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Fixing Our Churches – The Lost Love

Westboro Baptist Church picket in Beverly Hills

Westboro Baptist Church picket in Beverly Hills (Photo credit: k763)

Fixing Our Churches – The Lost Love

Acts 2:44-47 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 44 All the believers kept meeting together, and they shared everything with each other. 45 From time to time, they sold their property and other possessions and distributed the money to anyone who needed it. 46 The believers had a single purpose and went to the temple every day. They were joyful and humble as they ate at each other’s homes and shared their food. 47 At the same time, they praised God and had the good will of all the people. Every day the Lord saved people, and they were added to the group.

I was reading some articles about the problems that churches in the United States have. Things like lack of commitment, not teaching the Word (implies teaching a western university method with references and focused on the western academic mind), keeping the finances up with the perceived needs of the congregation, and on and on.

There actually were several articles with really good and deeply profound ideas, but I noticed that many of these articles missed what it seems to me was the core of the early church.

The early church (no matter how large or small) had at it’s core one key focus – one another. I am intrigued by the American church’s focus on either getting bigger by counting registered members or on staying small at all costs because “it is more personal”.

Both have their merits as a church that is not growing is clearly not focused on living out the great commission. A Christian church that is not reaching the unsaved and not only leading them to Christ but also discipling these new believers is hard-pressed to say it is a Christian church when it is not following the core mission it was given by Christ.

Matthew 28:18-20 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 18 When Jesus came near, he spoke to them. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 So wherever you go, make disciples of all nations: Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach them to do everything I have commanded you. “And remember that I am always with you until the end of time.”

On the other hand a church that is so big that the people don’t know or care about one another is not showing the love that was to be the mark of the church. It simply becomes a ritualistic exercise that assumes that there is some magic power to just being in the building and performing some amount of the ritual that is done there.

John 13:34-35 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 34 “I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way that I have loved you. 35 Everyone will know that you are my disciples because of your love for each other.”

Both (very commonly expressed) points are valid, but I am not sure that the size of the worship or celebration service is the problem, as a matter of fact, I am convinced that these are symptoms of a bigger problem. The problem is the focus on anything but the “community of believers”.

I am not saying that there is the absence of this concept, what I am saying is that there seems to always be something else that is more important than this key focus.

In my travels, most churches have an element of discussion on building some kind of deeply interpersonal community of believers, but it is almost always overshadowed by some other focus.

In research, discussion, debate, study and so on, I can usually find reasons for various focuses that each church model or denomination had for their focuses. These were not bad things even in the models of church that seemed to be miserably failing. To be honest, many of the models that seemed to be miserably failing seemed to have a focus that was for a particular season. The season merely seemed to change and the church simply didn’t change with it. God moved and the church decided to stay.

I know I have written a lot in the past about church models and those that know me have probably had a few conversations about church models, but I do not think that even that is the real issue and I am not convinced that simply changes models will fix the struggles of the western church in the long term.

THE PROBLEM IS NOT STRICTLY ONE OF MODEL, STRUCTURE OR CONTENT, THE PROBLEM IS PUTTING FIRST THINGS FIRST!!! Look at this verse:

Revelation 2:2-4 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) 2 I know what you have done—how hard you have worked and how you have endured. I also know that you cannot tolerate wicked people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not apostles. You have discovered that they are liars. 3 You have endured, suffered trouble because of my name, and have not grown weary. 4 However, I have this against you: The love you had at first is gone.

This message to the church in Ephesus has some interesting points:

  1. They work and endure
  2. They do not tolerate wicked people
  3. They test those who claim to be called of God and weed them out
  4. They stand up for their faith even in the face of great adversity
  5. THE LOVE THEY HAD AT FIRST IS GONE!!!

I have been taught in the past that the first love they had forgotten was the Word of God. Of course this was taught as a logical progression from the idea that the first love was Jesus, by extension that means that the first love was what Jesus told them to do and so that means the fist love is the Word of God where what Jesus wants believers to do is explained. I do believe that idea to be a part of the truth, but there is a more obvious idea expressed in the context of the time.

That period of history where the New Testament was not assembled yet, Old Testament texts were rooms full of scrolls in temples and there was little chance in Ephesus of doing things the way we do them in our modern contexts so although many of these sort of interpretations fit into our context and quality exegesis of the scripture they may not fit into their context.

So although our modern interpretations are okay, what did the text mean at the time. I wasn’t there and have limited insight into the deeper details of their context, but there is something I have been pondering: The key is what the Church in Ephesus’ first love was and how that plays out in our modern lives.

I started with the obvious question of what role love is supposed to play in the Church and in the lives of Christians. The most obvious place to start:

Matthew 22:37-40 New International Version (NIV) 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I would have to say that the first love we were all told to have is in fact God with all of our hearts. In this passage, Jesus himself describes what the “by extensions” are. Loving others a part of loving God. Anything we do that is supposed to be about loving God has to be completely tied to loving others.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) –  I may speak in the languages of humans and of angels. But if I don’t have love, I am a loud gong or a clashing cymbal. 2 I may have the gift to speak what God has revealed, and I may understand all mysteries and have all knowledge. I may even have enough faith to move mountains. But if I don’t have love, I am nothing. 3 I may even give away all that I have and give up my body to be burned. But if I don’t have love, none of these things will help me.

