I once asked a long-time pastor: “What’s one piece of advice you would give a first-time pastor about to plant a church?”
His answer? “Before you do anything else, make sure your people know you love them.”
WHAT LOVE IS NOT
Sometimes in order to understand what loving our people is, we need to understand what it’s not. It’s not about always telling them what they want to hear, or being a people pleaser, or even trying to get them to love you in return, whatever it takes.
In fact, loving our people isn’t about us at all. Rather, to love your people means to show them how dear they are to you by gently and sacrificially giving of yourself to feed them with the nourishment of the gospel for both their eternal good and God’s glory. To follow Paul’s analogy from 1 Thessalonians 2, this means seeking their good at your expense, their flourishing above your recognition—like a mother. You love them because they are dear to you, having been placed into your care by God.
AIMING FOR LOVE
So, from day one, I endeavored to make that my aim. More often than not, I failed miserably. But by God’s grace, I’ve also seen some fruit.
In the earliest days of our church plant, striving to make sure I loved my people and that they knew it meant at least four things:
1. Disagreement with unity
My city is diverse, and there aren’t a lot of options around for church, which means a wide variety of people come to us. There have been times when people have come and disagreed on a variety of practical and/or tertiary doctrinal points, but they’ve stayed and listened because they sensed deeply that they were loved.
2. Reception of hard words
When people are confident that they’re loved, they’re much more prepared to receive rebuke. On the other side, I’ve also experienced what happens when I’ve not laid the foundation of love and then confronted sin. The difference is staggering.
3. Cultural barriers transcended
My church is very culturally diverse. Caring for people through simple, consistent sacrifice means that many cultural barriers, such as customs of hospitality and liturgical structures, are in time overcome. We’ve had people from different countries who had a hard time with things like our music or preaching style, but they stayed because they sensed they were led by shepherds who genuinely cared for them.
4. Understanding for pastoral imperfections
Laying the foundation of love has meant an abundance of patience with my own immaturity and failings as a pastor. And we pastors, as fellow sinners, need lots of that. Our people need a context for understanding our shortcomings. They need to know we’re imperfect and trust in Christ as our only hope—just like we exhort them to do.
HOW TO PURSUE LOVE
Again, before we can show our people we love them, we must actually love them. And if we’re honest, this can be hard, and it’s not always something that comes automatically.
So how do we pursue it? A few ideas:
1. Daily pray for your heart to be filled with love for them and then pray for specific people.
Make it a habit of praying each day, “Lord, help me to love you, to love my family, and to love your people more.” Have a practice of praying for each one by name, such as praying through your membership directory.
2. Soak in the gospel.
First John and Ephesians 5 show us the source of our love for our people: a heart-deep knowledge of the love of God expressed in the death of Christ for us. The fountain of our love for our people must be the gospel. Otherwise, we will be fickle and our love will be aimed at the wrong ends.
3. Spend time with them.
Love is cultivated through fellowship. To move from love as an idea to love as a reality, there must be a cultivated relationship.
Finally how do we communicate love to our people? How do we, before anything else, make sure they know we love them?
1. Show hospitality by spending time with them.
Like Paul and the Thessalonians, it must be clear that we don’t just preach to them, but that we’re sharing our lives with them as well.
Hospitality both grows and shows our love for them. It’s important to set up a schedule of pastoral visits and ask questions that show they’re important. It’s in this context that the little things matter—remembering birthdays, being aware of burdens and illnesses, showing an appreciation for things they enjoy—much like a mother would for her child.
During these times, share with them truth from Scripture and gentle encouragements and admonitions that relate to their current affairs in life. Or, just listen to them talk. Take note of what’s burdening them, what they’re rejoicing in, and remember it as you pray for them.
2. Listen well to complaints and criticism.
When those first difficult words come at you—and they will—listen to them with a calmness that’s rooted in your position in Christ. Don’t immediately respond to criticism; instead, hear people out and be very, very quick to admit your own faults. Realize that God is using them for your sanctification, too.
Every criticism I’ve ever heard has offered something I needed to hear. It’s in these difficult moments that your love for them can become the most visible and transformative.
3. Pray with them.
Pastoral ministry can be scary. There are many times that we care but we just don’t know what to say. Thankfully, no matter the situation, we can always pray. Earnest prayer with your people is perhaps the most powerful tool for expressing your love while at the same time pointing them to the One who loves them perfectly.
4. Preach like you love them.
You’ll exhibit your love for your people through careful, relationship-informed, gospel-soaked preaching. If you show them outside the pulpit that you care for them, then your expository ministry will flourish in the context of relationship. And that’s powerful. When they hear and see you preach, do they see a man who’s engaged in a labor of love? They should.
Looking at Jesus’ words to Peter post-resurrection, we’re reminded that the way we express our love for our Savior is through our love for his people. So, when laying the foundation for a new plant or revitalization, there’s truly no better advice than this: “Before you do anything else, make sure your people know that you love them.”
Like Peter, who had recently experienced the love of his Master, let the love of Christ control us to such a degree that we view the people in our charge differently. Let us love them as members of the body of the Savior we love, and that by loving him, we love them.