The Value of Relationships

Unfolding Bethlehem's Fresh Initiative #1

Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is called 'Today,' lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Fresh Initiatives for the Immediate Future of our Mission

Our mission and Spiritual Dynamic declare that the all-satisfying supremacy of God shines most brightly through sacrificial deeds of joyful love. The cry of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our people is for a fresh, decisive emphasis on relationships of Love.

Therefore we eagerly embrace God's call for new, visible manifestations of love toward each other, our guests, and our neighbors. With a fresh openness and outgoing spirit to each other and to all new people, we henceforth put understanding above accusation, forbearance above faultfinding, and biblical unity above the demand for uniformity.

The value of relationships. We will take new practical steps to develop an atmosphere where personal, deepening, supportive, faith-building relationships of love are highly valued as expressions of our passion for the supremacy of God's love.

Introduction and Review

I invite you to take a copy of the Mission and Vision Statement of the elders and the Master Planning Team. We have devoted six messages to unfolding the first two pages of this booklet—page one: the Mission of our church; page two: the Spiritual Dynamic that drives our Mission. What we are going to do now is move on to page three which is titled FRESH INITIATIVES for the immediate future of our mission.

Today we will focus on Fresh Initiative #1, "The Value of Relationships." Then we will take one a week for the next four weeks before we take a Christmas and a Prayer Week detour. So I invite you to look at page three.

A Passion for the Supremacy of God

What we have been focusing on up to this point—the MISSION and the Spiritual Dynamic that drives it—is not new. It is newly phrased. It is crystallized and refined. But it is what has been the de facto mission and dynamic for many years. We exist "to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples." We make this our mission because it is God's mission. You can't miss this if you have been reading the prophet Ezekiel in these weeks and hear the Lord himself say 63 times that he does what he does that they might "know that I am the Lord."

This is God's uppermost aim: to be known and revered and loved and enjoyed as the supreme value in the universe. So we join him in this, as our spiritual dynamic says, "through our Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, by treasuring all that God is, loving all that he loves, praying for all his purposes, meditating on all his Word, sustained by all his grace."

Fresh Initiatives

Now that brings us to what we are calling "Fresh Initiatives for the immediate future of our mission." Of all the parts of this document, these initiatives are the ones that imply the most change. That is why they are called "fresh." I encourage you to read them over and over again in prayer. There is a flavor here; there is an aroma; there is a spirit; if you like unusual words, there is an ethos—that runs through all of them. We have 17 task forces grappling with the application of these initiatives. I think each one of them will have to come to terms not just with one or two of these initiatives, but with the spirit of them—the thrust, the trajectory, the aroma, the drift of the whole page. My own conviction is that God's fingerprints are on this page. The unified yes to these initiatives by about 30 elders and Master Planning Team members was a remarkable work of grace in my judgment.

The column on the left hand side of page three is the overarching introduction to the Fresh Initiatives. I want us to read it together aloud (see the first two paragraphs in the box above).

It is unmistakable from these two paragraphs what the Master Planning team believes is the thrust of the Fresh Initiatives. Four out of the six (1, 2, 3, 5) deal directly with relationships. The other two (#4: on worship; and #6: on culture) deal with it indirectly.

One way to think about the Fresh Initiatives is that they try to get at the kind of congregation God is calling us to be in this city at this time so that this Mission and the vision of "2000 by 2000" (page 5) will become a reality.

Improving Our Corporate Personality or Spirit

Every church has a personality. A corporate spirit. An esprit de corps. An atmosphere. It's that indefinable something that you sense. One of the things that page three says is that we believe God is calling us to improve that "something" at Bethlehem. We believe that our family can do better than we have at loving each other and loving the world. We can do better at valuing relationships woven together with valuing truth. When Paul says in Ephesians 4:15 that we are to "speak the truth in love," we believe we need more work on the love part than the truth part.

That may not always be the case. At another time God may show us that we have grown sloppy in our handling of the truth. But for now the word seems to be, you have grown careless in your handling of relationships.

The Value of Relationships

So we turn to Fresh Initiative #1: The Value of Relationships. I'll read it for you.

We will take new practical steps to develop an atmosphere where personal, deepening, supportive, faith-building relationships of love are highly valued as expressions of our passion for the supremacy of God's love.

This initiative has an entire task force devoted to it. Not all the initiatives do. (Karl Kanowitz, Lucia Brown, Pam Bloom, Steve Stein, Gerilyn Kanowitz, Sharon Steichen.) A task force is not, of course, the whole answer. It's part of the answer—a group of people praying and pondering over what they see in the church and in the Word concerning relationships of love. What I want to do is simply make a few comments about the meaning of the Initiative and its biblical foundations, and encourage all of you to be a part of it.

Let me begin with a clarification. We have devoted a lot of time this year to the theme of love (especially the sermon series in the spring, and the line on page two, "loving all whom he loves). But the first Fresh Initiative is not merely a repetition of that theme. The key word is relationships. You can show love to someone without having much of relationship. For example, the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37 showed love to the wounded Jewish man, but he didn't even know him. And he left him in the care of another even though he paid for the care. That is real love and Jesus commends it.

