By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35
It took a vacation trip 2,000 miles away for the full impact of that verse to overwhelm me. It explains why the church struggles so much today and why the challenge of preaching the Gospel in our land is so daunting.
Vacationing in an unfamiliar region of Canada, we found people to be incredibly friendly. They went out of their way to welcome the stranger. If ever we were in the vicinity of a crosswalk, traffic would stop, wait for us to get to the crosswalk and finish crossing the street before they would proceed.
Virtually every time one of us would attempt to take a photograph of the other three, someone would come up and ask if we would like them to take the picture of all of us. I am not exaggerating when I say that when I was lining up one group shot in front of a unique architecture, a driver stopped his car, got out, and offered to take the picture for us.
In this welcoming community, we set out to attend a worship service on Sunday morning. The previous day we had passed the church of our denomination and noted the worship time on the sign: 11 a.m. But when we arrived 10 minutes before the service, we found the place empty and a note pinned to the door, saying the service that morning would be at a sister church a ways out of town.
We made do by heading across the square to a church already in session. Being on vacation, I was casually dressed. A number of people kept glancing down at my jeans and running shoes in a way that made me uncomfortable.
A note in the bulletin informed us that communion would be by common cup, as that was the ONLY proper method.
It occurred to me on reflection that while vacationing in a foreign place, the only time I had moments where I was not feelin' the love was in the churches.
This is not a critique of those individual churches. We met congregants who were friendly, helpful, and generous. The message was inclusive, and we felt privileged to worship there. The things that made me uncomfortable were minor things that are typical of many congregations, including mine:
We could do better with signs that help visitors.
I generally dress nicely on Sundays as a way of showing respect for God and I hear disparaging comments in my congregation about people who don't.
We all have worship traditions with theological underpinnings.
Nonetheless, the cumulative effect of these practices made me feel less welcome than I was in the secular realm. In the first case, I felt unimportant, in the second, I felt judged, and in the third case, the wording made me feel disrespected.
If I, as a pastor who is normally very comfortable in church settings, experienced these feelings, imagine how welcome the unchurched feel when they venture into our doors.
In the early church, everyone knew the Christians by their love in obedience to Christ. They pioneered the concepts of charity to others, welcoming the stranger, accepting all manner of people as brothers and sisters. Christians did that; others did not. Droves of people were drawn to the Christian message precisely because of this demonstration of agape love.
Thank God, Jesus ushered in the Kingdom of God to such an extent that Christian concepts of charity, welcome, and going out of one's way to help others are prevalent today in many places and among people with no particular religious connection.
The downside is the Christian community has gotten lax on this commandment.
In the United States, not only is it often difficult to tell Christians from others by their love, we have come to the point where people often can distinguish the "disciples" of Jesus by their lack of love. Christians fight over doctrine. Christians judge others. Christians are in the forefront of efforts to eliminate or reduce self-giving agape, charity, and welcoming of strangers in our land. Christians are among the most visible advocates of economic selfishness.
How, then, do we expect to be taken seriously when we stand up there in the pulpit and proclaim, "By this everyone will know you are my disciples, by your love for one another?"
The challenge for churches today is to take seriously Jesus' statement. Until we reclaim that message, Christianity will continue to decline. Worse yet, it will be difficult to make the case that this is a bad thing.