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At the close of my message I encouraged everyone to turn to someone nearby—spouse, family member, or friend—and share a memory of personal pain. It could be as small or great a pain as they cared to disclose, something recent or from the past. As each individual spoke, his or her partner was to listen and express godly comfort.
As people shared their hurts and comforted one another, many exchanged spontaneous, tender embraces, and a few tears began to flow. I slipped away from the platform and circled behind the crowd near the main doors, rejoicing as I contemplated the Father's joy. His children were moving beyond hearing his Word to actually experiencing it.
While I stood there watching, the door opened behind me, and a man walked in. He was about thirty years old, nice looking, and casually dressed. I found out later that Ray, who was not a believer, lived in the neighborhood and was out for an evening walk. Curious about why the church parking lot was full on a Friday night, he had stepped inside to take a look.
He walked over near me and surveyed the sea of people. Obviously perplexed at the sight, he asked, "What are they doing?"
"They're comforting one another," I explained.
Ray continued to watch the people share their hurts and tenderly embrace—married couples, single adults, and entire families. Tears formed in his eyes, and there was a longing in his voice. "That's what I need."
Sensing a divine appointment, I said, "Are there stressful or painful things going on in your life right now?"
Ray nodded. He explained that his job at the nearby Kennedy Space Center was in jeopardy due to cutbacks. Furthermore, he had just gone through the pain of placing his mother in a nursing home. At about the same time, his fiancée had broken up with him. This young man was in a world of hurt!
Others gathered around Ray and shared God's love with him by comforting him. The unexpected outpouring of love from total strangers lifted a great burden from Ray, and before the evening was over, he committed his life to Jesus Christ. Today he is involved in church and a singles ministry. Through new friends in the church, Ray found a better job. And the church's ministry to shut-ins is sharing the love of Christ with Ray's mother in the nursing home. The love and comfort Ray found that warm November evening continue to bless him.
Are We Relevant?
Isn't this what every one of us prays for? Don't we fervently desire to see people like Ray drawn to Christ by what they see in our lives? Don't we long for increasing numbers of hurting people to look to us and our churches for refuge, hope, and healing?
But are we providing this kind of place in the world today? In moments of honest reflection, many of us would probably respond, "Sadly, not as often as we want to be or should be." Unchurched friends and neighbors may attend services when we invite them for Christmas or Easter or "Friendship Sunday." But how many of them come back seeking answers for their troubled lives? And how many total strangers like Ray enter our Christian gatherings saying, "This is what I need"? Again, answering honestly, many of us would say, "First-time unchurched visitors are few and far between, and return visitors are even more rare." Or we may lament, "Whenever I try to share the gospel with unbelieving neighbors or coworkers, they're not interested."
Why is this so? Why do the people who need our message the most seem the least interested in it? Why aren't there more people like Ray coming through our doors? Why do so many of the unchurched walk away from us saying in effect, "I see what you have, and I don't need it"?
I believe I can answer these hard questions with one word: relevance. After more than fifteen years of ministry to Christian leaders who struggle with these questions, I am convinced that the body of Christ frequently fails at being relevant to the needy world around us. What does it mean to be relevant? According to Webster, something is relevant when it has "significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand." A relevant solution is clearly applicable and pertinent, significantly impacting the needs of the current situation. A solution that does not meet the obvious need is deemed irrelevant or extraneous.
People are not streaming to us or to our gatherings for answers because they do not perceive our message as relevant to the deep needs of their lives. To a vast number of the unchurched, we are answering questions they are not asking, we are providing solutions to problems they don't face, we are scratching where they don't itch. We are irrelevant to the people we most need to reach.
"But wait," you may object. "The gospel is the solution to humankind's deepest needs. God and his Word are thoroughly relevant to our problem-plagued culture." And you are right. God and his eternal Word are relevant to the needs of every relationship, every culture, and every period of history—including the present. So to whatever extent we are irrelevant to the world around us, it is not God's fault. Something is getting lost in the translation. Somewhere between God's ultimate solution and the world's crying need, the message of hope is becoming garbled. The problem is not in the message; it's in the medium. The problem is not in the vision; it's in the vehicle.
