Note: This blog entry by guest blogger Jonathan LaBarge.
God calls us to love the church, not merely to like it. “Like” implies a consumer mindset… or even a Facebook mindset– “No effort is required on my part; I will just click ‘like’ if something amuses me.”
Loving, on the other hand, is much more difficult. It requires something of us. It implies a commitment or covenant. As early church Father Cyprian wrote, “No one can have God for his Father, who does not have the Church for his mother.” There will be many times when we will have to say to the church, “I do not much like you right now, but I do love you.”
Like all significant challenges, this starts with us as leaders. There will be times when you may not like the church God has called you to serve. You may have thoughts saying, “I should just go to a different church,” or “I should just go start my own church,” or “I am entitled to put this church in its place.” Jesus stares down our thoughts as he says: “Do you love me? Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).
We are teaching the model of love for church when we don’t like the church, but love her anyway. Our own modeling is the essential first step in moving our people from liking (or not liking) to loving. Those we lead are learning from us, and probably more from how they see us act than what they hear us say. Too many church leaders who claim to love the vision of Jesus end up not loving the church. But the church is the vision of Jesus! We do things in the name of strategy and success, too often to stroke our own success-driven ego, at the expense of loving the church as it is now. Loving doesn’t mean failing to inspire change or challenge anything. But it often does mean taking longer paths, or ones with more personal hardship.
Loving the church has been a constant challenge for me. I most recently started at a church in great need of transformation about 5 years ago. Yet the essential starting point was learning to love the church as it was, even in a challenging position. So what did that look like in the case of this church? When I first began there were ZERO children, everyone was of retirement age, and they did not represent the vast cultural diversity of the church’s neighborhood. Yet instead of making a lot of changes all at once to the church, I began by loving the church as is, and over time inviting this church I loved into a transformation together. Investing time into learning to love the church turned my view of this people from a problem to fix, and to a missional community I serve with to impact our world.
One tradition we had is an annual Christmas luncheon. It reached the retired core of the church, but was in big need of transformation– beginning with the name, and ending with reaching both older people and younger people and families. However, I couldn’t do it all right away without losing traction with leaders and several participants. They needed to feel I loved them, and I needed to feel I loved them, before we began to make changes for the better together. So what we did was leave everything else the way it was, but added a craft table for children. It wasn’t successful in bringing any new people that year, but it was a key move in communicating, “We can make changes together!”
Do you feel the tension? It’s like it is with children: you love and accept them as they are, but you still have a vision for their growth. If you love the church you need to first prove your love—both to people in the church and to yourself. In the short-term you may feel as if your hands are bound, at least to a degree. Yet over time, with this proven love, a natural progression will allow you to challenge people to join you in mission.
I am now in my sixth year at this church. There have been shortcuts I could have taken, such as forcing different people into or out of various leadership positions. Yet the people in those leadership positions were the form of the church I was to love. With time we would see together a different leadership path that God the Holy Spirit was initiating.
And while I let the love grow, there were other ways I could show leadership. I extensively and constantly talked about Jesus’ vision for the church. We studied Isaiah 61 as Jesus’ own calling (and ours). We went through Acts in order to pull out the life-blood of the early church, and discovered this maxim: Everything to Disciple Everyone into Life. In every setting, I was trying to flood that image. We prayed for the Lord to make changes, and when we saw opportunities to reshape our future we took them.
What has happened over these 5 years? The first couple of years I was just trying to be obedient in learning to love this church. Since then, this love has allowed us to begin working for transformation together. There have been major changes in staffing, in how we worship, and how we live in community on mission. We are now a thoroughly multi-cultural church, with new families and children. What’s more, that whole core of people that were here when I first began are still actively engaged. In 5 years, not one of them has chosen to leave. And likewise, while a couple of attractive opportunities may have come knocking, I have chosen to stay put in love for this church.
While this is a smaller church, in just the past year-and-a-half we have welcomed in 15 new regular attenders from non-Christian backgrounds, 12 of whom have been baptized after confessing Jesus to be Lord and Savior. We didn’t unleash some form of aggressive evangelism strategy. We just said let’s be faithful to the opportunities we see arising from Jesus’ vision for the church. And as a result we’ve seen the Holy Spirit working as an erosive power in our church, changing and shaping it according to his will.
That’s the difference between liking the church and loving the church.
Written by guest blogger Jonathan LaBarge