Let me say this plainly: I love the people of Grace Fellowship Church. I totally felt what John Piper was saying in a recent interview on his experience as a pastor at Bethlehem:
I never felt that I was the church’s privilege, but that she is mine. To be at Bethlehem was gift, all gift.
I have felt that to be my reality in increasing measure since we planted, almost three years ago now. And I know that Paul, my fellow pastor, feels the same way.
That being said, I have known enough churches and enough pastors over the years to realize that the relationship between pastor and congregation isn’t always exclusively a love-in. Even in the privileged ministry that the Lord has given me, there have been opportunities for anger, strife, malice, bitterness, and all the rest of that to take root.
So how do we fight those temptations when they come? Here are some ways I’ve found helpful to grow in love for the members of the church:
1. Eat with Them
Erik Raymond wrote an excellent post last year commending the practice of eating lunch regularly with members from the church. Here’s some of the benefit:
This is your opportunity to hear them. Ask them questions that help you to better know them. Ask them about their families, hobbies, jobs, etc. Ask them about how they met their wife, where they are from, what they do for work, what their extended family dynamic is like. Ask good questions and just listen.
I would add my ‘amen’ to that. When you hear about someone’s life and get into their world, you can’t help but find your love and compassion for them increasing.
2. Hear Them Confess Sin
In Luke 7.36-50, the story is told of a Pharisee and a ‘sinful woman.’ While the Pharisees were relatively unimpressed with Jesus, the sinful woman washed and anointed his feet. Jesus gives the reason for the difference of their heart postures: The one who is forgiven much loves much, ‘but he who is forgiven little, loves little.’
Obviously, that is love that is directed toward Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins. But here’s the thing: I’ve never once had someone confess sin to me, and then walked with them to the cross, confessing it in repentance and tears, and then not grown in love for that person.
There is something intrinsically love-building about the experience of shared confession and repentance. Confession ultimately identifies us with them in weakness and brokenness. It destroys pretense and eliminates perceived distance. It reminds us that we both need the same Jesus. You simply cannot go to the cross with someone and not love them more for it.
3. Deal with Relational ‘Stuff’
Love is intensely and inextricably relational. But relationships are messy. Inevitably there are misunderstandings, hurt feelings, assumed motives, and opportunities to assume the worst about others. This is exponentially so for a pastor who exposes his soul for the people of the church week-after-week. People often forget that a pastor is typically the one who is most exposed relationally and most likely to be misunderstood in the whole church.
If we, as pastors, are not deliberate in pursuing people, seeking forgiveness, clearing up misunderstandings, and talking through issues, ‘stuff’ will build up and calcify. Our hearts will grow cold to the people we’re called to love and serve.
Conversely, dealing with those relational issues will result in a clean conscience, the removal of suspicion, the opportunity to give and receive forgiveness, and ultimately, increased love.
4. Pray for Them
George Whitefield once wisely reflected on what happens in our hearts when we pray for others:
The practice of daily intercession for your brothers and sisters will fill your hearts with love one to another. He that every day heartily intercedes at the throne of grace for all mankind, cannot but in a short time be filled with love and charity to all: and the frequent exercise of his love in this manner, will insensibly enlarge his heart, and make him partaker of that exceeding abundance of it which is in Christ Jesus our Lord! Envy, malice, revenge, and such like hellish tempers, can never long harbour in a gracious intercessor’s breast; but he will be filled with joy, peace, meekness, long-suffering, and all other graces of the Holy Spirit. By frequently laying his neighbour’s wants before God, he will be touched with a fellow-feeling of them; he will rejoice with those that do rejoice, and weep with those that weep. Every blessing bestowed on others, instead of exciting envy in him, will be looked on as an answer to his particular intercession, and fill his soul with joy unspeakable and full of glory. 1
This is simple: we love the people we pray for.
5. See Them at the Foot of the Cross
The single greatest way that I have found my heart growing in love for the people of the church is by reminding myself of who they are at the foot of the cross. Even if they are acting in ways that hurt me, they are beloved by Jesus. They have been purchased by his blood. He has made them part of his bride.
If I love Jesus, and he loves them enough to die for them, how can I not love them?
What defines them, ultimately, is not whether they are for or against me, but the fact that Jesus loved them and made them his own. The cross was for them. The empty tomb is for them. The Spirit has been given to them. Jesus has placed me in a church with them to remind them of the cross and call them to be conformed to that pattern. Maybe one of the ways that Jesus wants to show that person the nature of his love for them is through my self-sacrificing love for them, by patiently enduring (even evil) opposition (2 Tim 2.24-26)?
There, at the foot of the cross, they are beloved by Jesus. How can I do less?
I’d love to hear from and learn from others on this. What else have you found helpful to grow in love for the people of your church?
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- George Whitefield, from a sermon on 1 Thess. 5:25 ↩