As a retired pastor, following more than sixty years in pastoral ministry, I believe I am safe in saying that every church wants to be known as a caring church, but unfortunately there are many churches that do not have that reputation. Too many lonely people who have visited different congregations, in search of a caring church, have testified that they felt invisible. No one spoke to them. No one welcomed them. No one introduced themselves. In some churches they were asked to sign a visitors card, but there was no “follow-up.” They never heard from most of those churches. Some received a letter acknowledging their visit and inviting them to return again. However, there was no personal contact, not even a phone call asking if they would welcome a visitor from their church. Sadly, this has happened to members of my own family who were looking for a new church. Furthermore, during my years of active ministry there were newcomers and prospective members of churches I served who were surprised when I called and asked if I could schedule a mutually convenient time to visit with them. They told me the pastor of the church they came from never visited them, and they never really felt cared for or encouraged, except for a few friendships that were formed. Furthermore, some even said their pastor never visited them when they were hospitalized, or never inquired when they had been absent from church for several Sundays. Perhaps we pastors need to be reminded that every church tends to take on the lifestyle of its leadership, just like every other institution and organization.
I know what some of you are going to say, especially other pastors who may be reading this post: “Well, you have to show yourself friendly. I bet those people ran all the way to their car following Sunday worship. I doubt if they ever joined a small group, or ever actually became involved in the work of the church.” That may be true, but does that excuse you? Do you think your leadership in worship, your carefully and prayerfully crafted sermons, and your church management ability is all Jesus Christ, the only Head of the Church, expects of you? Were you not called by Christ to be a shepherd of the people of the flock entrusted to your care? Has He not commanded us as leaders in His Church to not only feed His sheep, but to tend His lambs, to care for those who are wounded, to protect those that have been attacked from further abuse, and to search for all those who have strayed? Do you believe you are fulfilling your ordination vows if you spend most of your time in your office, coordinating the work of the church, reading and continuing your pursuit of knowledge? I do not know who to credit with the saying, but I believe whoever said it first was speaking the truth: “Before the members of our churches really care about how much we know, they really want to know how much we care.”
Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you” (John 13:34). He was speaking to His disciples, talking about loving our brothers and sisters in His Church, just as He has loved us as His own, as those whom His Father in heaven has given Him (John 17:6-8). This is where it has to start, with the love we have for each other, and the love we have for ourselves as children of God, as members of the Body of Christ. For that will be the measure of love we have for others. If it does not begin there, then it does not begin; but if it ends there, it ends! Jesus taught that the first and greatest commandment is to “…love God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength” (Matthew 22:36-38), but the second in importance is “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself” (vs. 39). Suffice it to say, Christianity is relational. The most important relationship is our relationship with God. The next in importance is the relationship we have with ourselves, for that will determine how we treat others, including those who are nearest and dearest to us in our own family, our brethren in Christ’s Church, and all others (i.e. all others to whom Jesus referred to as our “neighbor” especially the “widows and orphans” – the metaphor Jesus used to refer the poorest and most powerless among us).
JESUS IS OUR EXAMPLE. He told us to love God with all our being, and He commanded us to love one another as He has loved us. There wasn’t anyone Jesus did not love. He was always available and interruptible, even though He was busy preparing His disciples for their ministry after His departure. He had only a short time to train the twelve, and one of those betrayed Him, for Jesus was not the kind of Messiah Judas Iscariot desired, just as He was not the great warrior king all Jewish zealots were expecting. Nevertheless, Jesus loved him, and loved him “to the end.” Just as He forgave Peter for his denials, so He would have forgiven Judas if he had truly repented. Remember how He had washed the feet of all the disciples in the upper room, on the eve of His death, including the feet of Judas, even though He knew those feet were going to lead His enemies to Him on that walk to Gethsemane to arrest Him. He would also have washed away all the sins of Judas, praying for him even as He prayed from the cross for those who had actually nailed Him to the tree, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). His love knew no limit! It was a love that could be betrayed, mocked, spat upon, and yet remain love – a love that was both giving and forgiving!