Most people around us do not listen to our message because they do not see how God and his Word can solve their life struggles. What they need is a relevant solution to their problems modeled right in front of their eyes. Our neighbors are desperate to see the living Word of God applied to the real needs of real people in the real world. Once they see that what we have is real, they will want to know where it comes from. If we are going to reach a hurting world with biblical, Christ-centered solutions, we must be a showcase of God's relevance. We must be people who prompt the watching world to say with Ray, the wide-eyed young man in Florida, "That's what I need."
Bright Hope, Painful Irony
The world is full of hurting, needy people like Ray. If I had to characterize the general population in only a few words, I would say we are people who are alienated, disconnected, and alone. I believe the outward manifestations of crime, drugs, rebellion, abuse, addiction, and family breakup plaguing our culture spring from alienation at two levels. First, people are alienated from God and his Word. Second, people are alienated from one another, feeling empty, unloved, and alone. They rush through life at a helter-skelter pace, hardly noticing each other.
Many husbands and wives relate at a surface level but fall short of developing true intimacy. Many single adults feel ignored and unimportant in a world that seems to cater to couples and families. Parents talk to their children but not with them. No wonder one teenager wrote, "I am so lonely I can hardly stand it. I want to be special to someone, but there's no one who cares about me. I can't remember anyone touching me, smiling at me, or wanting to be with me. I feel so empty inside."
This young person speaks for vast multitudes of lonely, alienated people in our world. The hurt is real. The pain is deep. Anxiety, emptiness, and disconnectedness reign in the human heart as our culture tumbles from crisis to crisis.
The World Isn't Listening
Do we have an answer for pain-filled people in a crisis-filled culture? Absolutely! The bright hope gleaming in the darkness of a hurting generation is the person of Jesus Christ and his message of love and forgiveness. Christ is the answer. We believe it wholeheartedly. We preach it and teach it with conviction and passion.
But does the hurting world find our message relevant? By and large, no. Studies confirm that our words and actions fail to clearly communicate Christ's message of hope. The spiritually and relationally needy around us often dismiss the gospel as the solution to their troubled lives because they fail to see its relevance in us.
On the one hand, many unbelievers seem to be very God conscious. A recent national survey reveals that 57 percent of the unchurched consider religion very important to their lives. We find that many unbelievers look to God and the church for help in times of discouragement or trouble. From this data we might expect the world to beat a path to our door for the answers and solace they seek.
Ironically, another study shows that an astounding 91 percent of non-Christians feel that the church is not sensitive to their real needs.3 In other words, what they hear and see in us is largely not applicable or pertinent to their situation. They find us irrelevant. What a tragedy! Hurting people may come to the right place but far too often go away empty because the way we relate the answer does not apply to their glaring need.
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California, and author of The Purpose-Driven Church, made a similar discovery. Before he opened the doors at Saddleback Church, which now welcomes ten thousand in weekly worship attendance, Warren conducted a house-to-house survey in the community. He discovered four common complaints about churches:
Is the world coming to us for bread, only to be served a stone? That's what the unchurched seem to be saying. I am concerned that we may be losing the battle for truth in this generation because we are not relevant, vital models of God's solution to a hurting world.
Missing the Mark among Our Own
You may be surprised to learn that recent evidence suggests we are failing the test of relevance inside the church as well as outside. A 1994 Josh McDowell Ministry study of 3,795 church-attending youth reveals:
If our church-attending youth find themselves lonely, stressed out, and confused, can it also be true that a comparable segment of adults are also lonely, stressed out, and confused? Research confirms it. A staggering 74 percent of today's Christian adults claim that the church is not sensitive to their needs.
There are obviously thousands of churches effectively sharing the message of God's love. But among a broader group of the approximately 350,000 churches in this country, something is significantly missing. When a majority of Christian adults claim that the church's message doesn't meet their needs, is it any wonder non-Christians find the church irrelevant?
Loneliness at the Top
Ministry leaders and their families are not immune to the painful alienation plaguing our culture, nor is the message of hope we proclaim always perceived as relevant to those who seem most deeply committed to it. According to a recent survey, 23 percent of Protestant pastors have been officially terminated or forced to resign at least once during their ministries. H. B. London and Neil Wiseman begin their book, Pastors at Risk, with the sobering words, "Contemporary pastors are caught in frightening spiritual and social tornadoes which are now raging through home, church, community and culture."
