This material accompanied the sermon CHARITY CHURCH from the sermon series: Be the Body – Seeing the Church as the Body in the Bible and Making the Body a Priority in the Present by Pastor Howard Lawler on 1/21/18.
What is charity church? I do not mean a church full of people who give to the Salvation Army, fine as that is. I am reflecting the KJV in 1Cor 13:13 which says, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity”. The old English word “charity” means to love others and show them favor. It is how God’s loving grace is shown to saved sinners like me. Modern English translations say love.
1 Cor 13:1-13 says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Paul did not write the passage so we would have something to read at weddings, put on cards and wall hangings, and turn into songs. Paul wrote it so a congregation would be united in the practice of agape love. Love means deep and practical concern for the whole fellowship. That means loving people who have little to nothing in common with us but the gospel.
The larger evangelical culture has used a marketing and consumer model for decades. It has embraced the kind of customization of product that drives the American economy. While that approach has made more large churches, it has failed to make more believers. The real failure is not in the numbers, but in the approach itself. It has lost sight of the body.
God intended the local church to be a self-denying, other-serving body. It has become a box store providing services to individual people and individual families. As a leader, I spent almost 30 years helping things be that way. My bad. I succeeded big at times. I failed the whole time.
I think a free market, competition economy works great for our country. Capitalism harnesses self-interest better than other economic systems. It helps more people than other economies, even if it does so by unintended consequences.
But the church cannot be healthy by harnessing self-interest. The gospel, when applied properly, kills self-interest. The consumer model of church positions churches to compete with each other for numbers. Consumer church tries to figure out what people want or think they need, and then
creates lots of programs. When churches like that hit the sweet spots, they become the hot church. I know about it because I led the hot church for years. The tendency is for pastors and members to mildly boast about their vibrant church. The tendency for those not seeing such results in other churches is to become envious. But love does not boast. Love does not envy.
Charity church does not match the marketing model. Buyers are not interested in the church body as 1Corinthians 12 describes it and as its proper behavior is presented in 1Corinthians 13. Consumer marketing is based on self-interest. But love is not self-seeking. Love makes sacrifices. Charity church will behave in ways that are not easy and do not appeal to shoppers.
Take, for example, corporate prayer. By “corporate prayer” I mean meetings that are dedicated to praying and to which anyone in the body might go. I mean prayer gatherings in which people across age groups and other demographics praise the Lord and petition him for grace on the whole body. There is no market for that in the secular world. Church shoppers do not want it either. American shoppers even bought tons of pet rocks back in the seventies! Few American evangelicals shop churches based on a desire for corporate prayer. It is the Edsel of church programs.
If a pastor exhorts his congregation about it, the response he is likely to get is, “Are you saying I am not a good Christian because I don’t go to prayer meeting?” I, for one, am not saying that. But we must hear what a person like that is really saying. The question is a statement that shows the person is still thinking as an individualist.
The real question people should ask me is, “Are you saying we are not the body we are supposed to be if we neglect corporate prayer?” Yes, that is what I am saying as a pastor. I am saying it, not because it is pleasant or safe for me to say it in light of my own self-interest. I am saying it because it is what the Bible says. I am saying it because I have learned to love the church.
Not all programs are wrong. It is fine to meet some felt needs. But it is not good at all to do that in a way that keeps the church from being what God says it must be – a giving, united body. We cannot be the body God wants without corporate prayer.
We really do not need all the bells and whistles we have devised. We need to cherish the gospel and be grateful to be in the body. I was struck by that when my son sent me a video of a church service he attended in Uganda during a mission trip. The congregation was Sundanese refugees exiled from their homeland due to tribal warfare. They gathered in a simple structure. They had no lattes in the foyer and no aerobics classes set to Christian music. But their service was overflowing with joy and went on that way for over four hours. They have almost nothing but the gospel, the church body, and prayer. They do not have what we have; but we need what they have.
For the past four to five decades, targeted programming has been a priority in the evangelical church in America. Corporate prayer has been peripheral, if present at all. Imagine what things would be like if corporate prayer had been a true priority for all those years.
Instead of trying to figure out what church shoppers want, charity church loves God first and seeks to give him what he deserves. The people of charity church do not necessarily love going to prayer meetings, but they go to them in order to love God and to love others. May we be that church, more and more, in all the years ahead.
– Pastor Howard Lawler