Years ago, I worked in advertising and marketing in Atlanta. It was my job to come up with clear strategies for differentiating clients’ products. A unique selling proposition was essential to breaking through the market clutter, especially if you had strong competitors.
Today, we’re in a cluttered marketplace when it comes to worldviews. The church, along with other Christian institutions and ministries, is “competing” in ways hard to imagine even a decade ago. In our panic and confusion, as escalating voices threaten to drown out our ability to speak into the culture, it’s tempting to build alliances with the world and try to differentiate ourselves from other Christians.
But we must not forget the words of our Savior, who is the reason we so desperately want to reach the world: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t say “if you love the world” or “if you love your neighbor” or “if you love justice” or even “if you love God.” He identified loving other Christians as the way to differentiate ourselves to a watching world.
Fitting In with the World
Could one reason Jesus so emphasized loving one another be that he knew his people would be made up of all races, social strata, nationalities, cultures, and backgrounds? For all these kinds of people to truly love one another would indeed be a miracle and a light of hope for a world in constant turmoil.
It’s tempting to build alliances with the world and try to differentiate ourselves from other Christians.
I wonder if we’re embodying that miracle these days. Does a watching world look at American Christianity and come away thinking, I may not agree with them, but they really love each other? Or in a culture that is, quite frankly, full of hate, blaming, and mean-spiritedness, do we as a group too often fit right in?
I’m struck by Christ’s charge to Peter in John 21. He doesn’t say, “If you love me, change the world.” He says, “If you love me, feed my sheep” (v. 17). But in our quest to change the world and have a seat at the table, are we sometimes throwing his sheep under the bus? If we unlovingly blame each other for the ills of society, does that recommend Christ to the world?
I’m not disparaging necessary calls to repentance and the hard love of protecting the sheep from wolves and maintaining the purity of the church. Of course, there’s always a need for constructive criticism, questions, and admonishment. (That’s what this article is.) But the concept of “speaking the truth in love” was never more needed than now (Eph. 4:15).
The heart behind our words is important, and we need to prayerfully consider whether we’re loving our brothers and sisters as we point out problems that need to be addressed. Do we wish them well? Are we glad to hear they’re successful in their work for the kingdom, even if we don’t always agree with them? Do we want to believe the best about them, or are we secretly pleased when they stumble or fall? Do we pray for the church for whom Christ died, or do we gloat over its failures and foolishly think we could have done better? Do we seek to build up or to tear down?
Do we want to believe the best about them, or are we secretly pleased when they stumble or fall?
Picture Jesus dying on the cruel cross, rejected and despised, suffering there for his people, the church. Do you find it difficult to reconcile the humble founding of our faith with the current reality? We often do a better job of reflecting the culture than reflecting Christ’s example. Jesus wasn’t trying to get the applause and approval of the world; he was laying down his life for his friends. Humble gospel witness has drawn people to Christ through the ages, and it’s still effective today.
Building Up Other Believers
Only recently have I realized I should have been focusing more on loving God’s people and less on trying to change the world. I’ve intentionally prayed more for other ministries, missionaries, coworkers, and persecuted Christians. I’ve especially prayed more for those Christians with whom I disagree. I’ve tried to care more about building up other Christians and less about building up my own ego and reputation.
Dying to self is at once painful and incredibly freeing. As Jesus explained, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). It’s been amazing to see the Holy Spirit doing a deeper and broader spiritual work around me as I’ve tried to obey Christ’s command to love his people. It’s simple obedience, not all our arguing and strategizing, that will reach the world after all.