“How to Help Our Neighbors Meet Jesus” is a series that asks notable thinkers and theologians to answer this question: “What is the most important thing the church must do right now to help our neighbors trust Jesus for their salvation?”
We live in a lonely and anxious age. Major studies reflect the same dismal trend: people are increasingly isolated. A 2021 study by American Perspectives exposes the sharp decline in friendship in the U.S. over the past 30 years. They found that 10 percent of women and 15 percent of men report they don’t have a single friend. The percentage of women with more than 10 friends has dropped from 28 percent to 11 percent, and for men, from 40 percent to 15 percent. We’re more and more isolated, and we feel it deeply. According to another report, 61 percent of adults in America feel lonely, and the rates of loneliness are highest among those who are younger. In the U.S., life expectancy has started to decrease for the first time in many years.
This context makes the words Jesus said to his followers shortly before his death more urgent: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). These words have always been binding on the people of God, but they have unique relevance for us today. They call on the church to be a place not only where truth is made known but also where a unique form of love is found. In reaching the Western world today, few things can be as important.
In John 13, Jesus ties the plausibility of the Christian faith to the extent to which the world observes his love in the church. Love isn’t unique to Christian communities, of course, but this verse suggests there should be something uniquely compelling about the kind of love Jesus’s disciples embody. Our friendship makes the reality of the gospel unignorable to the outside world.
Love as Pillar and Buttress
We see this in other Scriptures too: 1 Timothy 3:15 makes it clear a church isn’t just a truth-dispensing center but a spiritual family. As Paul explains why he’s written his first letter to Timothy, he provides this theologically concentrated definition of the church: “If I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.”
Our friendship makes the reality of the gospel unignorable to the outside world.
Because the church is the household of God, we expect relationships to be a fundamental dimension of our life together. Because it’s the church of the living God, we expect the family dynamics of this community to be energized by God himself. This is relevant given the other definition of the church in these verses. It’s the pillar and buttress of the truth.
Both pillars and buttresses are supporting structures for large buildings. On a recent vacation, I visited Palma Cathedral on the Spanish island of Mallorca. It’s one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world, and it has beautiful pillars and buttresses. They’re essential for a building of its size and dimensions, but they aren’t just functional—they’re ornate. They’re part of the beauty of the building they support. A church is to be the same for God’s truth.
The church upholds the truth by embodying it. The life of the church is meant to make the gospel plausible, and the church won’t be an effective communicator of the truth if it isn’t an effective community.
Friendship as Apologetic
What will show the presence of heaven itself among God’s people? What will show that God is alive and well and right here? It’s our love for one another. This isn’t an afterthought, as though what really mattered were other things and our love for one another was the icing on the cake. No, the quality of our relational life is to be an apologetic to the world around us. As Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “Jesus is giving the world permission to judge whether we are true Christian disciples on the basis of whether we love one another.”
So how does this work? Why is our love for one another so determinative of our missional success? Let me suggest two reasons.
1. Gospel love creates safety.
We live in a world full of accusation. There’s an ever-present fear of being canceled. The wrong opinion—or even the right opinion expressed wrongly—can land people in catastrophic trouble: fired from work and shunned by those around them.
The church won’t be an effective communicator of the truth if it isn’t an effective community.
The life of the church is an open challenge to this. Christians are always to be most concerned about our own sin, and not someone else’s. Like Paul, believers can think of themselves as “the foremost” of all sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). This creates a culture where people are less likely to be shocked by the sins of others. Sin will not be excused, but a culture of grace will mean the focus isn’t on the speck in someone else’s eye (Matt. 7:3–5).
Moreover, the gospel encourages a posture whereby we’re able to differ with the way people live or think without pushing them away. Jesus was “the friend of sinners”: able to eat with people while not affirming them and able to disagree with others without rejecting them. These distinctions are all but nonexistent in our culture today.
2. Gospel love is marked by diversity.
This is one of the great themes of Ephesians and is most arrestingly expressed in these words: “Through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).
Paul unpacks how the gospel brought reconciliation across the deepest fault line in society, making Jews and Gentiles alike members of a new humanity. One purpose is to showcase God’s “manifold wisdom” in the heavenlies. The church becomes an surprising demonstration of how God can bring together what’s otherwise intractably divided. The love Jesus calls his people to show one another spans varying ethnic, political, cultural, and economic backgrounds. A world watching as such variety comes together in the name of Christ will find its skepticism crumbling.
Many tasks before the church are urgent and essential—defending the faith’s rationality and goodness against attacks, learning to articulate the gospel in various subcultures, caring for the poor and needy in society, bringing the gospel to unreached groups and regions of the world. But nothing can be more urgent or essential than attending to what Jesus says in John 13:35. Arguments can change minds, but the beauty of Christ’s love shown among us will turn heads like nothing else.
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