The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Life is not about accomplishment. Life is not about things. Life is not about education. Life is not about work. What is life about?
Matthew 22: 34–40 states:
“Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?’
Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.’”
Jesus teaches clearly that life is about relationships. Jesus’ summary of the entire Bible was loving God and loving people. All of life comes into perspective and balance when we learn how to love God and love people. But what does it mean to love people?
In the early 1900's, there was a study of foundling institutions - institutions that cared for newborn babies - that found an extremely high mortality rate. Why? Many believed that too much handling would spoil children. The official scientific teaching of the day taught that babies should be left to cry and that gentle loving care was unscientific. Although the institutions had clean bedding and nutritious food, babies continued to die. A pediatrician decided to challenge this teaching and brought in women to hold the babies, speak to them and tenderly care for them. The mortality rate dropped drastically. Simple human love enabled the babies to live.
Another example of this need for human love is Melinda Maxwell, an alert four year old, who enjoyed having her daddy read her "The Three Little Pigs." Like many youngsters, she enjoyed it so much that she had him read it again and again and again. Mr. Maxwell, being your normal adult, soon tired of this repetition and got a bright idea. He recorded the story into a tape player and gave the tape player to Melinda whenever she asked him to read the story. It worked for a couple of times, and then Melinda became frustrated. Mr. Maxwell explained, "Now honey, you know how to turn on the recorder." "Yes,” Melinda replied, "but I can't sit on its lap." 
Both of these stories are examples of a truth that was explained long ago: "Then the Lord God said, 'It is not good for man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18). Human beings need loving relationships with other human beings. Whether we are little babies or grown adults, we need loving relationships for our very identity and being.
Understanding American (Global) Culture
How has this need for love shaped how we live? I need to provide a caveat here: As an American, the following analysis of relationships is rooted in my experience of American culture, the most individualistic country in the world. Many other countries’ cultures are more community and family oriented, and this material may seem less directly applicable.
But Globalization is shaping the world in profound ways that make these ideas a direct relational threat in virtually any culture in the world. Most people think of globalization as having only three characteristics:
- Spread of Democracy and the Rule of Law,
- Economic power of Free Market Capitalism and
- Communication Connectivity of the Internet
These elements of Globalization are like computer hardware which is uniting the world into a huge global village. What has been left out of this analysis is globalization’s software of ideas and culture. As we noted in a previous article, European unbelief (atheism and agnosticism) has grown from less than 1% of the world’s population in 1900 to over 15% by 2000. Unbelief is the fastest-growing religion in the world and is spreading by means of increasingly global educational strategies.
At the same time American culture is increasingly influential globally through American movies, television and music. Several years ago, I taught a summer course in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. For six weeks, my wife and I only heard American music (Rock, Jazz, Country) played in Czech restaurants, taxis and public transportation. American individualism may be foreign in origin to many cultures, but it is pervasive by means of the media juggernaut of American music, movies, and television that is sweeping the world as part of Globalization. Even if the following analysis does not directly apply to your context currently, it can be used as a way to understand the American media that is increasingly influencing young people around the world.
Alexis de Tocqueville – Wild Stallion of American Individualism
The most respected commentator on American culture and character is Alexis de Tocqueville, a French thinker who wrote about America 170 years ago.  How did de Tocqueville describe Americans’ approach to relationships? He called Americans individualistic, by which he meant they were self-oriented and highly motivated towards pleasure and success. This sounds familiar to today’s American culture, doesn’t it? But de Tocqueville then went on to describe what is not true today -- how Americans were the most moral and religious people in the world. How can we understand this odd depiction?
Americans were described by de Tocqueville as self-oriented, proud, creative, ambitious, pragmatic and willing to take great risks. The American personality could be pictured as a young, powerful and fiery stallion. But de Tocqueville also argued that the strong reins of Christianity, morality, and marriage guided the wild stallion.
“In the United States, Christian sects are infinitely diversified and perpetually modified; but Christianity itself is fact so irresistibly established, that no one undertakes either to attack or defend it.”
Christian morality followed in the train behind the locomotive of Americans’ Christian faith: “The Americans, having admitted the principal doctrines of the Christian religion without inquiry, are obliged to accept in like manner a great number of moral truths originating in it and connected with it.”
