Let Love Live

by Dary Northrop
northrop

Bonnie and I came to Fort Collins in 1986. At 28, I was voted in as senior pastor of an established church with a 65-year history. We were young and had never been senior pastors. A young pastor and a church with a multigenerational heritage—in some cases you would have a recipe for conflict.

But we didn’t experience conflict. Why? Because our people loved us the way we were. They accepted us. They accepted our ministry. As we all started loving each other, it became a good marriage. God saw our heart and their hearts and molded us together as a church family.

In the nearly two decades since, God has used that foundational principle of love to grow Timberline Church and continue to grow all of us within it. Our church theme is “Let love live.” Love has shaped my entire approach to ministry.

The more I reflect on the love of Christ, the more convinced I am that it is the single greatest tool to breaking down barriers. Christ’s love draws people from every corner of society to Timberline. Christ’s love will bring people to your church. Christ’s love will guide you in how to relate to those people until they fully discover His love for themselves.

Love invites

One of the first things you discover about Christ’s love is that it will attract people into your church who make you uncomfortable unless you are operating in love consistently yourself.

We had not been at Timberline very long before a young woman came into our service and was radically saved. She was a stripper, and she found the Lord in spite of our best efforts. Her friends came to her water baptism, and they found the Lord. These were not the “girls next door” that many churches attract. Soon they were joined by all kinds of people—body-pierced people, tattooed people, people whose appearance seemed to run counter to what we thought appropriate for a church setting.

These people did not naturally fit into our Sunday School classes or our small groups. None of the curriculum we were using worked for them. At first, we found ourselves as a church unable to effectively minister to these new believers. We couldn’t find a way to connect with their world, and that really opened our eyes. So we determined that we would change. And it was out of that determination that our mission and theme, “Let love live,” was born. Those three words became the horsepower behind our church to tell our visitors that no matter who they are or where they come from, we are going to let love live.

And we discovered that God’s love is alive and well. Often, it’s Christians who put it in the box and try to define it through prejudicial filters. When you love people the way they are, even before they change, you value them as God’s creation. That kind of love changes your perspective. You begin to see their God-given value.

That kind of love is the root of evangelism. People want true, authentic relationships where they can be vulnerable and transparent. The most effective way to share the gospel is through true friendships. I think strangers leading strangers to the Lord is very unlikely in our culture. So we have taught our people for years now to journey with the lost, to love them where they are, to become their friend without strings attached or targeting them for evangelism. The lost need to know that a believer’s friendship does not hinge on a salvation decision, and that if they never came to the Lord the friendship would continue.

We and our lost friends to realize they don’t have to lead a double life or hide the things that bind them. As a pastor, I have people who hide their cigarette behind them when they see me coming, and that’s always embarrassing for me. I want to tell them, “Please don’t ever hide your addiction from me.” The church is a place where we bring our addictions, not hide them. So we have ash trays in front of our church, and people smoke before they come in. Their smoking is the least of our worries. We want to love them as they are and let them experience the journey of letting the Holy Spirit change them. We’ll catch the fish; let God clean the fish.

I live out this principle in my relationships. My prayer would be that some of my non-Christian friends could say, “Dary’s my best friend.” I think the church has hidden behind the scriptural command to be separate from the world, forgetting that the real focus of that command is to separate our own lifestyles from sin and separate them to God in service(?). While we are serving God and living like Jesus, we are to reach out to the lost with the same love and compassion Christ always showed. Jesus hung out with sinners. It’s an amazing thing to say that Jesus ate with sinners; it’s even more amazing to me that sinners wanted to eat with Jesus.

I joined Rotary. I go skiing with pagans. I’m dining with people who order drinks at dinner. As believers we need to go to the Christmas party at our work places, and we need to be involved in our city’s life. We can join the city council; we can run for office. I want our church to release believers to go where there are lost people and love them where they are.

Love is not a sales pitch

When we connect with people, they need to see that we are genuine. People smell out stuff really fast (?). It’s like the unsolicited calls you get at dinnertime; you really aren’t interested in talking with someone you don’t know who has something to sell. Christians sometimes are guilty—even when their motivation is their love for God—of viewing the gospel as something to sell, or at least to give away. But I would say to pastors, let your preaching and teaching allow people to journey into their relationship with God.

I realize that’s a big shift from some of the old paradigms. But some people have to take their time to discover God. In fact, God tends to work with a lot of people over time to draw them to himself. ( Reword to end of paragraph) We’ve seen people in a three- or four-month or six-month journey coming to church regularly, faithfully, even giving in an offering, before they accept Christ. We need to encourage the lost in their journey so that when they reach that point where they can say, “I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died for my sins,” it is a natural step instead of a leap over some great, dark wall that is vague and ambiguous to them.

