Doodle: "Where Is The Love?"
In 2003 a theological cohort known as The Black Eyed Peas asked: “where is the love?” Naturally, the questions we ask influence the answers we get. To put it another way, what we seek out determines - at least in part - what we find. Therefore, The Black Eyed Peas’ question is a deeply profound one—particularly for the modern church. In this doodle, I will suggest that many Reformed and Evangelical churches have swapped out love for God and neighbour with theological precision, expositional preaching and - the often proud but somewhat misplaced insistence - on being ‘biblical.’
Without reopening the debate, in my series of posts on “church at home,” one of the points I felt fairly confident in making was that many Christians reduce church to its preaching or teaching, and maybe ‘worship.’ In the latest post from my series on the Old Testament book of Kings and Christian leadership, I argued that no church should centre on its leader. Yet this is the case in many churches today. When someone asks about our church we tend to emphasise the pulpit or preacher. “Jeffrey is such a gifted expositor,” or, “Tim delivers such powerful sermons.” We also speak about the pulpit steering the church, making Christian leaders the captains of the ship. It is hard to say when the 30 or 50 minute Sunday homily began to be viewed as both the energising power of the entire church and primary way by which we evaluate it. But this is arguably the reality for many Christians today.
Another possible explanation for our fixation on preaching, as well as celebrity speakers and teachers, may be the Reformation. Consider article 19 of the Anglican 39 Articles, “The visible church of Christ is a gathering of believing people in which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments are ministered with due order and discipline as ordained by Christ.” At the Reformation, the generally accepted ‘marks’ of the church were the Word and sacraments (baptism and communion). With more and more churches finding weekly communion impractical - while baptisms depend on births or conversions - there is essentially one mark of the modern Reformed church: preaching. Thus the pulpit has become our Northern Star by which our pastors set their own course—and the church’s.
An expression of the above problem can be demonstrated in the very popular 9 Marks of healthy churches. For almost half of them focus on teaching the Bible and theological content:  preaching;  biblical theology;  the gospel; and  conversion (to those we might tentatively add:  conversion;  discipleship and  leadership). From that list, it is undeniable that a strong - I would suggest, imbalanced - emphasis is placed on teaching and preaching, the idea that the church is primarily an institution that imparts learning and content.
Now, I would be unfair to 9 Marks if I did not quote their explanation of their sixth mark, membership: “According to the Bible, church membership is a commitment every Christian should make to attend, love, serve, and submit to a local church…the church presents God’s witness to himself in the world. It displays his glory. In the church’s membership, then, non-Christians should see in the lives of God’s changed people that God is holy and gracious and that his gospel is powerful for saving and transforming sinners.” However, I still think that a key biblical ingredient, or imperative, is missing.
These three - admittedly far from conclusive - observations bring us back to the title of this doodle: “where is the love?” Now, I am not referring to our love of the Bible or expository preaching. We seem to be doing alright in this area—perhaps too well. Yes, we might turn to Psalm 119, where God’s speech is a desirable and satisfying object of human love. But on the whole it seems to me that God’s words are meant to motivate, shape and compel love of God and our neighbours (see Matthew 22:34-40). Obedience to God is demonstrated in love. For all the historical and present talk about marks it would seem that the mark of biblical Christianity is love. So where is the love? We rarely enshrine or insist on it. This is a strange and disconcerting disconnect. For our theological badges of honour do not hide the fact that the Christian community, for the most part, is often an unpleasant and unloving place. The sermons might be sensational. But hearts remain hard and love conspicuously absent.
Listen to part of the New City Catechism’s answer to the question, “What is church?” “God sends out this community to proclaim the gospel and prefigure Christ’s kingdom by the quality of their life together and their love for one another.” Does your church prefigure the promised kingdom by its love? Are we more loving than we were this time last year? Or are we merely more learned? Yes, there is a direct line from what we learn in the Bible to how and what we love. But this only brings further into question whether we are as biblical, orthodox and faithful as we profess.
In the 19th century, Christina Rossetti wrote what is now a very famous Christmas poem. The second stanza reads, “Worship we the Godhead, / Love Incarnate, Love Divine, / Worship we our Jesus, / But wherewith for sacred sign?” The Gospels recount the numerous signs of Jesus’ birth. But as Rossetti’s last line ponders, what will reveal that we know, worship and live for this God? What sacred sign is there today? She answers, in the third stanza, “Love shall be our token, / Love be yours and love be mine, / Love to God and all men, / Love for plea and gift and sign.” As Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”