That is the kind of love His Church is called to model. We are called to demonstrate His love by both word and deed. It is not enough to talk about love. It is not enough to say that the Body of Christ is supposed to be a fellowship interpreted by love. In his first letter to the young Church the Apostle John wrote these words: “By this we know love, that Christ laid down his life for us, and we ought to be willing to lay down our lives for our brethren….Little children, let us not love in word only, but in deed and in truth...Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…We love because God first loved us” (I John 3;18, 4:11-20). John also asks this penetrating question, “If any one has this world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart to him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (I John 3:17). Then the brother of our Lord, James, raises the same question with regard to faith and works: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to him or her, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (i.e. works of love), for faith that doesn’t work is not alive and vital; it is not the kind of faith that pleases God – James 2:14-17). James issues this challenge to all believers, to every church, to every Pastor, to every Elder, to every Deacon, to every member of Christ’s Church: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:18).
WHAT IS THE SIN MOST CHURCHES DENY? I would probably cast my vote for the sin of indifference, or the sin of neglect, the failure to obey God’s commandments to “…have the same care for one another”, to love one another as He has loved us, without any partiality or favoritism (I Corinthians 12:22-25). “If one member of the body suffers, all suffer with it, if one member is honored, all rejoice together….you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (vs. 26-27). We are slow to confess our failure to take all of the “one another” passages in the New Testament seriously: “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:10 and 16). We are slow to confess our failure to provide loving and caring leadership – for Jesus told those who were to lead in the building up of His Church, “…love one another as I have loved you…I have given you an example…You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for that is what I am…Very truly I tell you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things you are blessed if you do them” You should do for one another as I have done for you…By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another“ (John 13:12-16, 35, NRSV).
Caring for one another includes more than we often realize (I Cor. 5:6-8, Galatians 6:1, I Thessalonians 5:12-22) – comforting one another (II Corinthians 1:3-7) – teaching one another (Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 2:42, 18-26, and Colossians 3:16) – being “devoted to one another in brotherly love“ (Romans 12:10, NASB) – “Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10) – “…be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5) – “Accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7) – “…encourage one another” (I Thessalonians 4:18) – “…admonish one another” (Romans 15:14) – “Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (i.e. do not afraid to unwrap your emotions in the Body of Christ (Romans 16:16) – “…serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13) – “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (the term “law” is used figuratively, for burden-bearing in Christ’s Church is the outward expression of the inward love we have for Him, and for one another – Galatians 6:1-2) – “Be completely humble and patient with one another…” (Ephesians 4:2) – “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21) – “…encourage one another and build one another up” (I Thessalonians 5:11).
These are biblical and practical guidelines for the proper functioning of the Body of Christ, as AN UNCOMMON COMMUNITY, as a UNIQUE FELLOWSHIP in which members are supporting one another, helping one another, ministering to one another, seeing beyond each other’s faults to each other’s needs, forgiving one another, restoring one another, edifying one another, and growing together into a body of believers that cannot be explained apart from God, apart from Jesus Christ who is the Head of the body. The New Testament apostles are giving us in these “one another” passages the primary means for building up the Body of Christ, telling us how Christ’s Church is supposed to function, giving us a picture of what every healthy church looks like. Of course, this is the ideal and no church is perfect, for none of us are perfect, and we are the Church, “…individually members of it” (I Corinthians 12). Nevertheless, this should be the goal, this should be the one sustaining passion of the pastors and leaders of every local church – to move their community of faith in this direction. And when this happens, people will come! The church will grow! So, find an unmet need and meet it! Find a hurt and heal it! Find a conflict and resolve it! Discover a hindrance to unity, peace, and purity and remove it! In the name of Christ, for the glory of God, and for the advancement of Christ’s Church in a hurting, broken, fragmented, lonely, and lost world!