I have recently had to think long and hard about the nature of Christian fellowship and Christian meetings. “Why do we do what we do?” we ask. “Why do we spend so much time together?” “What is the point of A,B, and C activities that we are doing?” It comes most often as a complaint that we as church leaders have instinctively learned to squelch, but the more time I spend thinking about it, the more I begin to think that it is a very legitimate concern.
I’ve probably spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours at Christian gatherings, and that amount has only skyrocketed since college. Everything I would do, almost, would somehow be related with meeting with other Christians, and most of my free time belonged to them.
Yet if the mission of the modern church, or any church, for that matter, is the witness of God’s glory and goodness to the rulers and authorities in the spiritual realm, and to the nations at the ends of the Earth, I am afraid my church attendance sheet is of little to no use in this. This is because of 2 critical functions that we have largely failed to perform.
The first function is loving one another. This new command of Jesus’ that he culminates his teaching with is one that goes largely neglected in the church today. Jesus’ direct command to his disciples is that they learn to serve one another from the heart and humble themselves before one another. That they learn to sacrifice for their fellow Christ followers. He tells the disciples that they will gain the attention of “all men” as they love each other, not as they love these other people.
Church gatherings have become a time of obligation, not a time of heart-sourced love. We have probably, in many ways, become like Christ’s 12 disciples in this regard. While Christ was teaching them about love, humility, care for the poor and neglected, the disciples were busy arguing about which of them was going to be greatest in his kingdom and trying to prove that they deserved a great reward for their service. In the same way, while God would have us learn how to humbly love and serve each other, we are often vying for notoriety in the church community and trying to do enough good things (i.e, showing up to meetings, serving in ministry teams, etc.). While our hearts are not necessarily horrific in doing this, it is laughable at best and demonic at worst.
We have failed to approach our Christian gatherings with an intent to show this kind of love. Instead of arriving with an intent to pour ourselves our sacrificially for our brethren, we show up to Life Group as an obligation and a chore. Instead of praying through how our ministry team service can affect and serve people, we relegate “ministry” to some weekly meeting or chore and consider the rest of the hours in our lives “me time.” Instead of thinking about how our strengths and our weaknesses can help our brothers and sisters, we spend our waking thoughts comparing ourselves to them and considering ourselves better than them.
It comes as no surprise, then, that so many in the church are struggling as we are. If we all carry this kind of, “I am only here because I must be here,” mentality, then it will obviously become an obligation to everyone; no one is receiving because no one comes with the intention to give. This is precisely the trap the disciples fell into in their self-centered view, and it is the very trap that the majority of our churchgoers find themselves ensnared in.
The second function we have not so much failed to perform as we have utterly neglected is to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus calls this the second greatest commandment and explicitly tells his disciples that they will find no way of life more virtuous. The disciples, however, zealous as they are for Jesus’ glory, fail to understand the gravity of Jesus’ words. When little children come to Christ to be held by him, the disciples attack them with a rebuke! Further interactions between the twelve and the outside world are rarely documented; any anecdotes usually don’t mention them caring much about those unlike them, and Peter even fails to reach out to the Gentile Christians because of his people-pleasing and religious tendencies.
Here is an apt description of our church’s weakness if I have ever seen one! Those who are spiritually ignorant or young are set aside, ignored, and generally considered “not worth” close or extended contact; they are kept at an arm’s length because there are so many important things to do. Outsiders to our faith, and even, at times, fellow believers of different backgrounds, are neglected or excluded on the basis of nothing more than the very circumstance God birthed them into. Most of the time, we don’t even think about them, and our life’s history is silent on our interaction with them, much like the Gospels are silent on the disciples’. No wonder the main complaint I hear about Christians is not religious ignorance but exclusivity!
Is there a root to this problem? Is there something that we’re missing, or is there and issue behind our lack of love? How could we possibly spend so much time together and feel we are under obligation, yet be so comfortable that we show little to no interest in reaching out to the outside? Doesn’t it seem ridiculous that we could so begrudgingly spend so much time together, and yet be considered exclusive and unattractive to the outside world precisely because we spend so much time together? What could possibly cause this?
