A recent Channel 4 programme charted the extraordinary rise and development of Pentecostal West African churches, around London’s Old Kent Road.
Across the capital there are now well over a hundred recently planted churches, meeting in warehouses and office blocks, empty shops and reclaimed cinemas, involving thousands of mainly Afro-Caribbean young people. The common thread running through the stories of these young adults, aged 18 to 30, was the practical love shown to them by the members of the church. Sometimes this began with food and a place to sleep. Often it was a virtual parenting, especially of young males who had no father figure, giving firm Christian ethical teaching alongside gospel compassion.
Perhaps the biggest shift of world view, involved in the process we call conversion is from a perspective on life in which I am the centre of everything, to one in which in practice, as well as principle, Jesus Christ is Lord. That is the crucial mega-shift which dethrones me from the centre of the universe and enthrones the Lord Jesus as rescuer and ruler and our initial commitment to repentance and faith needs to be renewed day by day, as we present ourselves to the Lord as living sacrifices, (Romans 12.1-2).
If we Christians are going to impact our contemporary culture with its world view that God is either non-existent, or at best largely irrelevant, it will be through personal encounters with the revolutionary, other-centred life-style of the Lord Jesus, exemplified in us, his agents. That can best be defined in terms of self-giving love. Nor is it surprising that this begins within the family of God’s people. ‘A new commandment I give you,’ Jesus told his disciples, ‘love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13.34-35).
Love in the church
What is so important is the observation that the first focus of this life-changing love is within the church itself. Understandably, the watching world wants to know whether we really live in the house that our preaching builds.. Or is it just another ‘con’ – no different from all the other empty promises and manipulative techniques we are so tired of, with the politicians and the media? That is why every time there is another exposure of financial or sexual scandal in ‘the church’, it is a further nail in the gospel coffin. Yes, but that is equally so when a local church congregation degenerates into squabbles and fights, power plays and imperialist ambitions, which deny the essence of the gospel and destroy its witness in the area. Thank God that many of our congregations are relatively free of these things, but the price of such freedom is eternal vigilance. So the issue is that when we scatter, after our Sunday gatherings, into our home neighbourhoods and places of work, to rub shoulders with those who do not share our faith, or whenever a newcomer attends a church event, is their dominant impression one of the reality of the love of Christ? His love for us, our love for him and our love for one another spilling over into all the world.
Or do they encounter a well-oiled and active evangelistic machine, which is keen to talk them through the latest gospel presentation, but not perhaps so keen to be relational-ly involved enough to take time to listen to and understand their heart-cries? Of course, the deepest love we can show to anyone is to share the good news of sins forgiven, peace with God and the assurance of eternal life for all who turn to Christ and trust in him. But if we do this in a mechanistic way, concerned only for professions, rather than meeting individuals as and where they really are, do we not deny by our attitudes the very self-giving love on which the gospel we preach is founded?
The love of Christ
This is no time for empty words and deceptive arguments, much less the tri-umphalist hype which has so often distorted the message of the suffering saviour. But still the world is, and always will be, open to love, since we are made in the image of the God who is love.
That love takes seriously the needs and burdens which fill the horizon of our lives when we try to live without reference to our creator. Whether it is at one end of the social scale the deprivation, unemployment, sickness or addictive behaviours, or the greed, worka-holism and success-driven paranoia at the other, they are all barriers to the reception of the good news of Christ crucified and risen. They each give rise to the God-substitutes with which the human psyche always tries to satisfy its aching longings. They form a radar screen, expert at deflecting the incoming missiles of the truth of the gospel. But the way they are disabled is by the love of Christ flowing through us, as his disciples, his free samples. For what we are shouts so loudly that people often cannot hear what we are saying.
David Jackman is the past President of the Proclamation Trust and writes the ‘Notes to growing Christians’ column for EN.