There’s a plague that is absolutely destroying the Church. No, it’s not the ‘moral decline’ of American culture. It’s not the ‘liberal agenda’ or the the relativization of truth. It’s actually not coming from outside the Church at all. It’s a bit like cancer; it’s an attack from the inside.
And nope, it’s not a loss of love for doctrine or the ‘pandering’ of the church to the world. The problem is this: we’ve lost our first love. And here’s the tell-tale sign: when you deeply, passionately, wholeheartedly love someone, you love what they love. You love who they love. So, as Christians, people who claim to love Jesus, we’re obligated to ask ourselves: “who did Jesus love?” And the radical, scandalous, too-good-to-be-true fact is this: everyone. The Son of Man loves every single lost, broken, and dirty son and daughter. He died that He might draw all people to Himself (John 12:32). Not just the clean. Not just those who basically have it together. Everyone.
John 3:17, the verse right after “for God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life,” says that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The world. Those two words echo like a bellow inside of a cave. Jesus loves the world. He didn’t come to condemn the world; He came to save it.
And this is what worries me about many of the churches in America right now. We don’t love the world. We love to condemn the world for their wickedness; we love to tweet about how wrong they are; we love to scorn them in their sin. But we don’t love them.
In this, we couldn’t be any more different than Jesus. As sin-filled as 21st century America may be, Jesus’ day and age wasn’t exactly filled with righteous, perfect people, either. But unlike the majority of American Christians (myself included, to my shame), He didn’t hide in the safe confines of the walls of a religious building. As far as we can tell in Scripture, Jesus spent more time eating and talking with the sinners, far from the religious purity of the Temple, than He ever did inside.
In fact, Jesus said in Mark 2:17 says “Healthy people don’t need a doctor — sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” And in case we didn’t get that the first time, here’s Luke 5:32: “I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” Every single person is a candidate for the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God. Every single person, that is, who sees their need for it. But it seems that those who are so broken as to actually see their need for a Savior are actually the people that we as the Church like to rule out of ever coming to accept the love of the Father.
And an innumerable many in the American church are far more concerned with making sure that the people who walk into their churches dress appropriately, speak softly, stop smoking, smell good and have the ‘right’ moral and political views in order to be come in. In fact, most are willing to withhold their welcome until they are.
Jesus not only welcomed all who came to Him, He went looking for the lost. He searched for sinners. He went out of His way (literally) to find the unloved and the outcast (John 4). And if a church isn’t a place that the sick, broken, marginalized, immoral and infamous are welcome, it’s not a Christian church. It doesn’t have any right to claim the name of Christ. It’s merely a religious club, concerned more with elitism than pursuing the things and the people that Jesus does.
The One that we, as Christians, claim to love and even profess that we’re trying to be like told us why He came to the earth: “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). If that’s not our mission, we may be striving to follow someone, but it’s not Jesus. And if I can press the point a little further, 1 John 4:8 actually says that “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” If love isn’t our foremost characteristic, how can we know the One who self-revealed Himself as love?
To be clear, love isn’t blindly accepting every behavior and calling it good. Love is blindly, unreservedly accepting every single person regardless of their behavior, and in spite of whether or not they ever change. That’s how Jesus loved. He never declared sin to be anything less than sin; He just chose to love the sinner anyways.
Jesus once famously found a woman caught in adultery, ready to be stoned by a crowd of self-righteous, religious folks. He didn’t tell her that adultery wasn’t so bad; He forgave her and told her to sin no more. And guess what? That’s exactly what happened. Because it’s not the anger of God, nor the judgmental glances of Christians, nor the Church’s seemingly unscalable walls of moral perfection that draws people to turn from their sin. It’s the kindness of God (Romans 2:4).
In Luke 17, Jesus healed 10 men who had a deadly skin disease called leprosy; only 1 came back to thank Him. He didn’t angrily say, “hey! I loved you guys enough to heal you. Since you’re not thankful, I’m revoking my love and undoing your healing.” Why? Because that’s not love. Love doesn’t stop when it’s not received. Love doesn’t quit when the beloved doesn’t change. Love, in its pure, unadulterated form, just loves. Whether the person repents and trusts in Jesus and has their life turned upside down, or stays in their sin and never seems to change, Love keeps loving. And 1 John 4:8 says that God Himself is pure, unblemished love, and that if we know Him, we’ll love like Him.
Our love can’t be conditional; ‘turn from your sins and clean yourself up and become a Christian and we’ll love you.’ That’s not how the Father loves. Our love can’t be solely for the clean, neat and pretty; Jesus came for those who are so messed up that they know that they need help. If Jesus is truly the first love of our souls, may we repent from our self-righteous elitism and be the vessel of love and hope to the world that Jesus died to make us.
So believers, we have to do better. Christians, if we’re not known for our almost frustratingly ferocious desire to see people cared for and welcomed, we’re missing the point. Church, if we’re not known far and wide for our love for the sin-saturated, messed up, confused world, what’s the point? If the young man struggling with his sexual orientation or the young woman who just had an abortion or the pierced, tattooed gay couple, or those victimized by systematic racism think of the Church as the place to get judged, not helped and loved, what’s the point? For Jesus, loving the lost was, and is, the main thing. It’s up to us to keep the main thing the main thing. If we don’t, what are we even here for?