The first thing on this list, for the disciples, was selfish ambition. They wanted to be great, to make names for themselves. In their insecurity, they had something to prove and could focus on nothing but who would be the greatest. They would bicker and fight, indignant with one another’s ambition, but secretly wanting greatness and personal fulfillment for themselves.
The second was self-righteousness. Upon hearing Jesus say that it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, Peter, in his best intentions, pipes up, saying “Master, we’ve left everything to follow you!” It is innocent enough, and Jesus responds graciously to Peter, but there is a hint of his self-righteousness that comes out here (as there is in almost everything he says throughout the Gospels). See, Peter only mentions this at seeing the rich young ruler be unable to give his riches away. A shred of his personality looks at this ruler and says, “I could do something this ruler failed to do! There must be something in store for someone like me!” This game of comparison is all too common among Christians, and the religious in general.
The third is overestimation of oneself and of one’s own importance. The disciples saw these children as unimportant in God’s eyes; imagine their surprise when Jesus tells them, “the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these!” What a declaration! These people were considered the least important in the society’s eyes, children, and were regarded as such by the disciples. The disciples bought into the subtle lie that you can determine a man’s worth by his social status, and thus considered themselves and their own concerns more important than these others’.
The fourth and fifth, religious tradition and people pleasing, go hand in hand. By staying away from these Gentile Christians, Peter was saying that his religious tradition and his reputation among the Jewish Christians were more important than showing love.
Selfish ambition, self-righteousness, self-importance, religious reputation, notice who is at the center of all of these sources of failure in the church.
The self is terribly deceptive. We blame church, we blame structure, we blame culture, we blame friends. We say all these things are the reason our Life Group is not what we want it to be, our church is not carrying out the mission of displaying God’s glory, and our meetings are a waste of time. But we are deceived; the true root of our ineffectiveness is buried elsewhere, within our hearts. It is shrouded in layers and layers of deception, placed there by years of hurt, anger, frustration, bitterness, and apathy.
Left to ourselves, we would never find this root. How could we ever? Through our own devices we set up these deceptions, and we made them specifically to deceive ourselves. It is as if we have constructed a safe in our hearts and placed all of our sinful selfishness in it, closed the door, locked it away, and forgotten the combination. We cannot remove our sin, even if we wanted to. Even if we were looking for it, we could not find it; even if it was found, who could remove it?
So was the state of the 12 disciples as they followed Jesus: tragically oblivious to the depth of their sinful state. Yet for them, there was hope. Because the one they followed held the great key that would release them from their selfish self-deception. Jesus came specifically to save them from this very thing that they, in their sin, had trapped themselves in, and not only would he do that, but he would reach right into their hearts, open that safe, take their sins by his hand, yank them out of their hearts forever, drag them with him to Calvary, and there, while hanging from the cross, he would destroy them by attaching them to his own person and sacrificing himself in the fire of God’s wrath.
We could not overcome our selfish state even if we could see the full extent of it. But Christ has overcome it on the cross for us. Peter’s own life is evidence of this, as he commands his own followers to “love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins,” and he commands them to do this “above all!” What a miraculous power must have gripped him that he should undergo such change!
The church today is failing in her mission to display God’s glory, but the failure can be stopped. Our church can be changed, but it will only change as we the individuals who make her up change, and the only way we will change is if we call on Jesus to reveal the depth of our selfishness and take it away from us. This is the first thing we must do; there can be no love outside of repentance and faith, for what love can we give if we do not first receive God’s love for us?
We must pray this prayer: “God, open my eyes to see my selfish ambition, my self-righteousness, my self-importance, my self-centeredness. Show me how these things cause me to fail to love my Christian family. Show me how they block me from caring for the non-believers around me. Help me to confess my sin and to be released from them, so that I may be a part of seeing our church become more God-honoring. I pray these things by the name and mercy of Jesus Christ alone.”