Growing up in church, no memories stand out in which the phrase "personal relationship with Jesus" played any significant part. That is not to say that I never heard it, just that in what were my given ecclesial circles -- both youth and adult -- the expression exerted little to no formative weight.
However, and precisely for that reason, I was not immediately cognizant of the unfortunate uses to which the popular all-purpose phrase was put. It sounded to me both innocuous and generically (if blandly) correct, and so it took some time for me to grasp the offhand critiques and snide dismissals of those who paraded around such an (apparently) sappy and sentimental sense of faith. Since these were -- if not in congregational fact, then at least by the concentric circles of tradition, similar beliefs and practices, and sheer proximity -- "my people," I took the insults personally on their behalf, given what I knew many of them meant by the phrase. It was only when I realized what some others intended by it that I comprehended, and found myself in fullest agreement with, the critiques leveled by theological and other authorities.
My own language, personal and theological, remains more or less devoid of talk of a "personal relationship with Jesus" (or God), so I have no intention of rehabilitating a perhaps already irrevocably damaged expression (whether or not that spoiling deserves a cheer of "Good riddance!"). What I would like to do, instead, is to explicate the two chief alternative meanings behind uses of the saying, and so to defend one of them over against the other.
One use of "a personal relationship with Jesus" might be glossed as "an unmediated individual codependency with a self-validating ghost." All the key themes are there, for the phrase is deployed in an effort, first, to undercut connection to outward forms and to the church (warehouses of the bodily, by way of mediated living and communality); second, to engender an unhealthy independence from all other relationships except this one (thus making "this one" the far end of a continuum of ordinary "relationships," and so a case of soft idolatry); and, third, to facilitate a disembodied spirituality focused on an ever-present spooky companion who can always be relied upon to affirm me-and-my-decisions. And so we have it: the ever-reliant, ever-friendly, ever-smiling Jesus of American pop evangelicalism.
This Jesus is, of course, a terrifying (and quite new) hybrid creation of human hands, often innocent but at times deeply harmful in ugly and lasting ways, certainly to the gospel but no less to actual people's lives. Whole books have been written on the subject, so more of my two cents is unneeded.
My claim, however, is that there is another way of using the expression that both intends something substantially different than what is taken to be its more common use, and commends itself as theologically defensible, even valuable (in content if not in now-ruined parlance). This second glossing goes something like this: "personal relationship with Jesus" signifies that mediated but intimate relation, both communal and individual, to the risen crucified Messiah given to the church in the power of the Spirit.
Per this reading, "personal" stands in merely as antithesis to impersonal: God is no self-projected abstraction nor some generic numinousness, but rather living and acting, with a name and a story; a Person, not a thing -- or better, a communion of Persons, a personal communion, and therefore ripe for relation. (One encounters this emphasis especially in older church members who grew up in profoundly strict "religious" environments. The discovery that God is not a capricious and distant object to be appeased by formalized dead ritual is received as the genuine good news that it is.)
This brings us to the second term: "relationship" need not connote radical individualism or lack of mediation. It names, rather, the fact that what happens in the Christ event, in the incarnation of the living God among us, is the objective and subjective "new relation" in which humanity as a structural whole, and the church as a proleptic foretaste, stands before God. This "personal relationship" is neither islanded as an ideal nor alienated by distance, but, paradigmatically, is marked by the fellowship and mediation of life in community oriented "in both directions" by and to the God revealed in Jesus.
And who is this Jesus? Is it the ghost who puts to rest our fear that we might be wrong? No, this One is the crucified Jesus now risen in the power of God's Spirit -- and so the Jesus of both judgment and forgiveness, the true Jesus who speaks the divine No and the divine Yes, together and unseparated, on each of our lives. It is this Jesus and no other with whom we have, because we have been given, together, a "personal relationship."
Though the theological articulacy may be slight, and the terminology less than exact, and the usage at times slippery with ambiguity -- with the temptation never absent to adduce guilt by association -- this latter glossed meaning is, I propose, often as not the intended one. And whether it is or not, for those of us who hail from the tiny ranks of the theologically trained, ever ready with linguistic scalpel in hand, it seems a reasonable enough act of charity to let our first assumption be the better and the more respectable one.