Passion for the church? It may be a sign of your passion for God.
Howard Schultz sat in his New York City office, unable to imagine why a small company in Seattle was buying large numbers of a certain type of drip coffee maker. These were simple devices — a plastic cone set on a thermos — but this company was buying more of them than Macy's.
It was 1981, and Howard was a successful salesman for a line of kitchen products and housewares. He thought he knew his market as well as anybody. But something was different about this order. What did this upstart little outfit know that he didn't?
Driven by his curiosity, he caught a cross-country flight and had dinner with the owners. He came away from that meeting a changed man. He couldn't stop thinking about their company. Not long after returning to New York, he called the owners and begged them to let him come work for them. After much prodding they agreed, and he moved to Seattle. Five years later, Howard Schultz bought the company.
Maybe you've heard of it? It's called Starbucks. It's not little anymore. In fact, by altering how Americans drink and think about coffee, Starbucks has redefined the $18 billion domestic coffee market.
What was it about this new company that so enchanted Howard Schultz? One thing: the owners' infectious enthusiasm for great coffee. In a day when Folgers and Maxwell House were the only brands most people knew, the folks at Starbucks were searching the globe for exotic, aromatic coffee beans. They were learning to roast them just so, to blend them in precise proportions, and to refine the brewing process to exacting standards. They simply loved good coffee. Armed with passion and a good product, this one company completely changed the way millions of people think about coffee.
Wake Up and ... See the Church
Several years ago I ordered a set of tapes by C.J. Mahaney called "Passion for the Church." As I drove around Portland listening to those tapes, my life was changed. Never had I heard anyone talk about the church the way this man did. My whole view of the local church and God's plan for it were altered forever.
Some less-than-biblical views of the church remind me of a Styrofoam cup half-full of dingy, lukewarm water with partially dissolved lumps of instant coffee floating around in it. Yech. But here I'd been handed the doctrinal equivalent of a piping-hot double-mocha with a shot of raspberry! Where has this been all my life?!
People with passion challenge us, don't they? They make us stop and ask, "What am I passionate about? What am I giving my life to?" Don't you desperately want to be passionate about the right things in life? I do, and I don't mean coffee. I want to be passionate about that which God is passionate about — those things that have eternal significance. In listening to those tapes and comparing their claims against Scripture, I learned that God has an eternal, boundless enthusiasm for His church, and He wants us to share in that enthusiasm.
The passion that I first encountered in that tape series is not just for a select few. Each of us should demonstrate a passion for the church that rubs off on others, confronts presuppositions, and opens eyes to God's breathtaking plan for the church. When it comes to the church, we Christians need to wake up and smell the coffee.
The apostle Paul had this kind of passion. In his letter to the Ephesians you can just taste it, for Paul is as passionate about the church as the founders of Starbucks were about the right blend. He savors it. He can't stop thinking and talking about it. His passion drives him to give it his all. Paul opens the letter by discussing God's amazing plan through Christ to reconcile sinful man to a righteous God. Then, beginning in 2:11, he describes how this reconciliation also unites sinful people with each other, as Christ works through us to build His church. Ephesians 3:10 sums up his letter to that point:
His [God's] intent was that now through the church the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms according to His eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In this one stunning sentence, Paul unfolds for us the desire that has been resident in God's heart from eternity past — that God might receive glory as His wisdom is revealed through the church, and all of it traceable directly to the person and finished work of Jesus. We see in this verse that passion for the church is a sign of true passion for God. If God has changed your nature and placed His Spirit within you, you will love what He loves, and He loves His people — real people in real places living out real lives in relationship with one another. God loves the local church, with all its imperfections.
Got Passion? Today?
I believe that one of the biggest challenges we can face is the temptation to assume it's enough merely to know something is true. That's easy to do when we're given so much good teaching. We can become impressed with ourselves, satisfied in the fact that, hey — we know.
But as James writes, we can't just stop with hearing, knowing, acknowledging. Many of us could ace a written test on the centrality of the church. But this is just mental assent and, by itself, mental assent has never accomplished anything. We must also act on what we know. What about that string of real-life tests we're in every week, every day? These are the true proofs of passion for the church. How do you do on those?
It's also dangerous to assume that passion for the church is something we can take care of once and for all. "Oh yeah, passion for the church, I think it was '94 that we did that. We're all set now." But it's not like that; it's not like getting your tonsils out. What happened weeks or months or years ago, as wonderful and necessary as it may have been then, doesn't mean we have passion for the church now. Our zeal for the church is something we must continually evaluate based on the decisions we are making, and how we are living, today. Here are three questions to help you evaluate your current passion for the church.
Serving Your Church
Do I view my gifts and abilities as resources to serve my church? "From him [Christ] the whole body joined and held together by every supporting ligament grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work" (Eph. 4:16). Paul's analogy of the church to a human body is not just memorable. Being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it is also accurate. We each play a part, each part is different, and each part is far less than the whole.
Now let's be honest. It's humbling merely to be "a part." We each want to be the part! But God's amazing plan for the church is not about you, and it's not about me. It's about Christ. Wanting to be the part is idolatry, and reveals a passion for your own glory, not God's. Having passion for the church means you are happy and even excited about simply being a part.
Where do our gifts and abilities come from, anyway? At one point God speaks to Moses about "all the skilled men to whom I have given wisdom in such matters" (Ex. 28:3). Later, Paul wrote, "For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Cor. 4:7).
