I lead our new member’s class at church. It’s a 12-week class, with about half the class spent on the Westminster Confession of Faith, while the other half deals with the ins and outs of Christ Covenant and the basics of Christian discipleship. I always take one week to talk about loving one another as the body of Christ.
My aid for this lesson is Ed Welch’s terrifically practical book Side by Side. I love the book’s two big ideas: We are all needy, and we are all needed. Under that second theme are 11 short chapters (Remember: We Have the Spirit; Move toward and Greet One Another; Have Thoughtful Conversations; See the Good, Enjoy One Another; Walk Together, Tell Stories; Have Compassion during Trouble; Pray During Trouble; Be Alert to Satan’s Devices; Prepare to Talk about Sin; Help Fellow Sinners; Keep the Story in View).
These are great titles by themselves, but in the class I try to summarize each chapter with a short phrase. In turn, these become 11 pithy suggestions for loving one another in the church. I find them helpful. Maybe you will too.
1. Ordinary people, ordinary ways. Loving people can require extraordinary effort, but it doesn’t require extraordinary gifting. Talk to people. Get to know them. Be a good listener. God has given you wisdom. He’s given you his Spirit. Don’t be afraid.
2. Start small and push through the awkwardness. I used to disdain so much small talk in the church, until a seasoned pastor reminded me that most people have to wade in the shallow end before they’ll try swimming in the deep. Except for the most extroverted among us, getting to know people is challenging. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are friendships. Keep your hand to the relational plow.
3. Follow the affections. Facts are important too. But don’t just ask about the test results and the medication and the next doctor’s visit. We must be willing to talk about fears and worries and doubts and joys and hopes and disappointments.
4. See, and let them know you see. “See something, say something” is not just good advice for stopping the bad guys. It’s good advice for pointing out the good in other people. Have you noticed the Spirit’s gifts, or better yet the Spirit’s fruit, in someone else? Write him a note. Tell her what you’re thankful for.
5. Draw out and ask for stories. How did you become a Christian? What drew you to your line of work? Tell me about your kids. How did you two meet? What were your traditions around the holidays? One of the greatest gifts you can give to others is the gift of your curiosity.
6. Speak from the heart and remember. Don’t let suffering scare you away. That’s when others need you the most. Don’t lecture. Don’t push them away with pious platitudes. Tell them you’re sorry. Take the initiative to help. Don’t forget.
7. Pray and follow up. I always find it amazing (and encouraging) that so many people will pray for me in a time of crisis or pain. I find it doubly amazing when those people circle back a week later, or a month later, or a year later, and tell me they are still praying and ask how I am doing.
8. Keep in mind, suffering is a battleground. We don’t just experience life. We all interpret what we experience. When suffering comes—and it comes to all of us—we will be tempted to interpret our pain incorrectly (e.g., God is out to get me, I’m unlucky, nothing really matters). We need each other to suffer well.
9. Exercise patience and humility. Real love means getting into real problems. Most people, however, prefer to talk about their circumstantial problems, not their real problems. So if we are going to love one another, we must deal humbly with other people’s anger and other people’s failures.
10. Have the courage to confront. Love may cover a multitude of sins, but it does not overlook every sin for all time. Sin is one of the main things we all have in common. Let’s not be afraid to talk about it.
11. Deal with past, present, and future. It’s easy for us to relate to people only in the present. What’s going on today? How are you feeling right now? But wise counselors will also look into the past (to see how history has affected our interpretation of reality) and bring the future to bear on the present. Christians of all people must live in light of the end of the story.