You don’t say, “I love you,” on a first date unless you really want to freak out the other person. I remember when dating wrestling on when to say, “I love you.” Too early, you freak the other person out. Too late, and they think the relationship is going nowhere. It’s an artful balance complicated by, you know, those crazy little emotion things.
I am done with the dating (barring God choosing to take my Bride home and me eventually dating again, but I’ll leave those thoughts for another day). I get to wake up daily with a woman I love, to whom I say, “I love you” often. I pray I live that commitment every day, not just in words, but also in actions. But it’s not weird for me to tell her that I love her, and it’s certainly not weird for her to return that thought. It’s good. It’s comfortable. It’s real.
How soon is too soon to tell my congregation that I love them?
I have a crazy friend who listens to sermons for fun. He’ll listen to sermons from all over, picking them apart for doctrinal integrity and faithful exposition. He told me once of a pastor who had “the endearing habit of addressing his congregation as ‘beloved.’”
I took that to heart. It struck me, and I started making it my habit in my last congregation. These aren’t “just” friends. This was the flock I’d been given to shepherd, and though they hurt my heart often, I loved them and told them so. These were not “simply” dear friends in Christ. They were beloved, both by my Lord and by me.
Do I love my new congregation that way?
Nope. Not yet. My heart does not bleed for them yet the way it did for my last congregation. A large part of that is simply due to how much time I’ve spent here; I haven’t been here long enough to form those connections. Part of it is also the nature of my ministry here; I don’t seem to be working as closely with individuals as I was in my last congregation – or at least, not yet. That doesn’t mean I’m not getting close with anyone; it’s just that the ministry is different and how I spend my time reflects that difference.
That’s not to say I won’t become as close with this group as I was with my last; I know myself and I already know the people here well enough to know that given time I will grow closer with them.
And that’s not to say I don’t love them. I am already struggling at their sides in a number of ways.
It helps that my Savior loves these people as much as he loved my last congregation. He doesn’t love my last congregation more, nor does he love this congregation more. He bled and died for both, to redeem them as a chosen nation.
So all this gets back to what I’m wondering: When do I start addressing them as, “Beloved?”
Well, in part, too late. Already done.
A few weeks ago I gave a particularly emotional sermon. I addressed people who don’t trust Jesus because they think they’re too good and don’t really need him; they think they’re good. I told them that the church is not for good people. It’s for people who know their brokenness and are searching for life. Here Jesus heals the broken. He afflicts the comforted and comforts the afflicted.
But then I turned to those who know their brokenness and can’t believe that Jesus would actually forgive them.
And I know that there are at least a few in my congregation, in this place, that struggle with that.
I reached out with Jesus’s love. I reminded them that Jesus knows them at their most broken. He knows the shame they long to hide. He sees them… and he does not look away. He holds out his scarred hands to them and embraces them. He holds them so close. This is how we know that Christ loves us: While we were still sinners, he died for us.
And I addressed them as “beloved.”
And… and there were tears. In the congregation, I knew who needed this message – or at least a few of them. And my tears matched theirs.
And it is here that the love of a pastor comes forward: When he shares Jesus’s love. Because the love is not in me. I am not love. I am broken, bruised, ashamed. I need this Jesus. But when I show Love, when I point to the cross, when I reveal the love that Jesus has… how could I not love those I show it to?
So… when do I speak that love plainly?
I dunno. When it comes organically, I think. In sermons like that, I can’t help but address my congregation as “beloved.” Not every sermon is that intense, though.
So in the future we’ll see what happens. This is my home. This is the congregation I have been given to serve, at least for now. And I know how much Jesus loves them. How could I not love them?
As far as how much to say that? Well, it’ll happen more as time goes on, I’m sure.