But that is not what Fresh Initiative #1 is about. It's about relationships—and a certain kind of relationships that we believe God is calling us to in the church. In other words Fresh initiative #1 is not a general call to love. It is a call to love through relationships. Some people are starving for relationships of love. Others are scared of relationship and want to keep people at a distance. We are saying that we should improve in nurturing an atmosphere where relationships are "highly valued."

We use four adjectives to describe the kind we are talking about and then put them in the context of our mission. The relationships we long to see valued and pervasive in our fellowship would be "personal, deepening, supportive, and faith-building."

1. Personal Relationships

"Personal" means not just functional. You can have a functional relationship with someone because they are your doctor or lawyer or plumber or employer or pastor or teammate or teacher, without that relationship being personal. To be personal would mean that you would relate to each other about personal things, not just professional things. For example, Dennis Smith is by profession an attorney. So we have related professionally several times over the years as he helped me buy our house and draw up our wills. But a hundred times more important to me is the fact that Dennis and Barb and Noël and I have a personal relationship that goes back 21 years. When we are together, we don't deal with each other as professionals. What Dennis and Barb are as persons—with loves and longings and values and hurts and joys and convictions and virtues and spiritual depth—these things are the stuff of our a personal relationship.

Jesus had concentric circles of increasingly intimate personal relationships. There were the seventy that he appointed and sent out in Luke 10:1. Then there were the twelve that he chose to be with him throughout his entire ministry (Mark 3:14). Then there were Peter, James, and John. He took them with him onto the Mount of Transfiguration; into the house when he raised the little girl; and into the seclusion of the Garden of Gethsemane. He was personally closer to them than to the others. Finally there was John who was called at least four times "the disciple whom Jesus loved." The point is that Jesus himself had a cluster of personal relationships in varying depths—and these did not become cliquish (see value #2, page 4). Woe to us if we let Fresh Initiative #1 make us introverted and cliquish. Jesus had some deep personal relationships but he was open and outgoing to all.

One of the realities of a growing church is that neither the pastors nor anyone else can have personal relationships with everyone in the church. Our aim is not that everyone relate to everyone in a personal relationship, but that the atmosphere be so congenial to these kinds of relationships that they form easily and are prized and nurtured—that everyone have concentric circles of personal relationships the way Jesus did.

2. Deepening Relationships

The second word to describe the relationships we seek is "deepening." This simply means that we not stay at the level of superficiality—knowing a few personal things about people and asking glibly how things are going, but never going deeper with people. You can't go deeper with everyone, but the biblical command to bear each other's burdens (Galatians 6:2) seems to imply something deeper than a passing, "Hi, howya doin'?"

We didn't use the word "deep" but rather "deepening" because relationships are always in process. They are not static. And they take time. They don't happen over night. Our aim is that more and more we have an atmosphere at Bethlehem where this movement toward depth of relationship is nurtured rather than an atmosphere that encourages shallowness and superficiality.

3. Supportive Relationships

The third adjective we use to describe the relationships God is calling us to is "supportive." This is where love especially comes in. We are talking about relationships "of love." And love means that you have a heart to lighten people's load as you get to know them. Love means that your desire is to be a load-lifter, a burden-bearer, a helper, a strengthener.

It's true that we need all these things ourselves. But if you go into a relationship mainly to use the other person to meet your needs, it will very likely collapse. You will be most blessed if you live to be a blessing (Acts 20:35). Relationships thrive when we try to outdo each other in supporting not in being supported.

4. Faith-Building Relationships

Finally, we call these relationships of love "faith-building." Which means that the bottom line in why God designed us for relationships—which he did!—is so that we would help each other live by faith in future grace. Faith means "being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus." So all Christian relationships have this as their goal: to help each other stay satisfied in God.

There are people right now in our church that are in a crisis of faith. Will they keep on trusting in God's future grace? I see all my preaching as a means of helping people stay satisfied in all that God is for us in Jesus. But preaching is not enough. God calls us into relationship with each other and then says in Hebrews 3:12–13,

Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is called 'Today,' lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

In other words perseverance in faith is a relational project. "Watch out for an unbelieving heart . . . encourage one another daily lest you be hardened." Relationships are for faith-building and faith- preserving.

Relationships of Love for the Glory of God

Which means—and this is the final thing—that relationships are for God's glory. Notice the last two lines in Fresh Initiative #1: "[relationships are] . . . highly valued as expressions of our passion for the supremacy of God's love." How do you exalt the supremacy of God's love? By trusting it and by helping other people trust it. By being satisfied with it and by helping others be satisfied with it.

God is calling us to relationships of love at Bethlehem that are personal and deepening and supportive and faith-building. He wants our lives to be so woven together with people—not all people (that's impossible) but some people—that we can touch each other as persons at a fairly deep level, and support each other when the burdens are heavy, and build each other's faith in future grace by showing the supremacy of the love of God in Jesus Christ. May God help us long for this and work for this and pray for this and nurture this with all our heart.

That would be the kind of church that spreads a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples, and has the inner strength to take up the tremendous challenge of 2000 by 2000. Lord, do it for the glory of your great name.