A pastor leading a Sabbath School discussion quoted John 13:34 and 35 and then asked, "If love for one another in the church is the way the world is to recognize our discipleship, why isn't it highlighted in evangelistic sermons and given as a biblical criterion for the true church?"
That's a fair and profound question, right?
The denomination's 28 fundamental beliefs and evangelistic meetings present all sorts of biblical evidence to validate Adventist belief and practice. And every evangelistic series will at some point focus on the identifying marks of authentic truth as revealed in Revelation 12:17 and 19:10. Yet for some reason, Christ's command to love one another, given by Him as a means of identifying who His true followers are, is not typically coupled with these verses.
Stated as a commandment of the signature practice for all believers, John 1 3:34-35 is not considered a doctrinal statement. Yet, without question, this fruit of the Spirit is to be part of every believer's experience. It identifies those who embrace it as Christ's disciples. "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 1 3:35, RSV).
This principle becomes especially important for a church, such as our own, that believes in evangelism. Because evangelism requires enormous concentration and commitment from preparation through follow up, the effort seems to make little sense without the principle of Christ's unifying love as its bottom line. Simply becoming involved in evangelism as a "process" by which to bring people into a church that is not ready or willing to love and nurture, dooms the outcome from the start. They come, but they don't stay.
How as a church are we doing in this area, particularly in the context of evangelism?
Love and evangelism
In 2000, soon after the Revelation of Hope satellite series with Mark Finley had aired from Los Angeles, I decided to explore the extent to which churches participating in this series might have combined the intensive process of reaching out and following up their evangelistic endeavors with the unifying love that Christ calls us to manifest. This was not a formal survey; it simply entailed visiting a small sampling of churches within the conference that had worked closely with the series. My visits focused on the atmosphere or sense of community guests were experiencing in churches that had been involved in the months of work involving visitation, prayer, and friendship ministries required by a series.
The first church I visited had demonstrated loving unity in a unique way. While their pastor was overseas conducting an evangelistic series before the series began, the members and officers decided to do a long-needed renovation and redecorating of their building as part of their preparation. They raised the money for the project, volunteering time and talents, and greeted their returning pastor with a building that truly said, "Welcome home!" From reports that emerged later during and following the series, this labor of love had energized church members as they invited the people of the community to their satellite meetings.
Other churches I visited struggled with many of the same challenges that often stymie congregations, but they had a number of very positive factors in common:
*They manifested warm hospitality in Sabbath School classes, individually, and from the pulpit. Some members served as hosts, walking guests to classes or activities. Church bulletins welcomed people. One featured a section entitled "Information for Your First Time at the ... Church."
* They showed significant member involvement that was not dependent on the pastor being present. (I happened to visit when a number of pastors were on vacation or out of town.)
* There were interactive opportunities Sabbath School discussion classes, Web sites, lunch-time ministry, etc.
* A church program focused on ministering to children, youth, and young adults included them in planning and leadership activities.
* Several churches scheduled activities throughout the Sabbath, including some witnessing activities, followed by evening recreation. A healthy percentage of the membership and visitors of all ages and ethnic groups remained or returned for the later activities.
* Strategic planning by the church leadership team drew the church family together in love and ministry. One church had "Care Croups," with each group leader caring for a certain number of members and friends, and on the alert to assure that guests were welcomed. One couple functioned as "Care Pastors" for the Care Group leaders.
* There was biblical preaching that related to contemporary personal and family concerns.
* They affirmed their pastor and one another, along with being supportive of their church and Adventism.
Admirable traits such as these may identify a church as John 13 Christians or not, depending on whether loving acts and practices reflect a congregation's window dressing or its fiber.
At one church the announcements also included the congregational prayer list, which had revealed a love-and-mission orientation: a single mom needed a babysitter, an older woman's house needed repairs, closing with a reminder to pray for the pastor and his wife who were accompanying young people on a mission trip.
The Sabbath School discussion class was studying a particular devotional book. Prayer requests at the start were for wrenching personal and family problems. The discussion revealed still more heart concerns, and members responded with spiritual insights and encouragement.
Undoubtedly each of the churches visited has problems and tensions not apparent in a casual visit, but an intentional pattern of caring was obvious. While satellite evangelism and the involvement surrounding it had been a training ground for the churches I visited, these churches were not unique to the type of evangelism in which they had just participated. Other congregations may be led to choose a variety of outreach methods while prayerfully developing the same loving ministry orientation.
When the Holy Spirit blesses, when pastors and churches determine to share the gospel in love and unity, we are assured of special fruit. "If we would humble ourselves before God, and be kind and courteous and tenderhearted and pitiful, there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one." 1
1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies to the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.), 9:189, 190.