Pastors, do you love your people? Elders and deacons, do you love your people? Bible study leaders, do you love your people?
Really and truly?
And do they know it?
The older I get and longer I serve in ministry, the more I am convinced that love (agape) is the essential ingredient in fruitful and long-lasting ministry.
The older I get and longer I serve in ministry, the more I am convinced that love (agapé) is the essential ingredient in fruitful and long-lasting ministry.
A Resounding Gong or a Clanging Cymbal
Quite obviously, there were many gifted people in the church at Corinth. Yet they were a very dysfunctional and divided church. The missing ingredient identified by Paul was their lack of love. And this assessment of the Corinthian church is a very real challenge to us today. Without love, we too are “only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). Ouch!
We encourage people to identify their spiritual gifts and use them. We send people off to Bible College to be well-trained in theology, biblical languages, exegesis, church history, preaching etc. They learn how to strategise and plan for church growth, and even how to care pastorally for people. And rightly so. But giftedness and training alone are not enough. Without love, and but for the grace of God, all our ministry efforts are wasted. As Paul puts it: “I am nothing” and “I gain nothing”.
There is a worrying trend these days to view ministry as a job. And with constraints caused by compliance legislation, emphasis on pastoral health, fear of burnout, specialization of roles and so on, job descriptions are becoming narrower and ministry boundaries tighter. Pastors are less available to their people, quicker to ‘pass the buck’, less willing to take risks or make sacrifices, and more fearful of consequences. For a growing number of pastors, serving the Lord is becoming more a job rather than a joy. And sadly, our people perceive this lack of love.
There is a worrying trend these days to view ministry as a job.
Ministry is becoming increasingly “professionalised”. It is something we are paid to do. It’s set out in our job description. And the great danger is that we will minister out of a sense of duty rather than from a place of genuine love. And, before we know it, this noble calling is reduced to a joyless, mechanical exercise. Instead of serving our people out of love for them, we run the risk of becoming cynical, disillusioned and grumpy!
How much easier life would be if we could earn a Master’s degree in Agapé Love! But this kind of love can’t be learnt in a classroom. Only at the feet of the Master himself.
Only God’s Love Never Fails
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 strikes at the ego of every ministry leader, especially those of us who teach. How easily we can lapse into thinking that our speaking gifts and our knowledge are what makes for successful ministry—and faith that can move mountains (v2) and a life of self-sacrificing service (v3) are surely worthy prizes for anyone in serious ministry. Perhaps these days we might add an impeccable theological pedigree and a rising reputation among our peers.
However, says Paul, this is the most excellent way:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
Read these verses a few times and you may find yourself marvelling at the profound sweep of this biblical definition of love. Read it a few more times and you will probably be feeling devastated as you face the truth of how impoverished your own love for others really is. Only God is patient … kind … not easily angered … keeps no records of wrongs … always perseveres … only God’s love never fails.
‘Christ in Me’ is Loving
We cannot read the gospels and not be in awe of the way Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, reached out in love to all kinds of people—stubborn, wayward, wounded, hungry. He knew when to leave the ninety-nine and go after the one that was missing. And, of course, he ended up laying down his life for those very sheep.
Every church has its share of people who are hard to love. They test us, frustrate us, undermine us, waste our time, use us and abuse us. Yet week after week we front up, teaching, preaching, and caring for them. So how do we keep on genuinely loving them with a love that never fails?
Oswald Sanders suggested in one of his books that there is another way to humbly read these verses:
Christ in me is patient, Christ in me is kind, Christ in me does not envy, Christ in me does not boast … Christ in me is not easily angered … Christ in me keeps no record of wrongs … Christ’s love never fails.
Only when God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit can we begin to understand the supernatural dimension of this love (Rom 5:5). True Christlike love can only come from God. And as we prayerfully cast ourselves upon him, we will become conduits of his love to others (1 John 4:7-21).
True Christlike love can only come from God. And as we prayerfully cast ourselves upon him, we will become conduits of his love to others.
This side of heaven our love for others will always be imperfect. We will struggle to contain our frustrations. We will let people down. We will not always be driven by love. But the good news is that with God’s help it is possible. As we remain (and keep on remaining) in Christ, we are assured that we will bear ‘much fruit’, and that includes the fruit of love (John 15:1-17).
Do you Love Jesus?
When Jesus recommissioned Peter at Galilee after the resurrection, his one overwhelming concern was the condition of Peter’s heart: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” This was the single most important prerequisite for his ministry of caring for and feeding Jesus’ sheep (John 21:15-17). Why should it be any different for us today? Is our love for Christ just as real now as it used to be? If our heart beats with love for Christ, then it will overflow to those we serve, even the most difficult people. But without love, any ministry we exercise will fail the “1 Corinthians 13 test”.
When Love Flows
As I write I can’t help thinking of a couple I knew (now with the Lord) who moved their family from England to work on an isolated aboriginal community in Western Australia. There they spent over 40 years serving the people of that community—sharing Christ with them, teaching them God’s word, caring for them in multiple, menial, practical ways at all hours of the night and day, making incredible sacrifices year after year, and receiving virtually no earthly recognition. Such faithful humble servants! What enabled them to do this? Agapé love. God’s love “shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.”
Do Others Know that You Love Them?
In Philippians 1:3-8 Paul tells the Philippians how he feels about them:
- I thank my God every time I remember you
- I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel
- It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart
- God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus
Similarly, in 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8, writing to the Thessalonians:
“Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.”
Can we find ways of expressing our love for those we serve?
Still the Most Excellent Way
Perhaps you are feeling weary and worn down in your service for the Lord. The love tank is close to empty. You keep fronting up week by week (or day by day) with a dogged sense of duty. You know intuitively that spiritual gifts, hard work, mountain-moving faith, methods and strategies alone are not the answer.
Our love is limited and will fail. Only God’s love never fails.
Then it’s time to check the state of your heart. Spend time with the Lord in repentance and ask him to refill that empty tank. Commit to him specific names, circumstances and personal attitudes that are strangling your ministry. He wants to soften the hardest heart and rekindle the fire that once burned within you. Let him help you love and serve your people with his self-giving, self-sacrificing love.
Our love is limited and will fail. Only God’s love never fails. And that love is still … the most excellent way.