I am blessed to serve as a part of the ministry staff for a great church. The shepherds of our church have spent the past several months in deep prayer and reflection. They have been earnestly seeking God’s will for the future of our church family. At an early stage of this process, the shepherds invited the ministers into this conversation, invited us to pray with them, to dream with them, to catch hold of God’s vision for our church. I could talk at length about the God-honoring nature of this journey, the hospitable posture of our leaders and the generous spirit that has permeated these discussions and reflections. And I’m excited because this Sunday our shepherds will share this vision with our church family as a part of our Vision Sunday.
Understandably, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about who we are as a church. I’ve been reflecting on a question I originally came across on Dr. Richard Beck’s blog, Experimental Theology:
What binds us together as a Christian community?
What is it, precisely, that binds us together as a church?
Beck contends that the nature of association in most churches is “like” — we like the same things. We like the worship service. We like the worship style. We like the preaching or we like the youth ministry or we like the children’s ministry or we like the mission program or we like a particular class…you get the idea. In many cases, we are bound together because we like the same things.
Maybe it’s deeper than any programmatic element. Maybe we genuinely like the people. We like being around like-minded people. We like the shared social strata. We like this person or that person or this group or that group and we’ve formed a shared identity with them.
But no matter how you cut it, we come back to that word. We choose our church because we “like” it.
And I wonder, isn’t there supposed to be something more?
Wait just a minute, you say. That’s not fair. What’s wrong with liking my church? What’s wrong with choosing a church with worship that I like or a youth program that I like? Should I choose a church where I don’t like the people?
But what happens when something happens that you don’t like?
In a consumeristic culture like ours, we know what happens. You leave. You find another church, one better suited to your tastes, your preferences, your theological hobby horses. You find another church you “like” even more. It happens all the time.
And again, I’m just asking: isn’t there supposed to be something more?
Wait just a minute, you say. That’s not fair. I choose to be a part of my church because of what I believe. My church stands for the Bible, for the truth of God’s Word. I choose to be a part of my church because of our common faith and our shared hope of glory.
Again, fair points.
But I’m convinced that each of these answers — while important, while essential even — falls just a bit short.
There must be something more. If we are truly going to be a Christian community in the most complete sense of the words, there must be something more, more than “liking” the same things, even more than common faith and shared hope.
In the end, it must be love.
What binds us together as a Christian community is the eternal, enduring, relentless love of God as experienced in Jesus, both now and forevermore.
If we are to be true Christian community, the nature of our communion must always run deeper than our flimsy dispositions of what we like and don’t like. The nature of our communion must transcend our cultural consumerism and the pervasive “what do I get out of it” attitude so prevalent in many of our churches. And while I would contend that common faith and shared hope are essential to the fabric of our church experience, even these elements alone aren’t quite enough.
In the end, it must be love.
It must be love for Jesus, our Savior.
Love for one another.
Love for the world.
The deep prayer and reflection of our shepherds has led them to reconsider our church’s mission statement. Tasked with doing a little investigative work, I was shocked to discover that the mission statements in many churches do not include the word love anywhere. Even more telling, most do not include the name of Jesus.
In my opinion, this makes these mission statements functionally atheistic.
Despite this harsh sounding rhetoric, I’m not here to render judgment. Note the distinction: to say a mission statement is functionally atheistic is not to label all her adherents as functional atheists. My only point is this: if the nature of our communion is ultimately understood in light of the love of Christ, shouldn’t this be reflected in our church’s mission statement?
Our churches must exist as something more than an assemblage of common “like.”
In the end, it must be love: a rugged, indestructible covenantal commitment bound by the blood of Jesus.
If I could speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am but a clanging cymbal, nothing but empty noise.
If I posses the gifts of prophecy and knowledge, understanding the deep mysteries of God, but have not love, I am nothing.
If I have mountain-moving earth-changing faith, but have not love, I can do nothing.
If I am hospitable to the point of poverty and sacrificial to the point of death, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is both patient and kind. It is not jealous, boastful, prideful, or rude. Love does not insist on having its way. Love does not move to anger quickly nor does it keep records of wrongs. Love does not revel in injustice but rejoices when truth wins out. Love does not quit, does not lose faith, keeps hope alive, and endures at all costs.
Love never fails.
Prophecy and knowledge have their limits. Even now, we know so little. And when the end draws near, these will disappear, much like our childlike ways evaporate as we age.
For we presently see dimly, imperfectly, as in a broken mirror. But the day is coming when we will see all clearly. All we know presently is partial and lacking, but in that moment we will be known fully, face-to-face.
And on that day, these will remain: faith, hope, and love.
But in the end, the greatest of these is love.
In the end, it must be love.