At my age I have a good bit of experience with love. I’ve been married a good long while, I have five children, and I have seven grandchildren … so far. And so I can say with a certainty that you can love your church to growth, and you can love your church to death. Let me explain.
Throughout my whole life our culture and the media in particular has taught us that love is either a warm mushy feeling in your stomach or a red hot burst of emotion. Yes, we are taught that the word love includes what we feel for our mother, our father, our children, etc., but if that “love” was defined using Webster’s dictionary it would at best rank a 2 in the common usage list. And so, when I hear about love in the church you would hardly be surprised to discover that I get very uncomfortable and begin to squirm in my seat.Therefore, when I talk about loving your church I must begin by defining what I mean.
Loving Your Church to Death
If we embrace cultures most common definitions of love and apply them to the church there is a problem. I don’t just mean priests and children or pastors and pianists, but how the average member in the church treats one another. When it comes to culture’s love we are invited to do it with gusto and if it doesn’t work out … oh well! We just move on to someone new. And if the sitcoms and movies portray anything about our exes, we know that estrangement means never having to say you’re sorry. Culture’s love also teaches us that in general love means accepting, or at least overlooking, behavior that is less than savory – unless it affects us directly then we’re simply encouraged to leave.
Translate culture’s love into church and you get pretty much what we have in the church. If we don’t like something, we leave. If someone demonstrates bad behavior, if it isn’t directed at us, we’d rather just leave it alone, ignore it, or look away. On the other hand, if it does affect us directly it’s easier just to leave than to confront, correct, or deal with the behavior in any way. But that’s not the only way to love the church to death. We love the church to death when church becomes all about us, our preferences, and/or our traditions. My favorite image that portrays a church that loves itself to death is an all-church group hug. When we are busy loving on ourselves in a great big group hug those outside the church, outside the kingdom, can only see our backsides. But what’s worse is that when we are in a big group hug the only thing we can see is ourselves … and we can’t see those who are outside our circle.
It is interesting just how invisible the “others” can be in the church. I’ve seen this phenomenon in virtually every established church that I have worked with over the past twenty years. When church leadership gets serious about growing their church two things happen. First, as preparations are made for growth a longtime family or two will leave the church. The second thing that happens is that new people will begin to come to church and the church sees significant growth. Time and again, those who have been long-time members may be unable to see the growth. Instead, there is a general hue and cry by long-time members that the church is in crisis and in jeopardy because of these losses. In fact, all they can see are the holes in the congregation where their longtime friends used to sit. They only see the losses, they are unable to see the gain.
When a church is unable to see others and don’t care about or value those outside the church (as evidenced by their deeds and how they spend their congregational funds), that church is heading for decline. They will literally love themselves to death.
Loving Your Church To Growth
It is possible to love your church to growth, but to do so effectively we must embrace the biblical understanding and practice of love. To begin with, the New Testament introduces what I call the fivefold love.
- Love God
- Love your neighbor
- Love yourself
- Love your enemy
- Love one another
That pretty well covers everybody. Perhaps the only explanation needed is between loving your neighbor and loving one another. Jesus defined our neighbors pretty much as everybody who doesn’t fit (or maybe even those who do fit) into a different category. On the other hand, the one another’s is a different story. Jesus said that he was giving us a new commandment to love one another. Throughout the New Testament, the one another’s are defined as our brothers and sisters in Christ, that is the church.
In a spare moment, do a word search of the New Testament for “one another” and for “each other.” As you do, you will discover there is a specific manner by which we are to treat those in the church. For instance, what would happen if everyone in the church were to take seriously the command in Romans 12:10 to “honor one another above yourselves”? Or what would happen if everyone in the church took seriously the command in Hebrews 3:13 to encourage one another daily in the faith? What would it be like if we, like the New Testament church in Acts 4:34, refused to allow any of our members to “be in need”?
But I have not yet really defined love as it is defined in the New Testament. I realize I hardly need to redefine agape love for our readers. Not because the word agape is so well known and understood in the church that it is above definition. No, the only definition that really needs to be given for what love means in the New Testament, especially as it concerns the one anothers, is the one Jesus gives and Paul expounds upon. Jesus said that the new commandment was to love one another (John 13:34). Paul reminds his readers that to love one another in accordance to that new commandment is to be willing to “give yourselves up” for the church (Ephesians 5:25). The reality is, that too many of our members are unwilling to yield on points of preference or tradition for the sake of one another, let alone to die for one another.
Loving your church to growth means taking seriously all the one another’s – not just the convenient ones. Once upon a time the church experienced significant growth, not so much because evangelism was a key practice, but because the church loved each other so well that the rest of the community sat up, took notice, and wanted to be a part of that kind of love. This is the phenomenon that Tertullian made mention of in his writings, “they say, ‘ my how they love one another’.” Indeed, it is from this phrase that the song They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love was inspired.
As Valentine’s Day creeps up, let us not get caught up in our culture’s love, but in the New Testament’s “love one anothers.” When we do, growing churches is certain to follow.
If your church isn’t practicing the One-Anothers effectively, be sure to order the FlipYourChurch.com Training DVD Conflict CPR – Conflict Prevention and Reconciliation. The series includes a study of the One-Anothers and steps to implement a congregational code of conduct that is consistent with the above article.