As I continue this series on the church, I want to remind you that these observations are not limited to my experience as a pastor alone. These are a compilation from other pastors I know in the area and across the country who are experiencing the same.
I’ve thought a lot about love recently. Our modern understanding of love has immensely deviated from God’s design. This has led to so many problems in nearly every relationship we have.
I recently wrote on the topic of love, but feel compelled to keep writing. I’m not speaking of romantic love, though this affects that. While “romantic” love as it is portrayed on screen and on the page is perhaps the most infected with this virus, tall the ways we love each other has been affected.
I’m also not speaking to those outside the church at large. I don’t expect non-believers to love unconditionally, it’s likely impossible to do so. You’re more than welcome to read on, but I’m not directing my thoughts toward you. I’m talking to people who have received God’s unconditional love offered to them through Jesus on the cross. What we have received is what we are supposed to put into practice. Are we?
As I said before, unconditional love only exists when there are no conditions put on that love.
Now, I’ll grant you that I’m a weirdo. That’s not new information to anyone. All my life I have connected more with people much older than me than I ever have with people my own age. Probably because I was generally unaccepted by people my own age. Maybe that’s why I think this way.
At the same time, the state of the church when I was growing up was very intergenerational. Yes we had youth group and programs for kids. But, so much of our church life was intergenerational. We didn’t do play dates with just kids. Sometimes it was a family with kids, other times it was older couples or widows in the church. Some of my fondest memories are times our family spent with people much older than us.
What did we have in common? By modern standards, not much. We weren’t in the same life-stage, we didn’t have family on the same sports team, we didn’t root for the same sports teams, we didn’t live in the same neighborhoods, or even the same town. But, we went to the same church and that was enough to bring us and keep us together. My family was at that church most of my life. There was a commitment to one another that surpassed other things. But that changed just as things have changed in society.
Things Have Changed
There, of course, are exceptions to what I’m about to reference and they are shining examples for all of us to follow. There are people who love unconditionally and have been doing so for generations. Unfortunately it seems that these examples are exceptions to what is becoming more and more normal.
As you know from my earlier posts, the Bible presents the church as a covenantal community of believers. Covenants, like marriage (or like marriage is supposed to be), are not contracts. A contract is: “You do this and I do this. If you fail to that, I am within my rights to do this.” Unfortunately, many of these contracts are unspoken agreements that are unknown until they are violated, at which point it’s usually too late.
But, just because we don’t treat something like a covenant doesn’t mean it’s no longer what it is. Even though our perspective has changed, the consequences of neglecting the covenant have not. As in a marriage, when the covenant is broken, there is trauma. And, as we have all witnessed in our own lives, it’s those left behind who tend to deal with the brunt of it. I and many pastors I know have had so many conversations with people who ask questions when people leave like: “What did we do wrong? What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with us?” And like so many parents deal with in a divorce there are answers to these questions that can’t be given because they come across as gossip or slander. For years I would tell people to ask them about it, but that usually ended in gossip or slander too.
You might be asking yourself, “Why are you writing these posts? Aren’t you just complaining?” I felt that way for a long time. I have a draft of an article I tried to write in 2016 about this topic, but I didn’t want to complain. I have another 8-10 articles over the past 4 years I’ve tried to write, but haven’t. The reason I’m writing is I see a massive problem in the church that isn’t being addressed, probably because it’s difficult to do so. Our church hopping, church shopping mentality towards church has vastly diminished the testimony of the church in society at large. We jump from church to church, attacking the churches and leadership as we leave with no thoughts of the consequences of our actions.
The Role I Played In The Problem
Just so you know, when it comes to blame, I look in the mirror. When it comes to the origination of the problem, we need not look any further than church leaders. The moment we turned church into a matter of preference, we started the church down the slippery slope we now find ourselves careening down out of control.
In the name of “relevance” we pushed our churches out of covenant, to contract to “month to month”. We never said it, but with our decisions we communicated to our congregations that the new covenant was not the most important thing, but keeping up with other churches and trends was the most important. We said the mission was the most important thing and that we should never change the mission. And I believe that the majority of pastors believed that all along. But the mission of the gospel seemed to take a backseat to the mission of attracting people to our churches with relevance.
And I pushed for relevance for a long time. Especially when I was a younger worship pastor, I pushed hard to “get the church into this century”. I’m as guilty as anyone for the mess we’re in. Now, I will tell you something I think is still true. Yes, we should never be married to a method and the church at large was married to a method. But, our fight to free ourselves from those outdated methods became so boisterous and adamant that it ended up overshadowing the mission while those clinging to outdated methods fought just as hard for things to stay the same.
So, what’s love got to do with it?
I suppose I should get to my point.
Whether it’s loving other individuals or the church at large, somehow we have to get back to covenantal love and away from the conformist “love” we have adopted.
What I mean is, we love others and our church as long as they conform to our preconceived notions of who/what we think they should be. In essence, we love others as long as they conform to our image of who they should be. We love one another as long as they are trying to live with our expectations of who they are supposed to be. We love churches as long as those churches seek to live up to our ever increasing list of demands of what church “is supposed to be”. We create pages and pages of terms and conditions on our unspoken contracts, holding people accountable to them and condemning them when they fail to live up to them.
What we don’t realize is that we are trying to create church in our own image. We are trying to create relationships that fit our own image.
That’s a problem. We were never meant to force people to fit into our ideals of who they are supposed to be as people. That’s God’s job. At the same time, were never meant to force the church to adapt to our ideals of what church is supposed to be. Again, that’s only for God to define.
If we’re going to get the church back to a point where it’s “walking” testimony lines up with it’s “talking” testimony, we have to learn to unconditionally love people as they are, not merely for their potential to “become” that person or church. The kind of love we’re supposed to have in the church is supposed to be so radically different from the love of the world. People outside the church are supposed to be able to look at the way we love one another and know that we are followers of Jesus. But, we don’t even love one another the way Jesus said to love our enemies.
Jesus said, “If any man would follow me, He must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” For years I didn’t know what it meant to take up your cross. But then, one day it hit me. It’s the new covenant. In that upper room, Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” He also said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” And John said that in that upper room, Jesus showed us the full extent of His love. The way we take up our cross is the same way Jesus took up His – we lay down our lives for one another before they have done anything to earn such an act. Jesus did not go to the cross after the disciples had earned his love, but before. In fact, when he was carrying the cross, his disciples were hiding in fear for their lives.
This is the kind of love we’re supposed to love one another with. Not a love the demands and expects terms and conditions to be met and holds them over the head of those who must meet them as prison of our love. That’s not love, that’s terrorism.
If we could somehow find a way to lay our preferences aside, stop demanding people to live up to our ideals and truly and faithfully love one another unconditionally, then I think an unbelieving world would be drawn to us like a moth to a flame. That would truly be the beginning of something special, the beginning of a kind of love the world does not understand.
“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them”― Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island
I want to love like that.