Something that I’ve realized over the years is that one of the most frequent conversations I have as a pastor with Christians outside of my church is about why they are dissatisfied with and potentially leaving their church. It’s actually somewhat rare that I have a conversation with someone who is genuinely excited and enthusiastic about his or her church.
Now, I think some of that has to do with the consumeristic, churched culture that we live in. I think it breeds dissatisfaction. A culture where there are many churches and many people you know either go to church regularly or have some level of connection to the church. And, because of that, it can seem as if the grass is always greener. Your friend’s church does this or that or has such and such ministry or event. I can’t tell you how many times in years past I’ve actually had people come to me bothered and/or angry about the fact that we were not doing something their friends church was doing.
When I was a pastor in Plano, TX fifteen years ago, our large church of 2000+ people was less than a mile away from Prestonwood Baptist Church, a church of 15000+. Prestonwood was and is like a mall. In fact, we’d go over there to eat lunch because they had like a food court in the church that was really good. And, that wasn’t all. Prestonwood also had a thriving private school that many kids in the area attended. They had a workout facility. They had intermural fields. They had a bookstore. All these things.
We were also just a few miles away from Stonebriar Church, which had a celebrity pastor, Chuck Swindoll, who was especially well known for a daily radio program and writing dozens of books. So, the result was that there was a constant stream of consumers in and out of our church. Well, we like the things Prestonwood offers to our family so we’re going there. Well, our kids go to Prestonwood’s school, so we’re going to go to church there. Well, we prefer Chuck Swindoll’s preaching so we’re going to go there. We were, humorously, the small church. So, we’d have people come to us and say, “oh it feels so intimate.”
Now, here’s the thing: most people I’ve encountered over the years approach the church with this question, “What are you going to do for me?” And, they are really asking that question of the church organization and its leaders rather than the people who are sitting around them. What are the religious goods and services do you offer? How “good” is your music, preaching, kids ministry, youth ministry? How are you going to serve me and my family? How are you going to meet our needs?
I think, if we’re honest, that is how many of us have been conditioned to approach the church. And, it makes sense; that is how we approach everything else in life. Do I go to Walmart or Target?
But, recognize this: everything that I’m describing to you would have been completely foreign to the apostle Paul. As he writes to the church in Rome, he is writing to a somewhat small group of believers in a huge city. There was not a church on every corner, so you couldn’t shop around for a church. Also, the Christian faith was definitely not culturally acceptable, so there was a very real sense in which “you guys all need each other.” But, the biggest takeaway based from Paul’s writing is this: we must approach the church asking not, “what are you going to do for me,” and instead asking, “what can I do for the church?” And, when Paul talks about the church, he is primarily talking about people, not institutions or formalized ministries.
9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Today, in light of everything we’ve seen in Romans up to this point, Paul says, “now here’s how you should live.” And, he divides this into two parts. Here’s how you live with each other, and here’s how you live with the rest of the world. Today, we’re only going to focus on the first paragraph, and then next week we are going to finish out the chapter. Let’s walk through this:
9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
I think this is sort of Paul’s thesis statement for this section. We should approach the church with genuine love, seeking whatever is good and being especially vigilant to silence whatever is evil within us. Now, notice, virtually everything he says here is about what you can do for the church, not what it can do for you.
- Love one another with brotherly affection
- Outdo one another in showing honor
- Do not be slothful in zeal
- Be fervent in spirit
- Serve the Lord
- Rejoice in hope
- Be patient in tribulation
- Be constant in prayer
- Contribute to the needs of the saints
- Seek to show hospitality
Eugene Peterson sums up these commands in this way: 9-10 Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
11-13 Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
Here’s my theory: the primary reason why people either join or leave churches is relational. It’s not primarily theological or doctrinal; it’s relational. I like these people; I want to be with these people. Or, I don’t like these people; I don’t want to be with these people. But, if your experience of church was like what I just described: you would never leave. But, recognize that Paul’s command is not for you to find that kind of place that loves you genuinely; he’s calling his readers to be the one’s who initiate that kind of environment with their love.
But, that is not at all how our culture thinks. If you perceive that your needs are not being met, then our culture sees that as a perfectly valid reason for moving on to something else. Just look at how cool we’ve gotten with divorce. And, I don’t mean divorce because of adultery or abuse; I mean divorce because of convenience and preference. It’s not what you want, then, by all means, move on.
But, Paul is assuming that his Roman reader’s experience of church is going to be difficult and fraught for a variety of reasons. For one, the church was much more of a melting pot than it is for us. There were the clashing Jew and Gentile cultures within the church. The rich and poor were suddenly thrust together. Many of them were at odds with their biological families and their friends for following Christ. All in the midst of a culture that did not validate anything that they were doing. This is going to be hard, and if you don’t love each other and forgive each other and care for each other and provide for each other, it will never work.
Now, here’s the thing, we live in a world that is very different from that of first century Rome, and, yet, I don’t really think much has changed. If the church is going to thrive, you cannot approach it as a consumer. You have to approach it as a producer. Not “what can I get,” but “what can I give.”
- The church is where we learn what love truly is. – I don’t just mean romantic or sentimental or affection-based love, but rather the love of Christ, which is self-sacrificing. The love of Christ teaches us that love is not just something we show to others because they can or will reciprocate it back to us. Paul writes later in Ephesians 5,
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
In other words, Jesus’ great love for us, even though we were unlovable and did not love him back, led him to sacrifice himself so that we might be changed. He didn’t just sacrifice himself so that we can go to heaven, he sacrificed himself so that we might be sanctified and so that we might become his bride. Theologian Karen Prior says that the Bible, like all great stories, ends with a wedding. But, this marriage cannot happen outside of the self-sacrificing, forgiving, atoning love of Christ. It is that kind of love that we not only learn within the church, it is that kind of love that we are called to give to the church. It’s a love that says, I love you even if you don’t love me. I love you even if you don’t give me what I want. I love you so that through my love you might also see Christ and be changed yourself. And, that’s the beauty of this: ideally, the love of Christ is not just something we read about in the pages of Scripture, the love of Christ is something that we can experience through his people.
- The church is our training ground for taking the love of Christ to the world. If we refuse to genuinely love people who know Jesus and who are our brothers and sisters in Christ, we will never love those who don’t know Christ. Remember, we’ve been given a mission to be disciples who go and make disciples of all nations. Now, as we say often, a disciple is someone who is seeking to become more like Jesus; someone who is seeking to emulate the way of Jesus. We are sent, just as Christ was sent. But, Jesus did come begrudgingly. No, his coming was based on God’s love for the whole world.
So, it is because of love that we are sent out, and the church is our practice facility.
Here’s what I’ll leave you with today: 3 ways that you can embrace loving the church well.
- Be quick to resolve conflict. (Matthew 18) – One of the biggest problems in the church is not that there is conflict, it is that conflict goes unresolved. Jesus assumed that there would be conflict. Conflict is not a sign that something is wrong. Rather, we should expect it.
- Don’t wait for the church to earn your generosity.
- Open your home