“Love expressed and experienced among members of the body is absolutely essential if that body is to be healthy and alive. Thus the development of love within the group must be the primary concern of spiritual leaders” (Larry Richards, A Theology of Church Leadership).
Love is an amazing language. It has a remarkable way of breaking through a hardened, indifferent exterior. It is the language of God. God gave his one and only Son so the world might be saved. In this matchless gift, God showed a love that is far above human love—the love of the Creator for his creation.
When we receive Jesus as our Savior and Lord, we share in the love of the Triune God: the love that led the Father to give his Son, the love that led the Son to give his life, and the love that is given to us through the Holy Spirit, who lives and loves in us. Through the Spirit, God’s love is expressed in our everyday relationships. In a world of coldness and indifference, God’s love expressed through us can have a profound impact on the lives of others—including those who many see as unlovable.
I have learned about this kind of love from an unlikely source. Let me tell you about a three-year-old dog named Lucky. I was playing basketball in the little park across the street when my daughter, Brittany, brought Lucky to meet me for the first time. We obtained him from a pet foster home. I have to be honest—he wasn’t cute to me. But what was more interesting is that I somehow repulsed him. Lucky was terrified of me.
My initial reaction was, “Take him back.” I had grown up with dogs, and have always been good at quickly developing relationships with them. But not Lucky. I tried the high, squeaky voice. That terrified Lucky. I tried to reach out and hold him. He wouldn’t have it. I gave him wonderful doggy treats. He continued to give me a wide berth. It seems that Lucky had been abused as a young puppy.
Lucky is still wary of me. But he has grown on me as well. I’m convinced that Lucky has come into my life to help me learn more about God’s love—his enduring, relentless love and grace for the unlovable. It’s made me think more deeply about how much God loves us in spite of our lack of responsiveness, and it makes me wonder sometimes what kind of love I have for others. It also causes me to think about how we express (or don’t express) God’s love and grace in and through our congregations, our youth ministries and our families.
As we are connected to Jesus we bear the fruit of his love. That love, when openly and consistently expressed by the members (and particularly the leaders) of our groups, will lead to the creation of what we refer to as an atmosphere of love. In such an atmosphere, believers and non-believers alike experience God’s unconditional love for the unlovely (we call that grace).
In such an atmosphere, followers of Jesus learn to more fully express the love that is in them through the Holy Spirit. This is Jesus’ way—the way he lived when he walked this earth. Consider the following examples:
- Jesus touched people. In Mark 1:41 we see, “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.”
- He expressed love through what he said. “When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘don’t cry’” (Luke 7:13).
- He was sensitive to the needs of others. For instance, he asked the invalid in John 5:6, “Do you want to get well?”
- He invested in the lives of people. For example, Jesus loved Lazarus, Mary and Martha deeply (John 11:3, 5, 35-36).
- Jesus intentionally put himself at the crossroads of people’s lives. He was approachable, not distant.
- His love was sacrificial. He was willing to give up something that he cherished—his life—for the good of others.
Contrast Jesus and his way of love with the way most people live today. When I go to work, I see solitary people in cars, absorbed by the radio or whatever is necessary to get to work. I see people on a mission with little time for others or for their needs. Yet the way of Jesus and his love is to reach out to others—particularly to the unlovely. It means pushing the pause button on life and letting go of our agenda for the sake of meeting their needs. But to do so requires that we get to know them—and that’s neither easy nor quick.
I find myself often seeing people at church and asking the same superficial questions: “How was your week?” “How are you doing?” “What’s new?” Superficial conversation is not bad, but it does not lead to really knowing someone—and learning what they really need. It does not create an atmosphere where God’s love flows freely.
Let me suggest some ways that we can go beyond the superficial and create an atmosphere of love in our congregations in general and our youth ministries in particular:
- Call a different person each day just to let them know you were thinking of them.
- Recognize special days in the lives of members. Birthdays, anniversaries and significant events such as graduation are examples of events when it is nice to receive a special note or gift from others. When my eldest son graduated from high school, I was impressed that a pastor of a congregation hours away sent me an e-mail in advance and asked if he could come to the graduation. He showed up and he had a gift. I could tell it made a big impact on my son, although that impact may not always be readily evident at that moment.
- Send a note, text or e-mail out of the blue.
- Find out what a person needs from a close acquaintance and surprise them by providing them with a gift or an act of service. Finding ways to engage in acts of service creates an important bond for those who are on the giving end, and allows the receiver to see the nature of Christ at work.
- It is not difficult to work with your town’s social services department to find opportunities to reach out and make a difference in the lives of needy people. Doing so will cement a loving bond within your group.
- Find ways to socialize outside of congregational time. Potluck activities, picnics, bowling together can all help to build a depth of relationship that transcends the 10-minute superficial church experience.
- Pray for others by name.
A word of caution here: people value expressions of love differently. My daughter, for instance, appreciates social activities and gifts. When I give her a gift, she feels loved, and would prefer that to a hug. My wife appreciates the things I do for her to make her life a little less hectic. Some people simply love to talk. Whatever it is, we all tend to translate acts of love differently on the basis of what is important to us.
But whatever the expression of love, love must be expressed. When God’s love is openly, consistently expressed in our congregations and ministry groups, the result will be an atmosphere of love. In such an atmosphere, the Spirit brings the lost to Christ and builds up those who are believers in Christ. In an atmosphere of love, disciples of Jesus become grace-based—they learn to relate to God and to other people on the basis of God’s unconditional love in Christ.
When people come into contact with your group—your congregation, or youth ministry, or family, what do they experience? If they find an atmosphere of love where people visibly demonstrate love to one another, they experience a joy that is palpable. Conversely, if they find an absence of love, or a love that is unexpressed, the atmosphere is cold and flat.
Most people respond positively to an environment where they are warmly greeted by name, where they know people have a genuine interest in them, and where others reach out of their own comfort zones to assist in whatever way possible. Please join me in reflecting on our families, our youth groups and our congregations. What can each of us do to help provide an atmosphere of love?