“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
– John 13:35
If you’ve been hurt by the church, you’re not alone. The stories of church members, wounded by friendly fire, are more than could be counted: stories of people shamed and run into the ground over minor conviction issues, stories of people ostracized for holding marginally different theological positions, stories of people spiritually and verbally abused, and much, much worse. The fact is, so much that calls itself “church” today simply doesn’t live up to the name. Church splits and scandals have left negative opinions in their wake across the country. At times, there is an understandable temptation to give up on Church and “church people.” I personally know many people who have done just that. They love Jesus. They want to serve God. But they’ve been hurt and they’re tired of trying. I get it. I do. But I think they’re making a huge mistake.
What the Church isn’t…
People go to church for all kinds of different reasons. Some people think of the church as a spiritual McDonalds as if its primary purpose is to feed you with a Bible-Lesson Big-Mac and an order of Worship fries. But it isn’t. We don’t go to church to get fed.
Others attend church for a while but don’t make enough strong relational connections. “I just don’t have any friends here,” they might say. But the church isn’t Facebook and it isn’t about collecting “friends.”
Some churches have focused so much on entertaining people that this becomes the reason for attendance. But the church isn’t a comedy club or a movie theater. We don’t go to be entertained.
Don’t get me wrong. I have been spiritually nourished at church, I’ve made countless friends, I met my wife there, and I’ve spent hours laughing and enjoying my time at church. But the problem is, all of those things are incidental to the real reason that I attend church. They’re important but they aren’t the real goal.
And there’s the problem, when we make any of those things (or any number of other things) the reason for attending church, we miss the point. We end up judging church services based on a standard they were never meant to bear. Church gatherings don’t exist primarily to feed, create friends, or entertain. Those aren’t the reasons we meet and until we understand the true reason we meet, we will miss the mark (both as church leaders and as members).
What the Church is…
A lawyer once approached Jesus and asked him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus didn’t hesitate, “You shall love the Lord your God…This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Love is the foundation of the Christian life. Paul called love the “fulfillment of the Law” (Romans 13:10). Elsewhere, he said that the greatest virtue we could attain to was love (see 1 Corinthians 13). John’s entire first epistle is threaded with the idea that keeping God’s commandments means loving people and loving God. Even when Paul talks about salvation through faith, it is a faith that is “working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Simply put, love is at the root of everything we do as Christians.
And this is why casting off the church in favor of a more individualized spirituality simply doesn’t work. Love can only take place in the context of relationship. Western society has tried to boil love down to sentimentality but love is action, not feeling. And if that is the case, you can’t love someone you aren’t in contact with. You might feel affection for them but you can’t love them. Not in a Biblical sense. Love can only happen in community.
So, if love is the most basic element of the Christian life and it can only take place within community, it follows that there can be no Lone Ranger Christians. Christians need one another – as much as our eyes need our feet and our ears need our hands. “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12).
Think about that letter to the Corinthians I just quoted. Talk about a church that was dealing with major internal strife, quarreling, and immorality! What did such a rough group of people need? They needed love. That’s why Paul spent an entire chapter explaining genuine love to them. He didn’t say, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and walk into the unknown alone, your church is too screwed up to save. He said, learn to love one another.
In fact, if you page through the New Testament you’ll quickly realize that the vast majority of books contained therein were not written to individuals but to churches. A huge portion of the people in those churches weren’t literate so, if they wanted to grow in their faith, they had no other option but join in with the church. There was no Blue Letter Bible app or McArthur Study Bibles to be had. They could only grow together – in love.
In those early letters, we see a consistent and constant call to love one another. These calls took different forms but at their root, they were calls to Christian love. Paul said, “live in harmony with one another”…”honor one another above yourselves”…”have equal concern for each other”…”serve one another in love”…”carry each other’s burdens”…”forgive each other”…”submit to one another”…”bear with each other”…”do not slander one another”…”confess your sins to each other”…”pray for each other”…Need I go on? If you’d like to read all 59 of these “one another” passages, you can find them here: One Another Scriptures
Christians cannot live out these commands independent of the church. Again, love requires community.
Love must be the hallmark of the church for the sake of the world. Jesus told his disciples, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). In other words, as the world sees the church – taking care of one another, forgiving one another, bearing with one another, praying for one another, not slandering one another, etc. – the world will see Christ. The Church is God’s Love to the world.
But Why go to Church?
So now we’re back where we started. Why should we, if we call ourselves Christians, go to church? What’s the purpose of attending church?
We go to church to love and to be loved.
If we view the Church as primarily about anything other than this, we miss the mark. We don’t go to learn or be spiritually fed or be entertained. And if we view these as primary, we will judge church services based on how satisfied we are. But these things aren’t the reason we attend church. We go to love and be loved. And since this is our purpose for attending, we must judge our experience there with this in mind.
When we gather together, as the Church, we should be divine conduits of love. God’s love should be flowing through us to others and through others to us. In the welcome, we should be reminded that we are welcomed into the presence and love of God. In the worship music, those who are playing, singing, and the voices surrounding us should remind us of the love that binds us together. Each word we sing should be both a means of giving and receiving God’s love along with the rest of the family. When we offer money, we should know that someone who is in need is receiving God’s love through our generosity. When we hear the word preached and we’re admonished, encouraged, and convicted, we should feel God’s love as he speaks through his word. During times of fellowship, before and after the service, we should receive and give words of love.
I know this may sound unrealistic to some; especially those who have been in church after church where pastors have abused their position, song selection created strife, and feuds filled the fellowship halls. But this is what we’re called to. And this is what we must judge our times together by: Did I love and was I loved?
When we begin entering each time of worship with these questions on our mind, “How can I love those in my congregation?” and “How can I receive God’s love in this service?” we will be on our way to judging rightly.
We’ll still be disappointed. We’ll still have those moments when people are hateful or abuse the power they’ve been given or are hypocritical. As long as people are in our congregations, they will be imperfect.
There’s a good reason for scripture calling us all children of God. We are family. And just like any earthly family, there will be times when we don’t all get along; moments of frustration and anger and disappointment. But we must remember, families exist to love…
And so does the Church.