A study by Fuller Institute of Church Growth found that a staggering number of ministers are hurting and finding little relief among those they serve:
Another survey reveals that 41 percent of ministers struggle with anger toward their spouses. Forty-five percent of ministers' wives claim to have no close friends.
Something isn't working. When the message of Christ's love and forgiveness is not being applied to resolve the personal and relational pain of so many of those who proclaim it, we have a crisis of irrelevance in the ministry.
The Heart of the Issue
Where have we missed it? We are the body of Christ, ordained by God to proclaim the Good News. So why do we seem to have so little impact on a hurting world, not to mention our own members and leaders?
I propose that our culture no longer sees us as a relevant solution to its needs because we have lost touch with the very heart of who we are. As the people of God, we may hold the "right" views on sin, embrace the "right" concepts of truth, and proclaim the "right" steps to salvation. But if we are out of touch with why we do what we do, our ministries will be irrelevant to the needy world. In my judgment, this is precisely why hurting people are not flocking to our churches today, where the solution to their deepest needs awaits them. And it is also the reason why so many church members are hurting and unfulfilled.
What is our essential motive for the ministry of reaching and teaching people in Christ's name? I like to use the term Great Commandment love. In one of the most defining moments of his ministry, Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest. He answered, " 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40, nasb). This Great Commandment to love God and love people defines the true identity of those who are called his church. Great Commandment love is at the heart of who we are and what we do.
Compare Christ's Great Commandment with the equally important Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20, nasb). The Great Commission to declare God's truth on the vital issues of sin, Scripture, and salvation, and to call people to bow in obedience to God, relates more to the mission of the church. The Great Commandment to love God and others defines our identity or heart as a church. The Great Commission capsulizes what we do while the Great Commandment embodies who we are. What I refer to as the Great Commandment Principle is the accomplishing of the Great Commission within the context of the Great Commandment.
Both are vital to our ministry to the churched and unchurched. We cannot effectively do what we have been called to do unless we embrace and live out our identity as people who love God and others. In fact, when we adhere to the Great Commandment Principle of loving God and one another, we can "do" church effectively because we are "being" his church.
As the Great Commandment Principle comes to more clearly define who we are, it will be God's love that prompts our activity, empowers our work, and becomes the explanation for any "success" we might have. This principle will bring the evidence of his love into every relationship we enjoy and every message we share. "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you" (Ephesians 5:1-2, nasb).
Embracing the Great Commandment Principle does not mean we are soft on the vital issues of sin, Scripture, and salvation. For example, Jesus compassionately said to the woman caught in the act of adultery, "I don't condemn you," but he also said, "Go and sin no more." Great Commandment love connects us to the very heart of God, where we are empowered to minister truth to people whose lives are scarred by sin, disobedient to Scripture, and spiritually lost. Indeed, only when the truth is spoken in love will people be moved to conform to the truth.
Right on the Issues, Wrong in the Heart
During the first century, a group of religious people clung doggedly to their positions on sin, Scripture, and salvation. They upheld ethical absolutes and did not shrink from denouncing sin. They condemned immorality and rejected Roman paganism. If anyone could claim religious "rightness," it was the Pharisees.
But these champions of "proper" doctrinal correctness were the least responsive to Jesus' mission and message. In addition to missing the mark on real truth, something just as vital was missing from their "ministry," making them irrelevant to the needs of their culture. When Jesus compassionately healed a man racked with disease, the Pharisees objected because it happened on the Sabbath when no "work" was to be done. Jesus offered forgiveness and a new start to the woman caught in adultery, but the Pharisees wanted to stone her. Jesus displayed his love for sinners and drunkards by dining with them, while the Pharisees fraternized only with the "righteous."
The Pharisees were obsessed with correct doctrine and performing religious duty, but they lacked a heart of love. No wonder Jesus had such harsh words for them: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matthew 23:27-28, nasb); "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire compassion, and not sacrifice' " (Matthew 9:13, nasb).
Jesus, who is truth incarnate, did not compromise on sin in his expression of love and compassion. He called people to obedience and promised dire consequences if they failed to obey. Jesus believed correctly and behaved correctly, but most significantly, he, unlike the Pharisees, loved correctly. It was his compassion and love that drew people to him. It was his compassion and love that reached out to resistant hearts. It was his compassion and love that made his message of submission and obedience to God attractive, compelling, and relevant.