As a result, morality, like Christianity, was a powerful curbing influence of Americans’ individualism. De Tocqueville writes of the strength of morality in America, “Although the travelers who have visited North America differ on many points, they all agree in remarking that morals are far more strict there than elsewhere.”
The third rein that Tocqueville describes is that of marriage. He writes:
“There is certainly no country in the world where the tie of marriage is so much respected as in America, or where conjugal happiness is more highly or worthily appreciated.”
Marriage was considered the most important relationship to Americans, and the home life, managed by the wife, provided the source and anchor for the morality of all members. In this way, de Tocqueville understood American women as the cultivators of the moral fabric of America. The marriage tie was so valued that any vice that threatened this relationship was, in Tocqueville’s words, “treated with a degree of severity which is unknown in the rest of the world.”
Christianity, morality, and marriage were the three reins that held the American stallion of individualism in check. Thus, de Tocqueville described Americans as the most individualistic and self-oriented and yet simultaneously the most Christian, moral, and married people in the world.
But there has been a profound shift in American culture over the last 170 years. The reins (Christianity, Morality, Marriage) that guided the American stallion of individualism have become frayed, brittle and weak. In the recent half century, the reins broke all together, and we have seen the fracturing of this traditional American individualism into a radical individualism. What was once self-interest guided by external commitments to Christianity, morality and marriage, now is only uncontrolled self-interest.
Today people often don’t have life-long commitments to their friends and families. Rather, they approach relationships as temporary attachments. Sociologists have described how many modern Americans view their marriages as “sequential monogamy.” One illustration of this relational reality was a survey conducted in the early 1960s, which documented that most Americans’ primary commitments were to their loved ones’ emotional, economic and social well-being. Decades later the same survey was taken. Now the average American’s primary commitments are to their own personal emotional, economic and social well-being. Most Americans are pursuing their own happiness.
Individualism – Relationships as a means to happiness
So far we have established two facts:
1.) We are built for relationships and are not satisfied without them;
2.) American culture encourages an independent lifestyle, where our fundamental goal is our personal happiness.
This develops a push-pull attitude; we want relationships, but we don't want commitment. We realize that life is more fulfilling with ongoing relationships. We are motivated to relate to others in our search for happiness, but our culture discourages commitment. We tend to bring these two components together, and we relate without commitment. Ultimately to get what we want, we use relationships; we use people. In a word, we are involved in relationships to get.
An example of this radical individualism is modern American cinema heroes. When I was growing up, John Wayne was portrayed as the embodiment of what it meant to be a man. In the 1980s, young Americans (both male and female) most often chose Clint Eastwood as a hero and model to emulate. In the 1990s the model for many young Americans was Harrison Ford. John Wayne, Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood are pictured as rugged individuals without deep relationships or need. With these kinds of heroes, should it be any surprise to realize that studies show that the vast majority of American men do not have a male friend with whom they can share their deepest thoughts and feelings?
In direct contrast to this is the topic of this article -- loving people. Instead of relating to get, we are called by scripture to give. In the second great commandment, Jesus taught, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus explained that loving God and loving people fulfilled the law: “All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments."
Disciples of Jesus should have a spiritual radar system made up of two axes: a vertical axis of our love for God and a horizontal axis of our love for others. Our life should be guided by these two axes. When we come to a question as to how we should live and what we should do, these reference points of our love for the Lord and love for people give perspective and guidance.
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of loving people. In I John 3:14, we read, "We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren." Our love for others is a visible sign that we are genuine children of God. In John 13:34-35, Jesus explains, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Francis Schaeffer writing about this verse explains: “Jesus is giving a right to the world. Upon his authority he gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all Christians."
Do you remember 8th grade science class? During my class we used litmus paper for some of the experiments. It was a simple testing tool that showed whether a particular chemical was present. What the scripture teaches is that loving people is the litmus test that proves that we are believers and shows non-believers that Christianity is really true. Love is the litmus paper test of Christianity.
The scripture strongly emphasizes the importance of love. The church meetings of the early believers were called “love feasts” and included a full meal together (Jude 12). Would you call our church meetings love feasts? In I Corinthians 13, Paul wrote, "Now abide faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love." Also, in Romans 13:10, he wrote, "Love is the fulfillment of the law." Peter exhorted believers to “love one another deeply from the heart” (I Peter 1:22). Peter emphasized how important love is: "Above everything keep your love for one another at full strength" (I Pet. 4:8). The author of Hebrews urges believers to “consider how we may spur one another on to love each other” (Heb. 10:24).
