After reading Paul’s words to the Galatians today, I have come to realize that we have generally set a pretty low bar for how we do church together. Church is expected to schedule a few worship services that are convenient for people to attend, making the music and the preaching just edgy enough that people are challenged without being turned off. Put some activities on the calendar throughout the week, education, choirs, fellowship dinners and acts of charity, to engage the congregation with each other and with their neighbors. Once a year gently remind people how the financial model of a church works, so the wheels on the bus stay on for the year to come.
For many churches, meeting this low bar would be a great goal. Churches struggle to make worship both reverent and relevant. The calendars of some churches are empty, giving people little reason to gather other than Sunday morning. For the majority of churches, giving follows worship attendance in a downward trend and yearly cuts in ministry because the money just isn’t there is only thing that can be counted on. For many congregations, this low bar seems like an impossibly high bar.
For us today, Paul’s final words of encouragement to the churches of Galatia sound impossible to meet. Paul couldn’t imagine what the church would look like 2000 years after he wrote these words, but he surely dreamed that we would be meeting the low bar outlined above. However, what he makes clear is that he expects all churches to do one thing that is not even talked about much in our congregations. He insists that we all really love each other. Really, really, love each other.
In our churches today, there is little or no expectation of the people who come to church to truly love each other. Most of our work as leaders is spent making the church an attractive place so that people would want to make the sacrifice to attend…and financially support it. Our emphasis as leaders accepts the reality of our world that people have all sorts of choices for their time and attention and the church has to figure out how best to compete in this marketplace. If we could make our sermons funnier, improve our musicians, fill our calendars with visits and calls, add even more convenient times for worship, people will choose us rather than golf, kid’s activities, or just a relaxing with coffee after a very busy week.
The assumption by all of us, pastors included is that church is something someone could live a comfortable life without. Paul would have been mystified by this assumption. Paul knew what a marketplace looked like, but he would not have seen the church as one more competing organization for our time. He believed the church was a family even more important than the families they had been born into, in a culture and a world where the family was the very center of their life. He believed churches needed to be places where we could trust each other in good times and bad times, like the most trustworthy of families. Paul expected us to love each other in our congregations even more than we love our blood relatives.
Paul wants us to be like family. This is a high bar for any church. When I am at Roosters with Paige and I get Donkey sauce on the side of my face. My wife says, gently and with love, hey pig you got goop on your face. When I am at Roosters with our President Glenn and Donkey sauce gets smeared on my face, Glenn tries his best to ignore to it. Why? Because Glenn thinks it will embarrass me to tell me that I have sauce on my forehead because the implication is honestly, what kind of pig eats wings so voraciously that sauce goes everywhere? Family tells people, hey honey, you are being a pig. Polite church “associates” let it go with a smile and shake of the head.
Paul wants us to be like family in the church. When my dad had a medical emergency last year, my mom called me, my brother and sister. We weren’t called just to rush to the hospital that day, but in the weeks afterward without being asked we helped with follow up appointments, banking, shopping and other needs that came up. Months later we were still asking both of them how things were going. This is what family does. Churches put people on the prayer list and ask the pastor how they are doing. Except those that we are close to personally, most of us don’t consider calling them ourselves to encourage them and hear their needs. That seems intrusive to us. Of course, few of us make our needs known to our friends at church. We expect nothing like the attention that we expect from family.
Paul wants us to be like family. Paige and I wouldn’t hesitate to tell one of our adult children that we are worried that they are drinking too much or spending too much. Can any of us imagine telling the person next to us in the pew this? Paul wants us to have that conversation with them, kindly and gently as we all hope our families do when confronting each other. We confront each other in our families because we don’t want harm to come to a person we love. For Paul, the goal is the same within our churches. It is not to cleanse the church of all unrighteousness, clearing out the evil doers. Paul thinks we should challenge each other on our stuff because we love each other. People in love don’t want harm to come to the person they love.
Messiah could be smug that we are meeting, even exceeding the expectations that many have for the church. By nearly all the ways we measure, we are one of the strongest and healthiest congregations in the Southern Ohio Synod. By Paul’s measure, though, we are falling short. Like many churches we worry more about whether people will come, rather than calling them up and finding out why they haven’t been here like you would your kids if they didn’t show up for dinner. Like many churches we have made the promise to be polite to each other rather to love each other when no family I ever known puts being nice above being loving. Like many churches we don’t expect people to make a commitment to us like we expect from our family.
Paul wanted the church to be marked by love. Love for our neighbors outside these doors that is joyful, extravagant and generous like the God who made us. Love for each other within these doors that one would expect of people who are all children of the same heavenly father. Love that looks like a family, willing to seek and meet each other’s needs, to call each other out on their stuff, and to constantly work to keep our brother and sister in relationship, because that is what healthy families do.