I remember meeting pastor Dan George and pastor Luke Porter for the first time. My mom invited me to meet the pastors of the Hood View church and I was bracing myself to be judged. But I wasn’t. They showed genuine interest in me and my life. They didn’t bat an eye at my vices, but showed me Jesus in their speech and actions. They showed me agape love.
I started attending, but I didn’t look very Adventist. I didn’t have dressy clothes. For me casual church was every day. But the people of the church, though somewhat dressy themselves and definitely composed of many professionals, didn’t bat an eye at my appearance, or my social awkwardness having not been a part of a church community ever. They showed me agape love. The church had a culture of connection.
This was a season of life where God became very real to me. Partially through personal spiritual experiences in prayer and worship, partially through voracious personal Bible study. and partially through this community showing me Jesus through their lives.
This community loved me to the baptismal waters at the Clackamas river. They didn’t just love me to those waters, they loved me through them. They showed me genuine interest. Agape love. They had a culture of connection.
Agape love is selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love. And where there is agape love, there is human connection. People loving other people in spite of their struggles, pains, and vices. People loving other people even when it’s inconvenient. People loving people even when they don’t have to.
And if we are honest with ourselves, with the depths of our hearts, this is what we desire. To be loved. To find connection. To be able to let our guards down, and share the real person we are with others, and trust that we won’t be hurt, judged, condemned, or alienated.
I recall hearing a story which made me cringe. The son of a member was visiting the church for the first time in a long while. He was a prodigal. He was a lot like me when I first came to the church. Before the church service he was in the corner of the parking lot smoking a cigarette. The problem was, there was an unspoken rule in that church culture. There, you see the church had a culture of correctness. You do not smoke in the church parking lot. But he was visiting. How could he know? Somehow he should have known.
The head deacon and one of the elders saw him and made their way across the parking lot with something in hand. As the man was minding his own business, they approached, greeting him with these words “You do not smoke in the church parking lot.” Following that warm welcome, the head deacon produced a spray bottle from the kitchen, and promptly extinguished the man’s cigarette triumphantly. The church was shocked to hear that the man wasn’t coming in for the church service, and drove away.
How could this story have been different, if their’s was a culture of connection? Perhaps they would have seen the man across the parking lot, and be overcome with an urge to go show him love. Perhaps they would have crossed the parking lot with smiles and gratitude that God sent them someone with whom they could share his son. Perhaps they would have approached him and introduced themselves, welcoming the man to church. Perhaps they wouldn’t have even bat an eye at the cigarette, perhaps they wouldn’t have mentioned it at all. Perhaps the man would have been surprised at their acceptance of him, and joined them at services that day. Perhaps he would have heard the gospel. Perhaps through the message and through the love he experienced his heart would have been melted and become open to the Holy Spirit. Perhaps he would now know Jesus because of their unselfish, unconditional love.
Agape love. This is the sort of love Jesus spoke of when he said:
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." - John 13:34-35
Jesus makes it clear that the Christian community has a culture of connection. It is one that loves one another well. And that this is the mark of a true disciple.
People often say that the opposite of love is hate. The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference. I heard a quote regarding Christian life which challenged me recently: "We are not called to tolerate people. We are called to love people."
Again, this love is experienced and practiced through human connection.
"Love is the basis of godliness. Whatever the profession, no man has pure love to God unless he has unselfish love for his brother. But we can never come into possession of this spirit by trying to love others. What is needed is the love of Christ in the heart. When self is merged in Christ, love springs forth spontaneously. The completeness of Christian character is attained when the impulse to help and bless others springs constantly from within—when the sunshine of heaven fills the heart and is revealed in the countenance."
~ Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons pg. 384
What is needed, is the love of Christ in the heart. Does God love us? He is love. Even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! What an amazing thought, to think that God saw our sinful condition and recklessly, unselfishly, unconditionally, came to us in human form, in Jesus. He showed us his love and proved his love through taking our place on the cross. In Him, by faith, we have grace, righteousness, forgiveness, and peace!
And he wants us to reciprocate that love in the church.
See in Acts 2 how the early church was a place of Agape love.
"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." - Acts 2:42-47
Agape love was their lifestyle. And it was contagious! Notice the culture here. Not only were they connecting with Jesus, they were connecting with people, and connecting people with Jesus. They were centered around the gospel and love. If the gospel was their bread, love was the butter.
I remember during the season of my early Christian journey, I received an invitation by a man named Len Berlein. Len was a part of a ministry called Caleb corps, which founded the ministry to the homeless in O’Bryant square, downtown Portland.I joined Len one day and was able to see that the church was truly the body of Christ. They were his hands and feet, serving people even though they didn’t have to. I wanted to be like that.
A culture of connection is contagious.
Natural Church Development programming brings out the biblical and practical principles of a healthy, growing, church. They have this to say regarding Loving Relationships:
“Loving Relationships are the heart of a healthy, growing church. Practical demonstration of love builds authentic Christian community and brings people into God’s Kingdom.
Unfeigned, practical love has a divinely generated magnetic power far more effective than evangelistic programs which depend almost entirely on verbal communication. People do not want to hear us talk about love, they want to experience how Christian love really works.”
And that is our challenge. To live out love.
When people visit our church, do they meet you and find a culture of correction, or a culture of connection? Some of us feel connected to one another, but I fear that some of us are not. There are people who are not attending church, who feel disconnected. Do you know who they are? What can you do about it?
The Fuller institute has produced a book called “Growing Young,” which looks at biblical principles and the practical principles found in churches who are growing with young people. There are 6 principles of these growing churches (which we could look at another time), but one stands out to me. For todays young people, warm is the new cool. Warm is the new cool. And this should be obvious. People appreciate cultures of connection. Where genuinely loving relationships are present. To foster connection, we need to be good listeners, and ask good questions. We need to care about others, and back up that care with connection. And this connection needs to be ongoing.
In other words, a culture of continual connection is contagious.
How will you allow God to use you to connect with others?
Questions for consideration:
1- What are some practical ways in which you have experienced agape love?
2- How can we connect with people in this busy and technologically advanced age?
3- What are some practical ideas on how can the church stay connected with one another? How can we keep from disconnecting from people?
4- What is one thing you will do this week to connect with someone you haven’t in a while?