We all have our own unique story. For better or worse, our childhood often shapes and forms the way in which we see the world and our place in it. Often, when it comes to our faith practice, we seem to fall into one of two camps: religion or relationship. But can we experience both simultaneously? Can one inform the other? I think so.
When I was young, my parents were part of a church plant. Meaning, they and another group of like-minded friends started a church. I am not sure that I knew it then, but looking back, I see that through my parents’ commitment to this church and the time we spent there, I was learning that I was not the center of the universe like I may have thought I was. Instead, I was told that God had a plan for me. It was ingrained in me that church was important, simply because we went every Sunday. I attended Pioneer Club on Wednesday nights, went to potlucks, and took classes to learn more about what my church believed. I religiously did these things because that is what my family did. At times I was curious and at others, complacent. This is the framework within which I lived. It was our family’s practice. It was our religion.
At age 13, I went on a youth group retreat. My biggest incentive for going was a super cute boy who I knew would be there. I eagerly jumped into the church van, hoping for a seat near him. While the cute boy was the catalyst, all I remember about the weekend was a campfire. I can feel the cool breeze, picture the roaring flames in the fire, and hear the voices of people singing. While I can’t remember the speaker’s name, I can remember him saying that God wanted a relationship with each of us. I can remember something clicking in my mind and heart and really talking to God for the first time. I remember feeling something new and desiring to really know this God that I had learned about for so many years. For the first time, all of the routines I had been practicing over the years made sense and had meaning.
Many of us practice religion. If it’s under the guise of church, we submit to guidelines like weekly attendance, taking communion, being baptized, confessing our sins. We may practice reading our Bible or reciting prayers. Often, religion can be associated with feeling accomplished. We tip our hat at ourselves for doing all the things that week, checking off all the boxes. Being religious can also happen in other areas. For example, I “religiously” exercise. I don’t miss a day. Or we eat “religiously,” sticking perfectly to our diet. Each of our religious practices leave us with a sense of accomplishment. We are able to pat ourselves on the back, proud of ourselves for sticking to what we said we would do. We do our part, and we feel good for being committed.
Many of us also practice relationship. We know all too well the feeling of wanting someone with whom we can be friends. Who doesn’t want a best friend? At some point or another, there has been a person to whom we have wanted to be closer. And what does it take? Initiative and time. Do I want to know about my best friend’s childhood? Or my husband’s future dreams? In order to find out the answers to these questions, I have to spend time with them. I have to be inquisitive. I have to patiently and intently listen to their answers.
In relationships we learn to be focused on others. We learn to put their needs first, yielding to their needs before our own. As we pour ourselves into relationships, we learn more about the other person and grow together. These same attributes apply to our relationship with God. He already knows us, but it’s getting to know Him that takes time and intention.
Why They’re Better Together
When I began to see the sweet spot where religion and relationship intersect, I started to comprehend what faith is all about. At that campfire, my relationship with God began to inform my religion. I realized He wants me to talk to Him—which is the religious practice of prayer. God doesn’t want me to say certain words at a specific time perfectly. He wants me to simply come and chat. He wants me to spend time getting to know who He is. Just like with my friends, God wants me to learn about His dreams, and He wants me to ask Him questions. Jesus wants me to know His character and purposes, and to recognize that I am known and seen.
I realized that the Lord wants me to read the Bible—which is the religious practice of study. Not because I have to, but because it is a book all about Jesus, and how and why He works in certain ways. If I was able to read a book all about my husband, to know how he thinks and why he acts the way he does, wouldn’t I devour it so that I can know him and love him better? Suddenly, reading my Bible became more of a “want to” than a “have to.”
I began to see that God wants me to attend church services. Not because I have to, but because I get to. It is a chance for me to be with other people who are also seeking out God’s voice in their lives. It is an opportunity to be encouraged and to grow in what I believe. Gathering with other people weekly to worship Jesus puts fuel in my tank and gives me perspective and insight into what He is doing.
Over the years, I’ve come to love the religious practice of my relationship with God. I like to take walks with Him. Sometimes I listen to worship music. Other times I walk in silence. Or, I even have days when I talk to Him aloud the whole time. We hang out. And I am refreshed by His presence. I’m learning to listen to Him more. I don’t hear an audible voice, but I have begun to notice His presence more. It may be the birds chirping to one another, the sound of the leaves in the wind, or the peace that overcomes me when I just slow down and talk with Him.
I have begun to understand that these religious practices are more than simply checking off a list; they grow my relationship with God. They go hand in hand. Spending time with Him, attending church, asking questions, and reading my Bible are all ways that keep me ever-growing. They bring consistency and keep me disciplined in my pursuit of relationship with God. Without one, the other seems empty.
Want to read more on faith for every day? Start here:
What My Faith Says About My Purpose
My Embarrassing Moment at Church Changed Me (For Better)
Building Faith: Growing in Your Relationship with God
There’s No One Right Way to Feed Your Faith
To the Christian Woman With a Crooked Past
Why It’s Important to Be Involved in a Local Church and How to Pick One
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