Love that Changes Us
By: The Rev. Tom Brackett, Manager for Church Planting and Mission Development
Over the last few months, several of us have noticed the proliferation of some tired old myths about what it takes to renew congregations. Most of these worn-out ideas actually originated in corporate America, circa 1950. Though there are many variations, the usual theme is that if church leaders do a great job of meeting the needs of their parishioners, THAT church will grow. Another variation claims that if the church’s leadership does a good job of meeting the needs of the members as well as those of the larger community, THAT church will grow even more! Underlying both of these myths is the idea that the church is a gathering of consumers, both of products and of services, just religious, or spiritual or theological in nature.
In reality, when we explore the factors that led to the “successful” redevelopment of a congregation that was once in decline, the evidence points to very different realities. Of course, moving from decline to thriving, engagement and vitality are complex processes. Most of the time, however, the primary element that offers transformation to a tired congregation is a newfound and genuinely expressed love for and with their Neighbors. This is not an abstract kind of love based on some sort of baptismal covenant or some desire to reverse decline but rather a genuine affection for individuals in a particular community. This is also not the kind of love that we used to describe in my old evangelical days. We used to say “God loves you just the way you are, but He loves you too much to let you stay that way.” Embedded in that claim is an ulterior motivation that assumes you know what God wants for the neighbor. It assumes that if you love people in a certain way, they will be willing to give you what you want. Sociologists describe this as a transactional relationship. This giving in hopes of return has nothing to do with the Gospel and very little to do with the example that Jesus offered us.
In congregations that find their way back to full engagement with their communities, based on a genuine and mutual love and respect, there is nothing transactional about the relationship. In fact, one of the Litmus tests for the way we use the language of love is to ask the question, “Do you have anything to gain from expressing this emotion that you call love?” It seems that the farther we can move away from the hope of reward, the more likely it is that our “love” will be transformative – for the Neighbor, but also for the parishioner.
May I invite you to go back and re-read I Corinthians 13? The love described there is a self-sacrificing love – one that gives itself away. THAT has always been the love that the Spirit will bless. It has also been the only kind of love that ever made a difference!