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When Churches Put Love at the Center

How "beloved community" helps us envision tangible ways to embody kingdom values.
When Churches Put Love at the Center
Image: Illustration by Duncan Robertson

“Let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. … No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:7-8, 12)

When I began pursuing pastoral ministry, I was full of optimism. I expected that much of my work would be proclaiming the gospel, providing pastoral care, and shepherding people toward lives that followed Jesus and reflected the love of God. In talking with other pastors, I know I’m not alone in that initial optimism. I knew that pastoring wouldn’t always be smooth sailing, but because my first career had been in social work, I felt prepared for the challenge.

What I hadn’t imagined was that for many people, church has become merely a place they attend once a week to hear an inspiring message that doesn’t feel connected to the rest of their life, school, or vocation. And I wasn’t prepared for “the church” to become synonymous with things like abuse, legalism, hypocrisy, and racism, causing many to hesitate to even walk through church doors.

These are the realities we face as pastors today. Much of what we see happening in the church isn’t all that different from American culture in general. So how do we move our churches toward something different—that better resembles deep love of neighbor motivated by the love of God?

Learning from the past

Oftentimes we look to the civil rights movement and Black church leaders to learn how to address issues of racism, but there are many other valuable truths we can learn from their wisdom, leadership, and faithfulness. During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and others taught and pursued a life lived in “beloved community”—a Christian vision for a way of life in which, as The King Center describes, “love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred.”

The concept of the beloved community was first developed in the late 19th century by philosopher Josiah Royce and later popularized by King. The principles of beloved community are rooted in Scripture and provide a kingdom-shaped framework for a richer way of living life together. They’re built around the love of Christ, love of others, redemption, reconciliation, nonviolence, and shared power.

Beloved community—which centers love for others—addresses many of the heartaches we experience as pastors and offers a way to reorient our lives and the lives of our people toward Jesus. It provides a rich framework for how we can envision our ministry. Living into the principles of beloved community can help cultivate authentic, long-lasting spiritual health for pastors and parishioners alike.

Embodying love

I’ve been deeply encouraged as I’ve spent time studying beloved community and listening to what the Lord has to teach me through King and others. Methodist deacon Arthuree Wright outlined 25 specific traits of beloved community that help make the concept more tangible, especially as we consider how we can embody it as pastors and how it can be lived out in our churches. Here are three traits of beloved community (identified by Wright) that I’ve found especially helpful.

Beloved community listens emotionally (with the heart); it fosters empathy and compassion for others. Working to intentionally build empathy and compassion for those who come to us broken and in need of the gospel enables us to create a safe space for the hurting. As shepherds, we must strive to be compassionate like God, “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor. 1:3–4). We can grow in this trait by intentionally listening to, doing life with, and learning from people who are different from ourselves. This happens primarily through personal relationships, but also through books and podcasts. Training in compassion and trauma-informed care can further equip us to listen and shepherd well.

Beloved community fosters an active spirituality, recognizing that we serve a dynamic God. As pastors, we can help our parishioners develop a strong theology of the Holy Spirit. Our sermons, book studies, and ministry opportunities can help church members engage missionally and embrace a lively, dynamic perspective on their faith rather than a passive one. “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working,” Jesus said in John 5:17. As we lead in our churches, remembering that God is always working, we too are empowered to serve in an active way, engaging in the lives of our people and our community because God is doing just that.

Beloved community resolves conflicts peacefully, without violence, recognizing that “peacefully” doesn’t always mean “comfortably.” It is important to understand that nonviolence should be thought of more broadly than merely refraining from physical violence. We must strive to develop a culture in our churches that does not perpetuate emotional abuse, manipulation, or other forms of violence that are prevalent in our culture. What if, as pastors, we allowed the work of the Spirit to create a space where conflict is not avoided, but where we strive as sisters and brothers in Christ to resolve conflict without violence, recognizing that this does not mean it will be comfortable for everyone? We cannot do this work on our own; we must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Noticing, praying, imagining

Beloved community already exists in many places—we just don’t always recognize it. When I was in seminary, I took a class called Exegeting the City. We were challenged to learn how different churches, organizations, and individuals in Phoenix were living out their faith in their communities. Most weren’t doing anything big or flashy—they were simply living faithfully and pointing people toward Jesus. They were characterized by many of the traits of beloved community, like recognizing and honoring the image of God in every human being, gathering regularly for table fellowship, and striving to meet the needs of everyone in the community. This created a healthy culture within these ministries that impacted their surrounding communities.

An important step in moving our churches toward beloved community is first pausing to notice how it already exists in our congregations. Where are kingdom values and Christlike love at work? For example, is your church focused on welcoming the stranger? Do church members regularly practice the sharing of meals? Do they engage in active ministry that cares for the least of these by addressing poverty, hunger, or homelessness? Has your congregation created a space of belonging for a diverse group of people? How is the Spirit already moving and shaping your community in the way of love?

Once we’ve considered these things, we can then prayerfully imagine the potential this love has to pour out of our church doors and into the neighborhoods and communities that surround us. We can lean on and trust in the work of our active and dynamic God as we seek to embrace this kingdom-shaped way of life. We can both celebrate what is already happening in our churches and consider what next steps can be taken to press deeper into relationship with Christ and others.

In “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma” in 1957, King spoke of his ultimate goal:

The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here … is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.

The need for healthier churches is undeniable. It requires us to think creatively and to learn from others who have faithfully pressed into this type of work. It is not easy, but it is work rooted in the love of Jesus and the values of his kingdom—and it can help the church be known as a place of peace, justice, and health, as it should be. For all the discouragement we may face as pastors, I believe the principles of beloved community can speak a word of hope to us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, it is possible for this type of community to be realized and for the church to be known for its agape love.

Kimberly Deckel is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She serves as executive pastor at Church of the Cross in Austin, Texas.

This article is part of our spring CT Pastors issue exploring church health. You can find the full issue here.

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