Four essentials of a church: love

Love is like heat. So many things in life seem wonderful — pizza, a shower, a cup of coffee, a seat by the window, an iron — until you realize they’re cold. After all, what do you call a morning when you step into the shower and find there’s no hot water? A bad way to start the day.

Love is the warmth of life. It sustains us, inspires us, redeems our weakness, revives our hope, restores our strength, and animates our relationships. Inversely, its absence is its opposite in effect, which is why love matters in a church.

A friend was visiting a seriously ill relative at an out-of-state hospital. After a week-long bedside vigil, she excused herself on Sunday morning to find comfort and encouragement at a local church with a friendly website. Sixty minutes later, after no greetings, zero eye contact, eight songs, and a trendy talk on gender identity, she made her way to the door. There, she was handed a plastic egg with a note inside: “Join us next week for Easter!!!”

A bit of love would have found more traction.

So, where is all the love? There’s nothing more important than figuring this out. Scripture delivers sturdy reminders on the topic. Without love, spiritual gifts mean nothing. Knowledge means nothing. Faith, generosity, and sacrifice mean nothing. Toil and perseverance and discernment and endurance mean nothing. Love must come first.

On the positive side, who wouldn’t want to belong to a group known for its patience, kindness, faithfulness, forgiveness, humility, and grace? Who wouldn’t welcome friends and family who see the best in you, believe in you, root for you, pray for you, honor you, accept you, care for you, serve you, forgive you, build you up, bear your burdens, comfort your soul, lift your spirits, and do you good? Sign me up!

If this is all true of love (which it is), where is all the love?

First of all, there’s plenty of it throughout the church. One sad story doesn’t mean there’s no love anywhere. But it’s not always easy to find, and it’s even less easy to practice. Love is costly, and for most of us (including myself), it needs to be learned. What is the meaning of love? Where does it come from? How does it work? What’s the right way to do it? Are there wrong ways to do it? How do you know you’ve loved well, even when it isn’t reciprocated? How do you keep loving when your tank runs dry?

These questions are worth answering because love can be learned. After all, it’s a byproduct of walking in the Spirit. But it requires intentionality.

Back in the day we heated our house with a wood stove. Fuel was everywhere (we lived in a forest), but felling, cutting, carting, splitting, stacking, fetching, arranging, igniting, and cleaning up the mess were neither easy nor natural. But once the effort was made, it brought warmth, satisfaction, self-confidence, strength, and legendary tales of log-splitting exploit. Plus, “free” heat!

The church that learns love will be a church without enough seats. But that’s OK. I’d be willing to stand in the back of such a church.

Four essentials of a church: discipling

I know a flight instructor. His goal is to work himself out of a job. Through months of instruction, discussion, and simulations, he pours his experience and expertise into his students. They cover everything from engines to air frames to instruments to navigation to pilot-speak. Eventually, they go airborne together, and then the student goes it alone.

And that’s just the beginning. Hours of flight time follow, along with new ratings, more complex procedures, and larger planes. Over time, the student learns to think like a pilot, becomes the instructor, and trains the next generation of pilots.

This captures the idea of discipleship. Choosing to follow Christ begins the process of learning to become like Him, usually under the influence of someone farther along. The process takes time and involves sacrifice. It’s transformational, not behavioral. The goal is not to act like Jesus, but to become the person He would be in our shoes.

Discipleship isn’t orderly or systematic. No two people are alike, human nature resists submission, and the world works to erase it all. Which is why the church is crucial to the discipleship process. It takes the support of skillful shepherds and the shared gifts of the Holy Spirit to bring us to maturity in Christ.