Anything that is done without love (particularly expressions of God to other people as noted in this passage) is nothing and is definitely not truly expressing God. Now think about the church in Ephesus:

  1. They work and endure
  2. They do not tolerate wicked people
  3. They test those who claim to be called of God and weed them out
  4. They stand up for their faith even in the face of great adversity

But, some kind of “love” was not involved that was supposed to be. I think it is obvious that love of God is supposed to be everyone’s first love and is what is being directly expressed here. It is the details of what they were or were not doing that is still a bit unclear. According to Jesus Love for God and expressing love for others are tied together. It is possible to work, endure, not tolerate wicked people, test what people teach and stand up for faith while not expressing love for others.

I have been around people who seem to be like this. They do lots of Christian stuff, they can tell you whats wrong with how others live out a relationship with or talk about God. They can boldly defend their theology yat they do all of this with no real expressing of love in a way that the people they encounter can experience the love of God through them.

There is that idea that showing love is trying to force people to believe as their theology dictates and to argue with them if they do not is a great showing of love. The mere idea of loving someone by force is a strange concept in and of itself, but this idea of what the passage is describing is something we commonly see even now. Was the church at Ephesus a church of doers but not lovers?

This possible translation in mind, it would seem that the most important things that a church should be about are:

  1. Loving God
  2. Loving others (starting with each other which is the way others would know that we are God’s people)

If this does not permeate everything that a church does, the things that the church is doing is just a loud gong or clashing cymbal to God and to the world around them.

Most mainline churches have plans and programs to involve elements of loving the community or people in “missions fields” somewhere remote and poor, but are these really the love we are to show one another. That love for one another is a key outward expression of the the church that is supposed to be evident to all. Every church is supposed to exude this kind of love in a way that love for God, love for all people and definitely love for one another is what any outsider should be able to see and experience at any church.

This kind of love is something I have serious doubts about creating via a program or a six week sermon series. First off, this is a key ingredient and not some afterthought that we add later. This is even more than mindsets and theological thoughts; this is a lifestyle that should permeate the congregation create a sustained atmosphere within the church.

The question is how do we get this lifestyle throughout our churches? One thought is asking ourselves if the model we are using is the most likely model to produce this kind of love for God, one another, and the people around us or not. I may be generalizing a bit, but just finding some building and sitting through a sermon most Sundays and maybe going to a midweek service.

Many people do more like join ministry teams or groups within the church, but instead of being a portion of the church that has deeper relationships with each other and spends time together, shouldn’t it be the norm and those that don’t the exception? Shouldn’t everyone be deeply interconnected with the other people in the church? Shouldn’t everyone there quite naturally care for and about one another.

I am amazed at how many times one or two isolate incidents of members of the church caring for one another are paraded around by church members. Doesn’t the fact these are such big news imply that these sorts of things are incredibly rare.

I know I am partial to churches either having a small group component or consisting entirely of small groups, but that is because that seems to be the only way that these things can happen on a deeper level.

We have to use models that best facilitate the growth of this kind of love for God, for each other and for the people of earth on the deepest levels.

Many of the models we western churchgoers and western churches are comfortable in wouldn’t even have room to discuss but the deepest issues of an incredibly small segment of the congregation. As a matter of fact, if we tried to discuss the problems and needs of every person in the church each week, there would not only be too little time in the service to get through them all, I doubt if there would be enough time in the week. Our services are not structured for this information, so how could it be possible for the people in the church to respond to these problems and needs if they have no way of knowing them?

So yes, my suggestions on this key issue does include small groups. I simply do not see how you can get this personal and involved in every person’s life without breaking it into smaller more personal settings. Having small groups and studies/discussions designed to lead to community is still artificial, but it also much more likely to develop in these environments and the tools are just to aid something that could probably happen on it’s own.

The church described in Acts met together everywhere and did all kinds of things together as well of taking care of one another. It wasn’t some program the Apostles came up with, it was simply the lifestyle ans those that joined were really likely to do the same.

It is very common in years past to hear great speakers saying the church is the people and not the building. There is more to that. The churches job is to love God and to love the people and there is nothing stated in the New Testament about loving the building or the address.

I guess what I am proposing is a question more than an answer. Have we as the American church lost the love? I am not asking about one church or the group of deeply spiritual people at every church that do more than the general membership of the church. I am asking if the general state of the church in America is one that exudes an atmosphere of love for God, each other and people in general that it is most likely what each person experiences most with any contact with us?

It is funny that most people I know that do not believe see us as angry at the world, complaining about politics (especially complaining about democrats), we hate homosexuals, we don’t accept those who don’t believe, we hate anyone who thinks abortions are okay and on and on.

I know these things are not true and is totally the opposite of many American Christians and so on, But what all of that does not reflect is that people know us for our love. The American church is most known in my area as the people who hate this and hate that and hate these people etc. I am not saying not to have political views or to take stands on morality etc., but no matter what we are doing love has to be broadcast as the message or we are misrepresenting Christ.

As I said before, it’s not about a program or just adding small groups, this is about a complete change of focus for the American church and many churchgoers.

If you want to fix your church experience, your church, or the American church as a whole this must be the starting point. Have we lost the love we are supposed to have? Do we love God and one another in such a way that love the core of who we are and everybody can see it? Do we love others so much that everyone knows us for our love? If we cannot answer yes to all of that we cannot answer yes to any of it and definitely cannot say we are loving God without a deep level of loving others.