“Love never fails.” The Church is failing. Over the last year, I have repeatedly read articles on the failure of the church in America; it seems like a new article comes out every month. The other day I referred to statistics showing the decline of the throughout America over the last 30 years. Last month I read a series of articles entitled “The Death of the Church” by Todd Tilmore. Todd is both a pastor and sociologist and used sociological methods to explain the decline of the church. His premise is the decline of the community over the last 40 years in our society has resulted in the decline of our churches…according to Todd, our churches have lost that sense of community. As I read the article, initially it resonated with me, but then I started to think that the lack of community is a symptom, not the illness. If the churches decline was all about community, then many rural churches would be flourishing because rural America still has the community.
In the Greek, the most literal meaning of the word fail is “of flowers that wither in the course of nature”. It is also defined as “to fall out of, to fall down from, to fall off; to fall from a thing, to lose it; to perish, to fall; to fall from a place from which one cannot keep; fall from a position; to fall powerless, to fall to the ground, be without effect of the divine promise of salvation” We individually and collectedly are the bloom of Christ…are we withering away?
If Love never fails but the Church is failing, what is the implication? That the church has become a loveless church. What else is the implication? That while we serve an incredibly loving God, we are each flawed and imperfect…No other place than the church do we see the intersection of the divine loving God with flawed humanity. We enter the church with an idealistic view that the church is a perfect place…not acknowledging that the moment we enter the church we make it less than perfect because we are not perfect. Usually, the first un-loving person we see in the church is ourselves when we look in the mirror.
Part of the problem is that when we start in the Church, we start to think that we are special because we are part of the “right” church. Slowly pride creeps in (love it is not proud). We have the “right” doctrine the “right” music, the “right” preaching and the “right” committed members; soon we are telling everyone that we go to the” right” church (love does not boast). We start to want to be a lay leader because it makes us look good, boosts our standing, gets us attention from our awesome leader and makes us feel good about ourselves…while everyone else is doing the same thing (love is not self-seeking). We start to lead a family group and we find out that our family group is filled with flawed people that bring life’s messes with them. We get frustrated when they don’t change (love is patient). When they increasingly need our time to help them through their life messes, we get resentful and angry (righteous indignation) with them (love is slow to anger). When “our” people don’t change we decide we need advice on how to help them, so we talk to other family group leaders and church leaders sharing the person’s sin (love, it does not dishonor others). We see other family groups and the fun that they have, how their members do not have problems, how they always have visitors and are fruitful (love does not envy). Soon enough we are either worn out and discouraged questioning whether we want to do this the rest of our lives or we become jaded to other people and white-knuckle it through (Love always hopes.) You may think that I am talking about your church, and I am…without even knowing about it. I have seen this play out repeatedly in many different settings and across denominational lines. The problem is us…the problem is me.
Why do people leave the Church and/or God (it’s not always the same though we act like it is)? Now to be clear the scriptures give clear warnings about people “falling away” and “drifting off”. If this was not a danger, then why would we have the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who left a perfect loving father? Clearly, there will be those that leave God and each of us has the personal responsibility to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling”.” But while each one of us has a responsibility before God for our personal decision, don’t all of us (The Church) share that responsibility if we have created an unloving environment? If we have as many leaving as joining shouldn’t we start to ask ourselves if we are practicing love? There are some that will leave a loving secure environment (think Prodigal Son) but I also think that we need to see more often people are leaving because they don’t feel loved. There are exceptions, but most people will not leave a loving home.
I think that one indicator of our love is how we treat people when they do leave. Do we shun them? Or do we try to keep open lines of communication to keep the relationship? While we may not agree with their choices, do we try to meet them where they are at? If they have left God, do we keep hope for them? Or do we get angry with them for leaving as if they performed a personal affront to us? Do we love them or we more worried that they will reflect on us badly because they left? These are the questions that should tell us how much love we really practice.
In discussing this with Deirdre, she points out that the flaw in all of this is that we are focusing on each other rather than on God. We look each other to meet needs that God alone can provide. The love that we all want is the love that can only come from God and the presence of the Holy Spirit. I become an unloving man when I take my eyes off Jesus, the author, and perfecter of my faith. When we collectively take our eyes off Jesus the church itself loses its love. This is not a new problem; the church of Ephesus lost its first love and had fallen far (Revelation 2:4-5).
We also need to keep our awareness that love’s source comes from the Holy Spirit and that we must be vigilant in not quenching or grieving the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-23 states: “ But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy (love rejoices with the truth), peace (love…it is not easily angered), forbearance (love is patient), kindness (love is kind), goodness (love is not self-seeking), faithfulness (love always protects), 23 gentleness (love us always kind) and self-control (love always perseveres). Against such things, there is no law”. We cannot white-knuckle ourselves in loving someone…this love is only in our lives to the extent that we will allow the Holy Spirit to produce it. If we are not loving, we are hindering or grieving the Holy Spirit as he tries to manifest his fruit in our lives.
If we realize that the Church is made up of flawed people that will find it challenging to love the way that Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, what do we do? Do we give up hope that the Church can be a loving family? I think not but it starts with me. Am I patient, kind, not envious, humble? Do I avoid gossip, keep my ambitions in check, keep my anger in check? Am I forgiving, empathetic when people have challenges and excited with the truth? Does my love produce protection trust, hope, and perseverance? Do I look to Jesus for the examples of this? And when I fail (which I do daily) do I strive to be better the next time? I think the growth is in the journey and the striving to be more like Jesus in this perfect love.
Today, the question I am asking myself is am I a withering flower or am I a full bloom for Christ. Do I strive to love in such a way that it will never fail? Have I already failed and need to change? I may not be able to influence or “change” the whole church around me, but I can influence my family and friends.