Being relevant is not only about believing and behaving; it's also about loving. It not only means fulfilling the Great Commission to reach and teach others; it also means fulfilling the Great Commandment to love God and people. It is essential to take a biblical stand and teach the truth on all the right issues. But without a passionate heart of love for God and others, such efforts are as appealing to people as noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
All across church history we find those who, like the Pharisees, inflicted much pain and hindered the ministry of the gospel in the name of believing and behaving correctly. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the defense of slavery in our own country, the bombing of abortion clinics—all were done in the name of "truth." Where did these people fail? They missed the heart of love behind the truth, and in doing so they actually perverted the truth. They were obsessed with the mission while oblivious to the heart of love that is to motivate the mission.
Relevant, biblical ministry means fulfilling the Great Commission with Christ's constraining love permeating every aspect of our lives. Minimize Great Commandment love in the church, and you have irrelevant ministry. It's that simple. Seeking to advance Christ's cause without demonstrating God's compassionate heart still tends to turn away more people than it attracts. Sadly, this is the state of many churches at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
The Critical Challenge
As we begin to restore Great Commandment love to our personal lives and ministries, we will be increasingly attractive to the hurting, needy people around us. Two critical questions must be answered in order to effect this vital restoration. First, what does Great Commandment love look like in our lives and ministry? Second, how does restoring Great Commandment love to our lives and ministry make our message relevant? In the pages ahead, I will attempt to paint a word picture of Great Commandment love in action. I will show how this kind of love results in relevant ministry without compromising God's truth about sin, the absolute authority of Scripture, and man's fundamental need for God. And I will share with you the dramatic difference Great Commandment love has made in my own life, marriage, and ministry.
In order for our lives to demonstrate Great Commandment love and impact our world in a relevant way, three things must happen.
1. We must identify and meet the real needs of people.
Take Ray, for example. The message of the gospel reached him that night in Florida because he was first touched by the love of God expressed through someone who identified his need for comfort and met that need. In the environment of love, Ray was drawn by the Holy Spirit into a personal relationship with the one who is love! Relevance springs from a body of believers who are deeply in love with God and are able to identify a "neighbor's" needs for comfort or acceptance or security or approval and lovingly meet those needs.
Such a message does not ignore a person's fundamental need to be in right relationship with God and love him with heart, soul, and mind. We must love God first; it's the "first and greatest commandment." But we must go further. Jesus always linked love for God with the second-greatest commandment: love for people. An intimate relationship with the God of love, comfort, encouragement, and hope always challenges us to pass along his love, comfort, encouragement, and hope to others. When we tell people to love and obey God but fail to love them ourselves, our message is irrelevant. But when the love of God, expressed through a few loving Christians in Titusville, met Ray at the point of his needs, he readily welcomed their ministry to his deeper spiritual need. That's relevant ministry!
In the chapters that follow, you will learn how to express Great Commandment love in your ministry to others by identifying and meeting real, scriptural needs.
2. We must help people experience God's Word at the point of their need.
We must call people to adhere to the absolute truth of God's Word—that's essential. But we must go further than challenging people to believe the right things. We must challenge them to experience the Word of God until it affects every aspect of their lives. Paul wrote, "Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies" (1 Corinthians 8:1, nasb). Our relevance in the world is sacrificed when we misapply God's Word, applying it only to the rational mind.
Think about Ray again. Simply quoting a few Scripture passages to him or giving him a spiritual pep talk would not have met his need for comfort. Great Commandment love in that Florida church included believers' compassionately and lovingly experiencing, with Ray, Romans 12:15, "Mourn with those who mourn," and 2 Corinthians 1:4, "Comfort others," (nlt). A few people mourned Ray's hurts with him and comforted him as the Scriptures direct. They ministered God's love to him. He responded to this outpouring of love and was greatly blessed.
Great Commandment love is expressed when God's Word is experienced in the human heart and lived out through a loving, obedient life. It's the difference between those who only hear the Word and those who do what it says.12 In this book you will discover how people can experience God's Word personally at the point of their need.