A Confession about love
I need to make a confession. I have struggled in my Christian life with loving people. To explain this, I need to tell you a little bit about my background, starting with my career as a high school American football player.
I ran with a limp in high school football. This is not the strongest quality for a football player, yet somehow I did okay, although not from raw talent or lightning speed. My fundamental strength was my aggressiveness; the coaches liked that animal instinct. In the spring of my junior year in high school, the coaches made me Defensive Captain of the football team for the next season. Three other juniors were all made Offensive Co-captains. Each of these individuals went on to play big time college football. My limp didn’t attract as many scouts, and I didn’t play college football. Why was I, as a less naturally talented player, selected as the sole Captain? The coach explained the selection as a result of my “personality” and “aggressiveness.”
I had a similar experience in college. At University, I tried out for Rugby, made first team and then won All State honors during my first season. The Rugby coach used the same word, “aggressiveness,” to explain why I was selected. It was true. I wasn’t always clear on the rules during that first season in Rugby, but I knew that I enjoyed running over people. I wore this aggressiveness like a badge. In the John Wayne shaped ethos of an American adolescent male in the 1970’s, I thought it proved I was a man.
Why this trip down memory lane? I have carried this aggressive attitude with me during much of my life, and I sometimes find myself reverting back to these deeply engrained early instincts. And this temptation didn’t automatically go away when I made a commitment to Christ. In fact, this attitude and behavior was present during my mid-twenties when I began to attend Seminary. Some might think that this story will lead to the conclusion that I spiritually grew up at Seminary. I am sad to confess that much of my aggressive disposition and the accompanying attitudes of pride and arrogance were my companions during my seminary years and beyond. As every relative of a budding theologian knows, knowledge puffs up and theological knowledge puffs up absolutely.
Yet the area where I was confronted most clearly with my aggressiveness (and its accompanying sins of the heart) was in my marriage. I married relatively late as a 32 year old. As a result, I came into marriage thinking I fully knew who I was. I had helped others with their marriages in previous years, and I thought that I was some kind of expert. In fact, I was a real life version of the proverb, “pride goes before a fall.”
I approached Lori, my wife, as if she was my newest disciple. Somehow (and I couldn’t quite understand how in those early years), she didn’t seem to appreciate my attitude. Women always laugh when I tell them this. The situation was complicated (and my specific faults were obscured) by the fact that my wife had her own struggles to wrestle with, and our weaknesses tended to feed off of each other. I found it quite easy to point the finger like Adam and say, “it’s the woman you gave me Lord.” Yet over time during these early years of married life, my aggressiveness was clearly reflected back to me in the painful mirror of a marriage in trouble. I did not love my wife as Jesus taught me to love her.
While Lori and I were on our honeymoon in rural Arkansas, we had visited a potter who created beautiful pots and mugs. In memory of our trip and marriage we selected two gorgeous brown, green and turquoise mugs. Years later, in the midst of some of the greatest difficulties in our marriage, one of the mugs shattered when cleaning up one day. It seemed to be an image of our struggles and failure in our relationship.
Eventually I realized that I needed to take responsibility for my part in this troubled marriage. I became convinced that my aggressive behavior and spirit was dishonoring to the Lord. Jesus was strong and yet not aggressive. He was resolute and yet not proud. He was confident and yet humble. I had known gentle men who were strong. However I was able to excuse my rather glaring lack with the words, “He is naturally gentle. That’s just not who I am.”
Yet I read in God’s Word that characteristics of a faithful follower of Jesus were peace, patience and gentleness. A dawning realization eventually emerged that my prized aggressiveness was a weakness of mine. An area to be identified, confessed and repented of. I remember the first time I really puzzled over Paul’s comment in I Cor. 16:13: “Act like men, be strong, let all that you do be done in love.” True manhood wasn’t a matter of strength versus love – but being a true man included both strength and love.
How does an aggressive rugby player who loves to knock people over become patient and gentle? This is one area of the struggle – identifying and discarding wrong patterns and attitudes, or vices.