On the technical side, there are essential habits that feed the process, such as ceaseless prayer, studying the Bible, spiritual conversations, and allowing wisdom to inform lifestyle choices. There are also major themes and practices to master. For example, a maturing disciple is a person who is learning to:

  1. Love God wholeheartedly, and others as oneself
  2. Abide in Christ
  3. Walk in the Spirit
  4. Live in community with other believers
  5. Identify as a kingdom citizen

Each of these themes is central to Christ’s teachings, New Testament writings, and the Old Testament narrative. Together they form the core worldview and daily lifestyle of a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Flight instruction doesn’t require a Ph.D. in flying. What it calls for is the skill, experience, and willingness to help others through their paces. Often, it’s a team effort with different instructors covering the various elements. This provides a blending of strengths while mitigating individual weaknesses. The crucial thing is not to have a roomful of aces, but a culture of investing in one another.

A church that sponsors such discipleship is a church that brings the compounded influence of Christ to its members and community. Neither will remain unchanged.

Surprisingly, on top of all this — shepherding, shared gifting, and discipleship — there is one more thing I’d look for in a church. Something assumed, yet worth calling out. It’s the cultivation of love. For all the right things we might do as a gathering of believers, it’s love that gives it life.

Four essentials of a church: gifting

Once, my wife and I volunteered to organize a church dinner. We exhausted ourselves, weathered much grumbling, and left hungry. Next time we will host a potluck! It’s great sport to make fun of potlucks, but they tell a good story. Everyone brings a favorite dish, all get fed, and no one gets burned out.

The idea of church is reflected in the potluck concept. Each follower of Christ is endowed with a gift — a “favorite dish” that others need. From faith to mercy to discernment to teaching to encouragement to service to wisdom to giving (and many more), each of us brings something necessary to the group. Exercised together, our combined gifts make every member healthy and mature.

This imagery flows through the Epistles (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:7), but is best captured in Ephesians 4:11-16, where the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

The trouble is, not every gift is relevant to a Sunday service. Many lend themselves to interpersonal application throughout the week in the context of community. This creates an important tension for church leaders since the majority of churchgoers only show up on Sunday morning. For them, attending church is no more interactive than attending a movie. Slip in, face forward, listen, and leave. While such a model is efficient for group instruction, it’s largely impersonal and deprives everyone the benefit of each other’s gifting.

This is why I would look for a church that prioritizes the shared investment of spiritual gifts.

There are plenty of good examples out there. Many “Sunday service” churches invest heavily in classes, community groups, gift training, prayer teams, service projects, and various other “throughout the week” interactions. Some Brethren churches (assemblies) also do this well. They champion shared ownership, investment, accountability, and weekday involvement. I’ve also seen larger churches that retain a Sunday gathering for singing and Scripture reading, but push everything else (e.g., Ephesians 4:11-16) into scores of homes throughout the community. That’s where the people meet for teaching, fellowship, prayer, and the exercise of all their gifts. Leaders (e.g., elders and deacons) are centrally trained but serve locally. No one is unknown in these groups, and all share their gifts.

Many smaller churches naturally function this way. They live close, know each other, and depend on one another. Being the fragrance of Christ in small communities isn’t easy, so it takes everyone to make it work.

But it is the shepherds who train the group to exercise their gifts (vv. 11-12). Sunday services rely on the gifts of a few dedicated members, but it’s the everyday contribution of every member that raises the level of “Christlikeness” for the entire group. And since Scripture doesn’t prescribe a method for being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, it takes intentionality to make it happen. To create a shared worldview that reveals no other way to thrive than to thrive together. This is why the third element I’d look for in a church is intentional discipleship.

Four essentials of a church: shepherding

Thriving is usually traced to nurture. Whether it’s through healthy parenting, husbandry, or guardianship, things well-cared-for tend to flourish.

This is especially true of spiritual development. Since it is personal, less tangible, and takes greater determination to cultivate, spiritual well-being can’t be homogenized or mass-produced. People need to be personally invested in.

Which sets up a consequential challenge for the determined church. Skillful shepherding is a central reason why followers of Jesus gather, and anonymity doesn’t breed thriving.

