One thing my co-leader Christian is always exhorting us about is that our calling as a church is to love our neighbours.
I continue to find that radically challenging, having grown up as a Christian in the evangelical scene, where I learnt that the main responsibility we have towards our neighbours is to evangelise them.
Evangelism is good. But that doesn’t mean it’s identical to love. If evangelising our neighbours is a part of our calling but we’ve made it the whole, or the main thing, then we’re being unfaithful to God’s command.
The thing about evangelism is you can do it without really caring that much about the person you’re speaking to. They could be anyone, you can still tell them about Jesus. When we reduce the command ‘love your neighbour’ to mere evangelism, the result is cheap love.
Love that speaks but does not act. That’s cheap love. It’s exactly the sort of love the apostles warn us against:
1John 3:18 Little children, we must not love in word or speech, but in deed and truth; that is how we will know we are of the truth
James 2:15 If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?
Evangelism-alone has this problem: it doesn’t cost us enough. It’s too cheap. Love is supposed to be costly – like Jesus’ love for us, right? Evangelism can be done from a safe distance: we can hand them a bible or a tract, or invite them to a meeting or a course. We don’t have to get involved in the sordid mess of their life.
When we substitute the part for the whole like this, doing evangelism as though it were our whole duty to people – when we do that, then evangelism becomes our excuse for not investing in people’s lives. Evangelism becomes cheap love. We use evangelism to fool ourselves that we are being faithful and caring for our neighbour, when really our hearts are dry toward them and we’re keeping a safe distance. Evangelism allows us to continue a lifestyle where we please ourselves.
And people notice. Evangelism in the context of costly, self-giving love will be interpreted as an act of love from a friend. Evangelism-alone will be seen as what it is: a fairly cold pursuing of our own agenda to get converts. People notice. They sense that we are not true friends, and they stay away. They don’t want to hear. Why would they? Who likes having someone else’s agenda pushed on them?
Here’s the challenge we’re getting from Christian’s exhortation, then. At our church we’re trying to:
REPENT of cheap love, and stop doing evangelism that costs us nothing.
LEARN to love our neighbour with costly, servant-hearted friendship, in the name of Jesus.
SPEAK the good news of God’s grace in a context where people have already had a taste of it from our church-life.
We’re not very good at this yet. But I reckon as we do it, we might start to look like Jesus. We might gain some credibility. And maybe needy people will even start responding to us the way they so often did to Jesus.
What do you think?