inner "faith" and outer "religion." If you lack one of those, you are lacking.

  • Mark Altrogge says:

    Hey Jay, I really can't contradict you and can agree with everything you said. It's interesting for me to think about. I would say Christianity is a religion that is the only religion where one can enter into a true relationship with God because of the most amazing event in human history – the death of Christ and his resurrection. thanks for your comments!

  • Mark Altrogge says:

    Hi Kristin, I appreciate your comments – thanks. It is definitely a relationship with Jesus that fuels pure religion. And it is our religion that reveals to us who Jesus is and how to enter into that relationship. totally agree with your statement that James is promoting a proper dialogue between our inner faith and outer religion – our faith must be backed up by our lives. thanks again for commenting.

  • Sapphire says:

    I was raised in a strict, liturgical "religious" home. Many years later, I was introduced to Jesus Christ and shown how I could have a personal relationship with Him. That was the pivotal point of my life. When Jesus sets you free, you are free indeed! I've heard it said, "Religion is man's attempt to please God and God hates it." From my own personal experience, I couldn't agree more.

  • Mark Altrogge says:

    Hi Sapphire, I too was raised in a strict religious home and my experience of religion growing up was formality, ritual, and lifelessness. THAT kind of religion is definitely not pleasing to God, but the kind of religion James talks about that is pleasing to God, helping widows and orphans in their distress is pleasing to God. But I totally agree with you ? God hates the kind of religion that is man-made and man attempting on his own to please God. Thanks for your comments and it is so exciting to hear how God saved you!

  • C. Seth Rima says:

    Honestly, based on how society views relationships these days, it's not exactly a ringing endorsement.

  • Ros Barrett says:

    Without a living relationship with the Lord of the Universe, which impacts your thoughts and actions to practically love others, your religion is worthless.

    (A bit long I know).


  • Mark Altrogge says:

    That’s one reason the phrase seems a little vague

  • Mark Altrogge says:

    A bit long, yes, but pretty good! Thanks Ros!

  • Jay says:

    Okay. ThanKs. I guess it makes sense for us inside the Church. I only bring it up when I'm working with folks that aren't in the church and "religion" is a sticking point for them (for the reasons you mentioned, as well as the one I mentioned).

  • Pete Smith says:

    Excellent and very well written!

  • Vickie Noel says:

    Mark, I feel that you are a cute old man and are permittted to muss. (?) I think alot of good points and great thinking minds have responded to you post. I have a picture of God the Almighty and all knowing sitting in heaven with a smle on this face that we care to discuss this so deeply.
    Thank you so much for your post.

  • Mark Altrogge says:

    Thanks Pete!

  • Mark Altrogge says:

    Thanks Vickie ? I’m glad you think of me as a cute old man. That’s sort of how I imagine people talking about me when they see me ? “Look at that cute old man.”. Anyway, thanks for your encouragement!

  • lisa says:

    There are two important things I have learned — often the hard way — that have been of great benefit to me, as I tend to be a "blurter." They are "Ask a few questions" and "Define your terms." When Jesus saved me in the mid-seventies, it was out of a dry and lifeless "religion." So I can relate to the distaste some have for the word — to me it represented my proud efforts to get right with God by being good and going to church — and what a relief to be freed from that by the gospel of grace!!! I suspect that it means that to a lot of people. Also, Christianity is the only faith that isn't based on some kind of works righteousness (I like Jay's/ Ravi's points about this), so that could cause some confusion too. __But if by religion we mean "a set doctrines that inform our ideas about God," and/or "the things we do to live out our faith AFTER Jesus has saved us by grace through faith," that's a whole other story….

  • lisa says:

    ….which is why, for a bumper sticker or a church marquee, I wouldn't use the word at all. Needs too much explanation. I think something better would be "Prevent TRUTH decay — brush up on your Bible."__Kidding, I'm KIDDING.

  • Mark Altrogge says:

    Hey Lisa, thanks for these comments! And for a second you had me going until you said I'm KIDDING….

  • Brian says:

    Ok….. since I am a pastor and I am working on my sermon AND I am using this phrase I gave it a Google and found you AND since I like the mantra I find myself feeling a bit defensive. HOWEVER… you are of course right with the exception that you decided that you completely understand how everybody takes the statement and of course it has just enough ambiguity that you can't really know that. For example, I understand it to mean…. Don't focus on religion because you can do so an d miss the joy of the relationship RATHER focus on the relationship with Jesus and the religious aspect will follow. It's a mantra and therefore is open to interpretation to some degree. So, for me it's not that you are wrong…. except that you said "religion – which affects how we live. It affects our speech. It makes us loving and holy." No it doesn't make us loving and holy." Only God can do that… which I am sure you would agree with.

  • Ben says:

    I think this whole "it's not about religion; it's about relationship" is a "butts-in-the-pews" recruiting tactic, and a rather poor one, at that. Most of today's churches have been infiltrated by the "Purpose-Driven/Emergent" recruitment program, and they've basically thrown doctrine out the door so they don't offend the young generation or young families with children who have never once heard of things called "hymns", or of reading Scripture verses from actual PRINT Bibles, or of music from instruments other than electric guitar, synthesizer, or loud drum sets. This absurd paradigm shift from what made churches worthwhile (i.e. hymns from HYMNBOOKS with "thee", "thou", and "thine" in the lyrics; music by ORGANS or PIANOS, doctrine taught from the Scriptures, and preachers who wear SUITS WITH TIES) to what made them unbearable (i.e., the direct opposites of everything I just listed) is the end result of the "relationship-over-religion" program. And in actuality, most churches will SAY they're not about "religion", but will then demand that their members obey those "bunch of tedious rules and regulations" once they're sucked in. It's all love-bombing nonsense. This is why churches are becoming obsolete.

  • Simon says:

    What? … You mean I shouldn’t base my faith on church signs, bumper stickers and fridge magnets?!?! What am I going to do!

  • David says:

    Very helpful Mark, thank you for sharing. I especially appreciate the way you included your initial feelings of the good that this particular group may have been trying to achieve in their sign. This is a skill and biblical effort that I am very much in need of growing in when it comes to analyzing a dear brother/sister/groups decision that I am critical of.

    New to your website, and enjoying it very much.

  • Religion is just something you do religiously, or just repetitively. Don’t let that make it less glorified, you do it over and over because you believe there is wisdom to it. But we all have personal versions of this wisdom, that are usually more representative of being from our culture instead of from logically understanding that “not hurting others,” and “not allowing others to commit violence against us,” is the most orderly and productive way that we can hope to live. Truths like this are the point of every religion, or any “real” religion as you quoted from the scripture. The shirt I saw this written on also said to cherish “freedom, mercy, and truth;” instead of “laws, money, or tradition.” The point is that we have to always be willing to be “born again” into a new and clearer awareness of what is right, from what we strive to understand around us. And to never be stuck to some tradition that you don’t understand. Because if you are doing something mechanically or animalistically over and over, then you are putting your will to do that action before the wisdom and truth of God. And God’s truth is knowable, so I think we all need to spend some more time reflecting and trying to get back to the present moment reality that can show us the next step we need to take if we’d just shut up and listen for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>