The Apostle Paul signals this in his letter to the church at Colossae, where he describes toiling with all his energy to present everyone mature in Christ. The Apostle John also reveals such an interest in his third letter: I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. Jesus, preparing Peter for his future work with the church, repeated it three times.  Feed  my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

The writer of Hebrews adds the element of accountability to church leaders for the well-being of those under their care: for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Accountability to a higher authority lends weight to any endeavor, and it makes sense here. God loves His children and wants them to thrive. So, He entrusts them to us.

What does it look like to “shepherd” each of God’s children? The two best biblical descriptions come from Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34. The first boasts of God’s shepherding, and the second describes healthy shepherding inversely by citing its absence. Here are highlights:

A good shepherd looks after the flock, meets their needs, provides rest and good pasture, strengthens the weak, heals the sick, binds the wounds of the injured, searches for the lost, rescues the strays when they scatter during dark times, deals with bullies and abusers, protects them from predators, and blesses them. (Click here for a more complete list.)

The idea of shepherding is central to “church.” It’s how we love one another toward thriving, which is why Jesus felt compassion for those who were missing out.

The obvious tension here is how one person (or three or eight . . . ) can possibly shepherd a church full of people. I don’t believe it’s possible, and especially not when the only gathering point is a group meeting. That’s why the second element I’d look for in a church is a shared investment in the group.

Training in reality

What Christians believe can be viewed as quaint.

Eugene Peterson refers to this in his book, The Contemplative Pastor, and he doesn’t like it. When some business person shakes his hand after church and says, “This was wonderful, Pastor, but now we have to get back to the real world,” Peterson bristles. He isn’t taking this seriously, he thinks.

Continuing, he observes:

If he realized that I actually believe the American way of life is doomed to destruction, and that another kingdom is right now being formed in secret to take its place, he wouldn’t be at all pleased.

Yes, I believe that. I believe that the kingdoms of this world, American and Venezuelan and Chinese, will become the kingdom of our God and Christ, and I believe this new kingdom is already among us. That is why I’m a pastor, to introduce people to the real world and train them to live in it (page 28).

This merits consideration. As we serve in the local church (or mix with business colleagues), are we reinforcing reality? Here’s how the Apostle Paul described reality to the Ephesians:

All this energy issues from Christ: God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence (Ephesians 1:20-23; The Message).

Revealing reality is hard work. It requires ingenuity, prayerful experimentation . . . and humility. Peterson calls it subversive. I can’t think of anything more significant.

Patrick O’Brian for pastors

My pastor friends inspire me. Their work is redemptive — and rigorous. I see them straining at the oars for months at a time, and I see God’s grace in their wake.

When we talk books, this is what I hear: commentaries, theology, and reference. Also, books about the church, leadership, spiritual life, and social issues. Plus business, history, biography. Books that strengthen souls and sharpen skills.

winedarkseaCuriously, only once have I found a pastor who reads Patrick O’Brian. Why is that? Vivid, witty, and keenly insightful, few books better convey the nuances of human nature and relationship than O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.

For example, here’s an episode that helped me, and I think should be part of every pastor’s mental imagery. It features a season of storm. We’ve all weathered the tempest, and we’ve walked with others through their storms as well. In The Wine-Dark Sea, O’Brian captures the four cycles of difficult seasons in just three pages.

1. All is well. The story begins in the Pacific as the Surprise and her crew chart a course for Cape Horn. They all know tough times are coming, but these are days for covering ground and gaining strength . . .

“I do not like the prospect of this Horn,” said Stephen in a low voice, “or all this haste to reach it. I will need weeks of calm to prepare.”

“Well, Doctor,” said Jack, “some weeks I think I can promise you. The trade [winds] are blowing as sweetly as ever our best friends could wish.”

The promised weeks they had, weeks of pure sailing, with the Surprise slanting cross the prevailing wind and often logging two hundred sea-miles between one noon observation and the next. Weeks of close, satisfying work for Stephen, and weeks of ardent sailoring for Jack, with evenings full of music: fresh fish over the side, and penguins in constant attendance. And when at last the trade winds faltered and left them, within a day the even more favorable westerlies took over.