3. We must communicate the true character of God.
Ray was a sinner in need of forgiveness when he entered the doors of the church that night. Had we minimized or ignored his sin and need for a Savior in our ministry to him, we would have done him no favor. In ministering to the needs of others, we cannot be soft on sin. But we must go further than challenging people to confess their sin. As we boldly declare Christ as God's provision for sin, we must also reveal the Father's true character, the heart of love behind the gift of his Son.
We misrepresent God's character when we claim that he is concerned only about removing our sin. We must also convey that he loves the sinner! When we demonstrate God's love for people by meeting their needs, we gain their attention, just as Ray's heart was moved by the loving believers in Titusville. And when we tell people that our love comes from God, who yearns to forgive their sin and enjoy a loving relationship with them, many will be reached, just as Ray was. This book will help you to capture and communicate the compassionate heart of God in your life, your relationships, and your ministry.
A Daring Promise
What will happen when we begin to restore Great Commandment love to our lives and ministries? The answers to this question may amaze you. But seeing the biblical principles of Great Commandment love implemented in individuals and churches across this country and abroad over the past fifteen years has confirmed to me that great rewards await those who live and lead according to the Master's model.
You will experience a level of spiritual health you may have thought unreachable this side of heaven.
Great Commandment love fosters spiritual health. Personal, family, and ministry crises are averted or quickly resolved when needs are lovingly met according to God's design. When a group of believers expresses God's love, they experience community, and petty divisions and territorial squabbles diminish. When people experience compassionate care in their relationships, they spend less time untangling interpersonal problems, and they invest more time in spiritual development and concern for others.
You will experience growth you may have thought impossible this side of the book of Acts.
A Great Commandment church is a growing church. When love is expressed to people at the point of their need, curious sightseers and hungry seekers alike will return and bring their friends. Rick Warren, Saddleback Community Church pastor, writes:
Look beyond the hype of every growing church and you will find a common denominator: They have figured out a way to meet the real needs of people. A church will never grow beyond its capacity to meet needs. If your church is genuinely meeting needs, then attendance will be the least of your problems—you'll have to lock the doors to keep people out.
The principles in this book are not church growth principles per se. But when you discover how the truth of God's Word is relevant to the real needs of people and communicate that truth within the context of Great Commandment love, the world around will take note that you have "been with Jesus," and growth will occur.
You will experience fulfillment in your relationships that you may have thought unattainable this side of Eden.
Great Commandment love produces healthy marriages, healthy families, and healthy friendships. As you explore how God's Word meets the real needs of people, you will discover that Great Commandment love enables you to meet needs in the lives of your family members and friends. This discovery literally revolutionized my marriage and family life, then overflowed into my church ministry, producing incredible health and growth. For my wife, Teresa, and me, the message of Great Commandment love continues to be the focal point of the ministry God has given us that has expanded to thousands of Christian leaders.
You will experience intimacy with God that you may have thought unspeakable this side of the throne of grace.
A Great Commandment follower of Christ enjoys the presence of God in his or her life and ministry. Why? Because in order to love God with heart, soul, and mind and love our neighbor as ourselves, we must be in touch with the loving heart of God. We cannot love at all apart from God's love. The apostle John stated, "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). Great Commandment love cannot be manufactured; it is God's love and compassion flowing in and through his people to draw a hurting world to himself. And as you deepen your love relationship with God, the most immediate benefit is the intimacy you enjoy with him.
Our world needs a relevant, vibrant body of believers who will serve as a shelter in the storm, a refuge from the pressures of life, a sanctuary of hope where hurts can be healed and spiritual needs can be met. Christ is the answer—we sincerely believe it. But the needy world has every reason to question the relevance of the answer if our lives and our ministries fail to exude Great Commandment love.
Are you aware of people in your community, in your circle of ministry, and perhaps even in your own home who are in need of a shelter, a refuge, a sanctuary? Do you long to provide solutions that are real, relevant, and revolutionary? Do you believe that God is the answer and that he desires to use his people as his ambassadors for communicating the answer to a hurting world?
If so, you have much in common with a growing movement of pastors and lay leaders across this land whose ministries are relevant and growing. Your colleagues in this movement are committed to fulfill the Great Commission out of a Great Commandment heart of love that meets people at the point of their need. You are among a growing throng who will lead relevant churches into the twenty-first century and experience unprecedented fruitfulness in ministry. This book is about perpetuating the Great Commandment movement—one person, one family, one friend, and one church at a time.