And the ‘Best Church’ Award Goes To…
In Revelation, Jesus gave a report to the church in Ephesus who had great morals, excellent social justice e orts, sound doctrine, and high ratings.
I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not,
and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. (Revelation 2:2-3 NIV)
Maybe you’re a pastor or leader who believes your church could certainly earn that report from Jesus. That’s great! If your leadership has remained faithful to God, chances are you’ve seen signs of health, growth, and effectiveness over the years. Perhaps you’re even proud of your church for standing for the right things, for the right reasons, in many of the right ways, while being culturally relevant and mission-minded. What a great thing!
In fact, I’d describe the church I pastor as meeting those criteria. I am very proud of them and don’t worry about my congregation being swept o into falsehood. I admire their Biblical strength and effectiveness for the Gospel. I’m certain the elders and leaders are able to recognize false teaching. I have seen the church successfully connect to and reach our community. There’s no concern of disunity, lack of faith or sacrifice. I don’t worry about these things because I have seen the church respond to difficult situations, quite literally, for decades. I know our deeds, hard work, perseverance, and values. e way our church loves people in Jesus’ name is evident. I am so proud of their faith and sacrifice.
I am sure that when Jesus started to give this report to the church in Ephesus, they were feeling great. Who wouldn’t be? I bet they were proud of their accomplishments and happy at the thought that they were pleasing God. After all, they didn’t get here by accident. All those accomplishments had taken blood, sweat, and tears over a long period.
When Our Service Displaces Our Love
As Jesus finished his report, I imagine a general feeling of nauseating shock in the room.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. (Revelation 2:4-5 NIV)
As a first response, I’m sure it was easy to think, What more in the world could God possibly want? This church has the envy of every other church! What is the problem here? I work like a dog. I get one day off a week, and I get up early to make coffee for the church before I even drink a cup myself! How is that forsaking love for God? How is it that I have ‘fallen’? Am I supposed to repent for not doing even more things to please God? This God is impossible to please!
In my upbringing, I was missing one very important truth. It wasn’t until a friend explained this truth to me in my 20’s that my life completely changed. Are you ready for it? Truth: God does not want more service; he does not want us to follow more rules or make more sacrifices. What God wants and craves is our love. is was a surprise to me. Seriously? He just wants our love? Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love your God and love people and that all other commandments hang on those two.
David understood this. Even though he messed up, God called him a man after his own heart. David knew there was no point in trying to please God through his accomplishments. Instead, he acknowledged God for who he is and expressed his awe, love, and gratitude by first giving God his heart rather than his actions.
Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
So maybe you’re not currently having a rebellious “David moment,” but are being faithful, true, righteous and successful at ministry. You hit the numbers and have the thriving programs to prove it. Jesus would still say (as he did to the church in Ephesus), I don’t want that. It’s not what I ever wanted. I want you to know me and love me.
If our focus shifts from knowing Jesus to solely serving Jesus, we can easily confuse our service for our love (which are two very different things).
We will get busy, run around like crazy people, and try to prove to God that we love him through our involvement with good things. All this time, we will be losing sight of God’s heart and mind, and who we fell in love with at first.
This gets confusing because you can have thousands of people coming to services, volunteering, and paying you compliments, but that’s not the scope of how God measures health. is is the danger in being spectacular, that a corpse with makeup on can be overlooked as being healthy.
When you are doing good things, there’s a real temptation to think that you are doing great. But it’s possible that God is doing great things, and your heart doesn’t match. Great deeds are not the metric for a pure heart.
It is possible to be incredibly faithful to God’s word, lead others, stand up for what’s right, exercise appropriate church discipline, proclaim the truth, face false teachers, and still be missing the mark. The fact is, what God wants is our hearts.
My Greatest Fear
My greatest fear for myself and the church is not associated with poor performance. My greatest fear is related to the foundation of our relationship with Christ himself. I lay awake at night asking God not to let me go down the same road as the church in Ephesus.
Jesus is evaluating his church and his followers right now. For real! It’s not just something written in the Bible to scare us into behaving, or just about receiving crowns later in heaven. God’s heart plays out today. ink about the lampstands in Revelation. God told the church in Ephesus that if their love continued to wane, he would remove his lampstand. e lampstand here represents God’s blessing, power, and presence.
