Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. I’ve been thinking about that lately. Specifically I’ve noticed it doesn’t say anything about loving the church. But isn’t loving the church a good thing? Well, maybe it can be. But then again sometimes it may not be the best idea.
Years ago I was working in a Baptist church that was struggling with its identity. There was a decision to be made: would the church change or wouldn’t it (man, if I had a dollar for every church where it boiled down to that…). Because it was a Baptist church, it was to be discussed at a business meeting, and of course there were a lot of “parking lot conversations” that happened ahead of the meeting.
One guy came into the office to talk with the pastor and me. He said, “Pastor, I love this church. I can’t bear the thought of having to close the doors. I can’t bear it. And right now the only way we can keep them open is the giving one person. Now he’s told me he’s going to quit giving if we go through with this. I think it’s the right thing to do. I think we should do it. But we can’t go on without his giving. We can’t keep the doors open.” When the votes were counted, the initiative was narrowly defeated.
The members loved that church. Maybe too much. Because when it came right down to it, they had to choose between being the beloved church as they knew it and considering what else God might have in mind. But they sure did love their church. It was Scott Boulevard Baptist Church, and a lot of folks were heartbroken when the steeple was pulled down to make room for a mixed-use development.
That fate is inevitable if we love our churches more than we love people. All in this world is transient except for undying love. It’s the love Christ had for us. It’s the love we can have for each other. And God. And strangers. Shoot, y’all. It’s the love Jesus told us to have for everyone (who is my neighbor?).
I’ve painted for you the picture of a narcissistic church that drove itself into the ground because the people didn’t care about anything except their building. If the story stopped there, it would indeed be a tragedy, and an unflattering one at that. But that’s not the end of the story.
The people of Scott Boulevard Baptist did love their neighbors. And as the inevitabilities of age and shrinking number began to press in around them, they began wondering. What is it that God would have them do? The remaining members of the church realized that acting out of love for neighbor was the best way forward. So they sold the land. They gave away just about everything in the church. They relocated their services to the chapel of First Baptist Church in Decatur, and they focused their ministry on the elderly and aging. They set aside a portion of the proceeds from the sale to offer grants for agencies with emphasis on the elderly, many of which were local missions. In short, Scott Boulevard Baptist Church found new life when the majority of its members came to understand the difference between loving the church and loving people (in fairness, I should add that many of the members understood that from the very beginning!). Knowing the full story, watching the steeple come down wasn’t heartbreaking for me. It was oddly life-giving, a hopeful opportunity for the phoenix to rise from the ashes to new life.
This has rung true in my ministry as well. In my first years, I worried incessantly about the choir and its number. How can we grow? How can we sound better? What do I need to do if I want to encourage stronger attendance? The answer was simple: stop worrying about the choir. Stop worrying about attendance. Start worrying about people. Actually care about them.
Which is, of course, exactly what Jesus said we should do in the first place. Love God. Love neighbor. All those things we worry about in the church. Money. Attendance. Buildings. Even theology! Jesus didn’t ask us to worry about those. Jesus asked us to worry about each other. Guess what. If we do that, then all the rest will be fine. Why? Because an atmosphere of Godly Love connects people with the Divine. It fills that void inside that can’t be filled by anything else, a void that unfortunately a whole bunch of people have accepted as normal. That is heartbreaking. Much more so than a falling steeple.
So maybe love the church a little less. Worry about it a little less. And love each other more. God can handle everything else.