Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Love and the Church

What I'm listening to: Sarah Masen's The Dreamlife of Angels

I was just out of college and searching for a new church. The city of Colorado Springs was my new home, so I had plenty of options. I decided to start with what I knew: the Evangelical-Free churches. The first challenge was simply finding the building, one of which was nestled very quietly on the far west side of the city in the middle of a residential area. It was very nearly up in the hills at the base of Pike's Peak.

I remember a lot of things about this visit - I remember the sanctuary was about 1/3 full. A youth pastor was candidating and filling the pulpit for the morning and his sermon was entitled "24-7-365". I remember looking around at the other people and feeling very uncomfortable as they all stared at me - wondering who I was, what's my story, etc, etc. I remember the man that greeted me at the door; he spoke to me kindly, handed my a bulletin and pointed me to the sanctuary.

But more importantly, I remember the reception I received at this church. It was awkward enough, after all, I was by myself in a new place, and looking around at the congregation and was watched by everyone already there, wondering who I was, but no other person spoke to me. They spent a lot of time looking at me, but no one other than the greeter said a a word to me. Talk about awkward. Even when I stayed to have coffee afterwards. Awkward. Awkward. Awkward.

So, did I go back? What do you think? Of course not.

I was shown no love at this church by anyone other than the guy who opened the door for me. It was summer in Colorado, but there was a cold breeze rushing over me as they all stared at me, wondering who I was, what my story was, and what I was doing there.

The church is to be a place where broken people can heal. The family of believers that make up a church are commanded by God to share Christ with those who don't know him. Christ is there to heal those hurts, to restore and offer grace where it's neither deserved nor earned. And how does he first do that? By loving us.

Only through love will a person want to come back to a building where believers meet, for love is just another form of acceptance. And feeling welcome and accepted is all anybody wants. The church is not to be there for acceptance of one's sin, obviously, but rather acceptance that we all sin. And we can be redeemed and restored from the brokeness sin leaves in our hearts.

Is today's modern church more concerned with getting people in the building than what to do with them after they are there?

We live in a world today where, for the average person, there isn't much we can't get. So what does the church have to offer the average person who has access to anything? This is the question we should be asking ourselves. Unchurched people come to church for different reasons. They may have very specific needs or they may just be looking for acceptance. And how can we achieve that if we are afraid to speak to a visitor that comes through the door of a church building?

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 1 Cor. 13: 1-2

2 comments:

Rocky said...

Steph, your reflections are dead on. So help a pastor: how does a congregation change from being one that stares at newcomers to one who embraces them and welcomes them with the hospitality of Christ. How do church leaders effect that kind of change in the culture of a congregation?

stephanie said...

Ah - the question of the year for me.

First, as a church leader myself, I make sure the congregation knows I'm a sinner too. No, it's not all blood and guts confession, but I spill my heart out to them when God leads me to. Because I am not perfect and I don't want anyone to think I am. (And it took me a lot of soul-searching to get to that point.) When a congregation sees that in their leaders, the fa├žade can come down. They feel they have permission to expose their sin, and more importantly, ask for help.

My church in no way has mastered this, but our pastor made sure to preach about how Jesus loved unbelievers. He made sure we realized that by not loving the unbelievers in our lives, we were ultimately being selfish. He challenged us to be loving in a practical way - to do something nice for someone we may not like very much. What many found was that it changed not the heart of the person they were nice to, but changed the heart of person doing the loving action. (I remember after the final sermon he preached on the topic, I chose to lead the old song "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love". I told my own story of how God changed my heart towards a person I didn't love because I was challenged to do something nice for them. Then I reminded the congregation that if we let God change us, he will. Because he did with me.)

Anyway, another idea that might help is one that comes from Rick Warren. Send a follow-up card to a visitor, (self-addressed and stamped) asking for an anonymous first impression of their visit. "What did you notice first?" "What did you like best?" "What did you like least?" That's all that's on the card. Sharing the responses you get with the leaders in your church might help them spread it through the rest of the congregation. Sometimes the lay leaders are listened to more that the pastor is.

Something I know deep in my heart, Rocky, is that you love everyone who comes through the doors of your church. That's the best place to start. If you love, as I know you do, the rest will surely follow. Press on. I'll be in prayer for you, brother.