All our skills, the wisdom to use them well, even the desire and opportunity to improve and refine them, come from God. He will use many things along the way to increase our abilities — relationships, schools, professions, tribulations, opportunities — but these are all subject to him, and rest firmly in His sovereign hands.
God gives us gifts and abilities, develops them, and then invites us to come and play a part in the only institution that is eternal. He wants you to walk into your local church, look around, and say, "How can I serve in this church with the skills God has given me?" Please don't wait for someone in your church to ask you to serve. Be eager to play your divinely ordained part. Don't practice a false humility where you shelve your gifts when it comes to serving in your church. Do you see an area in which your church could improve? Don't assume someone else will take care of it. Offer to help!
Go to the pastors and leaders of your church. In true humility, discuss with them the areas in which you believe God has gifted you. Offer your time and energy to serve your church, and be eager to receive whatever role is offered you. Trust that all this rests in God's hands. This is how you will play your part.
Needing Your Church
Next question. Am I consistently aware of how much I need the church? No matter how much you serve in your church, and whatever role you may play, remember this: God doesn't need you. He doesn't need me. He would have no difficulty bringing people into your church who far excel any one of us in gifting and maturity. On the contrary, you need the church.
At this moment, you probably are not passionate about breathing. You don't even think about it, right? Even though it's necessary to physical life, we usually take breathing for granted. But should your ability to breathe be taken away — say, if you were somehow trapped underwater — you would, in a matter of seconds, get very passionate about it. Similarly, Scripture and experience make clear that the local church is absolutely necessary to our spiritual life. But unless we consistently remind ourselves how much we need the church, we will take it for granted. And we will never be passionate about that which we take for granted.
In the closing chapters of Ephesians, Paul addresses the new way of living that Christians are called to embrace. Look at how he expresses God's heart for a community of believers living out their lives together. "But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality or of any kind of impurity or of greed" (5:3) "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (5:19). Paul is not addressing isolated individuals. These and many other phrases speak of a faith that we live side by side. We're not supposed to be pursuing growth in Christ as spiritual "free agents" who meet together now and then just because we like the teaching or the worship. A local church is a community. We are to look out for and communicate richly with one another.
To glorify God, we must acknowledge that we are sinners who need help, sinful people who need each other even to see our own sinfulness accurately. Various kinds of meetings, primarily with my pastor and care group, have helped me to see my own sin and, just as importantly, to see the grace of God available and active in my life. I could never do that on my own. Neither could you, because God designed us as beings dependent on him and on one another. The local church is God's marvelous provision for Christians who recognize that they are not called — and not able — to go it alone. Do you recognize that? Or do you take for granted the lifeline that is your local church?
God is not glorified in our individual strength. He has chosen to reveal His glory through churches full of sinful, weak, dependent people who are building each other up, walking in God's grace, picking one another up when we stumble, and locking arms in the strength of the Holy Spirit. May we be a people who continually grow in our passion for the church by reminding ourselves of the sad state we would be in without our local church.
Building Your Church
Final question. Are you building your life around the church, or the church around your life? Many people evaluate a church by asking, "How does this church meet my needs?" Parents might put it this way: "We've got a 5-year-old and a teen, so an exciting youth group and a great preschool program are simply necessities. Excellent marriage retreats are really important, too. Can any church that doesn't offer these things really be the right place for us to pour our lives into?" When you think about it, it's as if they're comparing used cars.
It's not that these things should be irrelevant to your evaluation of a particular church. But if that's where your thinking starts, you've imported a consumer mentality into your relationship with God. You've got it backwards. The place to start is to position yourself before God as a needy servant, not as a consumer with a checklist of desires.
Teens and young adults can face the same basic challenge. We just have a tendency to define our needs in a different, but still unbiblical, way.
If you met someone who was squandering his life partying, living for the moment, only making decisions based on what's going to be fun for the next month, you would say, "You, my friend, are a fool." Well, some of us do the same thing, but since we do it in contexts that involve other Christians, we often think it's OK. We spend these key years of our lives running after fleeting, exciting, spiritual highlights: concerts, festivals, coffee houses, conferences, missions trips, outreaches.
Sure, those things can be good in and of themselves, and they can definitely have a place. But if they take the place of involvement in a local church they are not healthy, good, or biblical.
It comes down to what you place at the center of your life. Lots of things are important, But our relationship with God must be at the center, and the New Testament could not be more clear that the local church is at the heart of God's plan for His people. Don't push God's plan for the church to the outskirts of your life, with your needs in the center. He wants your church at the center.
In a book about his experience with Starbucks, Howard Schultz wrote, "Care more than others think wise. Risk more than others think safe. Dream more than others think practical. Expect more than others think possible." This man's passion to build a business should challenge us.
Can we abandon ourselves to that same degree for God's eternal purpose in the local church? By God's grace through the Holy Spirit within us, we can. After all, we are called and enabled to imitate our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is far more passionate about building the church than anyone has ever been about building a corporate empire.
So use your gifts to serve your church. Be eager to be a part. Embrace your need for the church. Build your life around your church. Imitate Christ, who loved the church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5:25).
Pour your life into it — make Jesus' passion your passion.
Copyright 1999 Sovereign Grace Ministries. All rights reserved.