Chances are if you are reading this article you are looking for ways to improve your ministry; you are not neglecting the church, and you are certainly not sabotaging it. During God’s evaluation, you are most likely not the type of person to be found guilty of opposing God or his people, but rather, will be praised for your e orts. e terror that occupies my mind is this thought: What if spectacular people, who are completely loyal to God, could be found guilty of something else? What if we could be found guilty of losing sight of our first love and as a result, end up losing God’s presence? What if we are focusing on being spectacular rather than focusing on the one who is spectacular?
My fear is that my relationship with Christ will become a set of actions and beliefs instead of the core passion of my heart — that “Jesus stuff ” would become my job, my career, and just what I do every day. I fear I would know how to run a church and lead a staff, how to stay relevant, how to manage budgets, and how raise money in a spectacular way, but not be captivated in the least by the person of Jesus.
Maybe my competency in my profession is not shaky, but what about what compels me to do it? Maybe the issue is not what I’m doing, but what’s motivating me to do it.
First Love = First Job
In the kingdom of God, the leader’s primary responsibility is not to lead, but to follow. Out of our follow-ship of Christ, our leadership arrives. Our first job is not sound doctrine or good theology; our first job is to love our Lord. When we love him, everything else is empowered by that.
My first job as a husband, boss, employee, and neighbor, is to love my Lord. Our job as leaders is to teach people to follow Christ. And the only way to teach that lesson is through the example of our lives.
I want to love and follow Jesus Christ. What he chooses to accomplish through me is up to him. God creates for himself what he determines.
The Starting Point
I bet your church started with a passion for what it means to be a church. If you’re like our church, you took a hard look at scripture, looking to God for who you should be, sorting out his thoughts and passions for you. We were mesmerized by God and what he had done for us. We went “all in” and did what we did for Jesus, out of our love for him.
Our church’s goals and strategies were never meant to drive us; they were just ways to organize what it meant to know and follow Christ. Philosophies and strategies were created to communicate what we learned about the heart and mind of God. Our ministries and even our relationships with Christ started with wanting to know God.
Do you remember being so dependent on God, asking him to use you and tell you what to do, and being passionate to proclaim his love? Your passion originated and extended from Christ’s heart.
Our love for Christ is directly related to the fierceness of his presence in our lives. Our breadth of leadership will always be limited to the depth of our love. When we follow Jesus with a love of abandon, he will give us the desires of our heart that we had at first. He will provide us with incredible opportunities to grow his kingdom and minister to people in need. We won’t have to produce it on our own.
It’s time to write the sermon, go to another meeting, and plan another trip. God doesn’t need to be involved for those things to happen. But for lives to be rescued, addictions to be broken, and marriages to be saved, only God’s presence can do that. The crazier thing is that God doesn’t need our help, but welcomes us into the process for his glory and our fulfillment.
Avoiding the Danger
Occasionally, I try to stop whatever I am doing and look back at my first love. I build into my routine times to stop and remember what I am doing so I can get rid of distractions. I think about my distractions- the things I love the most that aren’t God.
If you want to know what you love the most, all you need to do is think about what you think about most, listen to what you talk about the most, look at what you spend the most time on, and look at where your money goes. This will define your first love.
Let’s use preparing a sermon as the example. If I spend 20 hours on a sermon but fail to discover the heart of God in a passage, I have missed the opportunity to communicate the heart and mind of God to the people he loves. If I spend all my time understanding the history and theology of a passage, but never grasp how God wants to change
me through it. I would do the work of God, but not communicate the heart of God. It’s when I allow the Holy Spirit to convict me, am broken by my own sin, and allow Christ to shape my dreams and alleviate my fears, that I’m spending time with my rst love and am prepared to speak from his heart to the heart of the people listening to me.
Whether you are preparing a sermon as a pastor, getting ready to lead youth group as a volunteer, leading and discipling your children as a parent, our job as a spiritual leader is to help the heart of God connect to the heart of the people he so deeply loves.
It’s fascinating that when we connect to our first love, instead of trying to remember or manufacture what we need to do with the church, our hearts supernaturally beat with God’s passions as he works through us. When he guides us, empowers us, and stills our souls, we’re connected back to our love and do what we did at rst.
My prayer is that we would be spectacular conduits of the heart and mind of our Lord.
Editor’s Note: Jeff Bogue has been senior pastor at Grace Church of Greater Akron, Ohio, for the past twenty-three years, where he leads seven campuses with more than 10,000 people calling Grace their home.
This story first appeared in the Summer 2017 GraceConnect magazine. If you would like to have your personal copy delivered to you via U.S. Mail, click here for your free subscription.