Love Languages: Bringing New Life to Struggling Congregations

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
Revelation 2:4

Being a pastor these days is not easy! Even before the pandemic the phenomenon of burn-out was prevalent. Leaders were quitting the ministry in droves. The last 18-months have amplified these realities.

One aspect of burn-out is empathy fatigue. Our ability to feel compassion is diminished. We go through the motions of ministry, but our heart feels cold and dead. Congregations collectively can fall into this loveless state as well. 

Is Jesus knocking on our front door like he did the church in Ephesus? Asking us to rekindle “the love you had at first”? How can leaders find our passion for ministry again? How can congregations get excited about serving local communities amid what seems like a chain of unending challenges?

The Five Love Languages

My wife, the Reverend Jill Beck, is also my co-pastor and partner in missional mischief. Collectively we have served six revitalization congregations in a row. These are churches that have seen better days. Some were on the brink of closure; others were already dead inside but unaware. Jill and I actively pray… “Lord, send us to the churches no one else wants or sees.” We are called to be interventionists, and triage unit pastors, who try to love congregations into new life.

In our marriage, Jill and I have benefited greatly from Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages. Chapman demonstrates that we all have a primary love language through which we give and receive love. These are the five: 

  1. Words of Affirmation
  2. Acts of Service
  3. Receiving Gifts
  4. Quality Time
  5. Physical Touch

Chapman highlights how our love language may be different than our spouses. We must be willing to learn to give love in a way that our spouse experiences it as love. Jill receives love through quality time, and me primarily through physical touch. Knowing this, helps us love each other more deeply as we continue in the fourteen-year dance of our marriage.

The Five Love Language of a Congregation

Every church has a “love language” a way they relate to each other, the larger community, and pastor(s). Understanding this triangle of relationships is imperative in a revitalization. 

In serving congregations in the critical care unit, one must be able to assess the patient’s condition and make correct decisions regarding their care. Knowing how a congregation gives and receives love, and knowing our love language as pastors, is also critical in this assessment. 

Congregations on their death bed don’t need the next quick fix strategy, or a heroic solo leader who can turn it all around. Churches are motivated to enter into a journey of transformation and lasting fruitfulness through a single force—love. When a congregation discovers their own inner resources, and are awakened to love their community, revitalization can occur. At Fresh Expressions, we call the process of revitalizing a church from the outside in… (re)missioning.

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is kicking the tires, examining the heart of each of the seven churches in Asia Minor. In most cases he affirms good things, condemns bad things, and provides a corrective. Even to the churches that are significantly unhealthy, Jesus offers a graceful offer to repent and change course. This provides a framework for (re)missioning congregations.

The five heart expressions of a congregation correlate with Chapmans’ five love languages. A congregation’s love language will shape their missional posture and approach to discipleship. Primarily, the five love languages of a congregation are:

  1. Proclamation Centered: this congregation loves quality teaching and preaching.
  2. Outreach Centered: this congregation lives to serve the community. 
  3. Generosity Centered: this congregation has lots of resources and wants to invest in ministries that make a kingdom impact.
  4. Fellowship Centered: this congregation loves to be together, and care for one another.  
  5. Healing Centered: this congregation seeks to be a community where people experience healing.

Every congregation has a distinct heart as a unique expression of Christ. The heart can be either healthy or sick. A truly healthy congregation could embody all five love languages, but these congregations are a kind of white rhino in the world today… functionally extinct. Many congregations are in decline because their heart is sick. A minister can waste a great deal of time and energy expending effort that is not received as love by the congregation.

Revitalization can occur when a team of leaders know a congregation’s love language and utilize this to form a discipleship process around their weaknesses, what I call the dark side of their love language. Just as in the corrective measures of Jesus in Revelation, a church should be encouraged in what they are doing right, but always re-directed to the greater work of their mission in the world. 

Knowing Your Leadership Love Language 

As followers of Jesus, we all have a primary ministry love language… a way that we express our love. Some may find a correlation between the five love languages and the APEST giftings from Ephesian 4:1-13. 

However, sometimes a minister and the congregation we serve can be a mismatch. A person who gives love primarily through preaching God’s word, finds that her fellowship centered congregation desires her to shorten her sermons to make more time for connection. A leader who loves to nurture fellowship spends a great deal of time creating events, only to find the proclamation centered congregation wishes he would spend more time on his sermons. This miscommunication of love can add to the sense of fatigue. 

Sometimes a minister and a congregation will find a sweet spot, they give and receive love in the same way. Yet even here there is a danger that the congregation becomes one dimensional and immature. They are often unaware of their dark side.   

Deep Roots, Wild Branches

The key to (re)missioning is found in a simple principle: “grow the center, experiment on the edge.” In my latest book Deep and Wild: Remissioning Your Church From the Outside In, I suggest some frameworks and practices to help congregations live into a blended ecology of church. 

This requires a pastor to give love through the primary love language of the congregation, while also experimenting with other love languages in the larger community. This can help inherited congregations anchor deeply in their traditions but reach out missionally in wild new ways. The danger is in tending to one extreme or the other. Congregations that experience a new season of vitality become aware of their dark side and create discipleship systems that allow them to express love in a fuller variety of languages.

At Fresh Expressions North America, we will soon be launching the Center for (Re)Missioning. One of the tools we are developing will help congregations identify their primary love language. A congregation can assess their love language, see the healthy version of their life, and the dark side. From this assessment, a congregation can enter a process of (re)missioning. 

Key Word is Love

The secret ingredient of any revitalization is love. Love created us, love redeemed us, love sanctifies and sustains us. The love of God awakens congregations from the brink of death. The love of the leader for her people can lead them through a journey of transformation. The love of a congregation for a community can transform a city.

After more than a year of the COVID pandemic, some leaders have lost the love for the Church that drew them to ministry. Some churches, like the one in Ephesus have lost their “first love.” What if we could rediscover a deeply theological and wildly adventurous model for our local congregation to unleash the power of God’s love? This is exactly what Jorge Acevedo and I will be sharing about in our upcoming webinar Rekindle Your Love for Your Church. Grab a copy of Deep and Wild and join us on August 4th at 1pm.

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Michael Beck

Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.

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