But there is more to it than this. Becoming like Jesus is not merely a process of identifying and discarding the negative elements. This process also needs to be understood as a positive process of growing in a deep relationship with God and the fruits of this vertical relationship overflowing into horizontal relationships. The Bible speaks of this as growing in certain virtues or fruits of the Spirit. Simply put, I needed to grow in love.
Over the years, I studied the descriptions of the character of Christ that believers are to grow into with the painful realization of how much I needed to change.
All this leads to the topic before us. To show kindness to a new acquaintance is relatively easy. To be concerned about a friend is natural and normal. But to genuinely love one’s family members is one of the most important and difficult tasks of life.
Think of a series of concentric circles. Our relationship with God is the inner core of our life and is the most important relationship we have. Immediately surrounding this core, if we are married, is our intimate relationship with our spouse. The next circle includes our family. These relationships (with spouses, children, fathers, mothers and siblings) are the most difficult of life.
Our families see us as we are. We are tempted to manage our image outside the family inner circle. But we fail at camouflage within our family. They see our hearts. Superficial behavior modification is too shallow. We really need to love our families.
What I will attempt to explain in the following articles are very hard won lessons from someone who is not naturally gifted in this area. I can’t speak as if I have all the truths completely understood and filed away, like an algebra problem neatly solved. Rather, these are principles that need to be applied day in and day out, similar to the awkward process of learning to dance for someone who finds it especially difficult. It is painful to realize how poor one is at some element of loving others, but this very awareness can be helpful as it spurs us on in confession, dependence and faithfulness.
Next week we will look at the first of these elements of love.
 John Augustine Ryan. "Foundling Asylums." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909). .
 Alan Loy McGinnis. The Friendship Factor: How to Get Closer to People You Care For. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2004), 87.
 David B. Barret, George Thomas Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 4.
 In Habits of the Heart, the most influential book about American culture in the last 30 years, author Robert Bellah said that he merely wanted his book to be a modern application of de Tocqueville’s analysis.
 From Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Ed. by Bruce Frohnen. (London: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2002), 396. The impact of this ‘irresistible fact” of Christianity was that individuals felt pressured to profess to some minimal elements of Christian belief. De Tocqueville writes “Among the Anglo-Americans there are some who profess Christian dogmas because they believe them and others who do so because they are afraid to look as though they did not believe.”
 De Tocqueville. Democracy in America, 396.
 De Tocqueville. Democracy in America, 542.
 De Tocqueville. Democracy in America, 242.
 Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America,Volumes I & II (The Floating Press, 2009), 1197.
 Jones60b. “john wayne.” December 8, 2013. .
Nicole. “Clint Eastwood Postcard.” July 31, 2010. .
hytam2. “INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL.” January 15, 2008.
 Francis A. Schaeffer. The Mark of the Christian. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1970), 22.
J.N.D. Kelly. Black’s New Testament Commentaries: A Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and Jude. (London: A. and C. Black Limited, 1969), 176.
 Bryan Hewitt. “20141114_LeomFitch_205042_1.” November 14, 2014. .
 Kyle Mooney, Jess Debski. “Rugby_17Oct_0170.” October 17, 2010. .
 Nils Geylen. “365-118 FEB 13.” February 13, 2007. .
Greg Pritchard earned his MA from Trinity School of Divinity before continuing on to finish his PhD at Northwestern University. The intersection of theology, history, philosophy and sociology is Greg’s primary focus both in teaching and writing. He has taught graduate-level courses on apologetics, theology, history, leadership, the New Testament, ethics, and Christian Thought at American, European, and Asian institutions of higher learning. His book, Willow Creek Seeker Services, has been published in four languages. In addition, Greg has worked as the COO at a Chicago investment firm. Currently, he serves as the President of the Forum of Christian Leaders and as the Director of the European Leadership Forum.
The Forum of Christian Leaders (FOCL) is the sponsor of the European Leadership Forum (ELF), which seeks to unite, mentor, and resource European evangelical leaders to renew the biblical church and re-evangelise Europe. This happens first at the ELF's annual meeting that occurs each May in Poland. In addition to the ELF, FOCL is host to an online media library and learning community for evangelical Christians. Learn more at foclonline.org and euroleadership.org; or join us on Twitter @FOCLonline and Facebook Forum of Christian Leaders.