2. The winds increase. Difficulties are on the horizon, so you order your life and make preparations . . .

Those were idyllic weeks; but how difficult it was to remember them, to call them vividly to mind as an experienced reality, a fortnight after the ship had sailed into the true antarctic — had sailed into that green water at fourteen knots under topsails, fore-courses and a jib, impelled by an almighty quartering wind.

The change was not unexpected. Well before this ominous parallel the frigates’s people had been engaged in shifting, packing and storing her light sails and replacing them with much heavier cloth, with storm-canvas trysails and the like for emergency. Many a watch had been spent in sending up preventer backstays, braces, shrouds and stays and in attending to new rings, robands, reef-points, reef-tackles for the courses and spilling-lines for the topsails, to say nothing of new sheets and clew lines fore and aft. Then again all the hands had rounded the Horn at least once, some many times, and they took their long woolen drawers, their mittens and their Magellan jackets very seriously when they were served out, while most of those who had had any foresight dug into their chests for Monmouth caps, Welsh wigs or padded domes with flaps to protect the wearer’s ears and strings to tie beneath his chin.

3. Hold on! Once the elements let loose you lose track of time, and it’s your deep convictions and wise preparations that make the difference . . .

This serving-out happened on a Tuesday in fine clear weather, a pleasant topgallant breeze blowing from the north-west, and it seemed almost assured: on Friday the ship was tearing eastwards with four men at the wheel, snow blurring both binnacles, hatches battened down, and the muffled watch on deck sheltering in the waist, dreading a call to grapple with the frozen rigging and board-stiff sails.

Presently, in this incessant roar of sea and wind, and in this continual tension, the vision of the warm and mild Pacific faded completely. And after a few days of the first icy blow, when the deathly chill had worked right into the whole ship from keelson to cabin, all hands began to eat with far more than usual eagerness. The roaring westerly storm had sent the ship a great way, at great speed, south and east into the high fifties, a cold region even without a wind: frequent rain; even more frequent sleet and snow; most hands wet most of the time; all of them always cold.

In such very thick weather observation was impossible for days on end, and in spite of his chronometers and well-worn sextant, and of the presence of three other expert navigators aboard, Jack could not be sure of his longitude or latitude, dead-reckoning in such wind and seas being wonderfully uncertain. He therefore reduced sail, and the frigate moved eastwards at an average of no more than three knots, sometimes under bare piles or with a mere scrap of sail right forward to give her steerage-way when the wind blew a full gale from the west.

4. Through the storm. Often without warning, you wake up one morning and realize you’ve made it through . . .

And then there was calm.  The sky cleared and Jack had a series of perfect observations of first the sun, then Achernar, and later Mars himself, positions that were confirmed by the other officers and that showed that in spite of this dawdling their initial zeal had brought them almost to the rendezvous far too soon.

Weathering a storm is a milestone experience. It makes you a different person. Stronger, leaner, wiser. Toughened, yet gentler. Children know you’re safe. Others respect you. They realize you’re less tied to this world.

It also helps to know what to expect, which is why I’ve dog-eared my copy of The Wine-Dark Sea.

And what are those preparations that bring you through the blinding gale? Each of us has our own list. Learning to trust God, investing in genuine relationships, dwelling in the Word, taking care of your soul, casting off entanglements, eliminating distractions, and so on. As Scripture often says, deep roots bear fruit.

You can read about such things in leadership books, but it’s tough to assimilate them without experience — or story. Thank you, Patrick O’Brian.

Keep a safe distance

Following a mentor is like following a truck. Leave enough distance to see where he’s going — and to swerve if he hits a pothole.

If you’re the mentor, encourage those who watch you to learn from your mistakes as well as your strengths. You don’t want them to be like you. You want them to be wiser than you.

We’re all walking in the same direction. Mentors help others go farther and get there faster.