Some preachers are good at talking and not too good at listening, and the unchurched need a pastor who has good listening skills. What the lost have to say to us will change what we’ve scripted to say to them. People, I think, are rarely asking the questions that we are prepared to answer.

And when we do talk, we need to create an atmosphere in our church meetings where we talk to nonbelievers and say things that make them comfortable. I do this all the time, and I didn’t know it was so unique until I had a few pastors mention it to me. When I welcome people to a service, I’ll often say something like this: “For those of you here today who have not made a decision to follow Christ, we’re really glad you’re here. We want you to ask questions. We want you to journey. Think through what we believe in. We hope that you can learn to understand the claims of Christ for yourself, and not just take it from us. Let God reveal himself to you. We’re really glad you’re here. Make yourself at home.”

And I recommend that kind of approach for pastors, even if they’re pastoring a small church where they know everyone and don’t see any nonbelievers in the audience. It changes the attitude of the congregation toward the nonbeliever. They are prepared to love the lost visitor unconditionally.

Every weekend people come up to me and say, “I’m not a Christian yet, but I’m really thinking about it right now.” They share where they are in their journey, and ask for prayer. And they will share a specific prayer request. I’m coming to find out how rare that kind of interaction is in many of our churches because we don’t have an atmosphere that allows the seeker to seek.

Yes, “Today is the day of salvation,” but when we press people into a corner to get a response out of them we can ruin whatever the Holy Spirit is doing today. I want people to understand for themselves that the Spirit is prompting them to think about these things. I want to help them journey through this by encouraging and strengthening them. I laugh with people, cry with them and get involved in their lives.

Does that mean I avoid a call to salvation in our church? Of course not. I almost always offer this salvation invitation: “Today, as I wrap this up, I want to give opportunity for some of you who feel that today God is knocking on your heart. You know you’re separated from God. But today, by faith, you want to take that step to accept Christ personally into your life. I’m going to lead you in a prayer, and I’d love for you to respond if you believe it’s your time. If you mean it seriously, you will experience a total life-change. If you’re going to pray that prayer with me by faith, I want you to slip your hand up right now, wherever you are.”

We have hands go up every service. Sometimes it’s after attending three months that some people respond, but for some it’s their first Sunday to attend. I don’t have people stand up or come forward. I lead them in a prayer where they are seated. Then we provide them with a Bible and information to get them involved in the flow of discipleship.

Love reaches out

When Christ’s love is alive in a church, its body of believers maintains a focus on the Great Commission and looks for ways to connect the church with the community. Some pastors feel like that type of outreach must always be connected with an event. I believe that outreach needs to connect with people’s everyday lives.

One of the things we’ve tried to do is to conduct almost every funeral in our city that isn’t affiliated with a church. The funeral directors call us, and we try to do as many as we can because we know we’re going to minister to the families. That allows us to be a church that reaches people through love, grief, and sorrow. We try to do the same with weddings. Obviously, you can’t just marry anybody. But whenever you can create an atmosphere where a young couple starts a lifelong relationship with a church’s blessing, you have given that new family a wonderful gift.

We look for non-church events that we can help sponsor. We’re a voting location in our city. We have city functions in our building. We have attorneys meeting there. We have a weekly realtors group meeting there. We have all kinds of activities in our building. And we do it as ministry. We only charge for the cost of cleanup and maintenance and any labor such as running the sound system.

We have a coffee shop café in our church that has a huge impact. People who have never been to a church service come regularly with their group and eat lunch in our café.

Our building didn’t cave in or get struck by lightning by using it for these functions. I believe God is pleased. The lost are becoming familiar with our church and they realize, “Hey, I can come into this church, and people are nice here.” It’s not long until they come to a church service. We have outside patios where the service is being broadcast, and they can sit and hear it. They can sit outside or they can sit upstairs and watch the service on a monitor if they’re not comfortable coming into the sanctuary. But it is very important for them to have an opportunity to engage in the life of the church, and I want to give them every opportunity to do so. That’s the spirit of our church.

I’m not against organized events and outreaches. I just want those projects to be supplemental to the everyday focus we maintain. We sponsor an “Adopt a Family” project at Christmas, where we go through our city and ask for the names of people who have needs. We have adopted literally thousands of families over the years. As a matter of fact, we are the go-to place for our city. When the Salvation Army partners with the local “Santa” cops, they work from our list. And we don’t tell the families they must visit our church in order to receive the gifts. The people in our congregation buy gifts for their chosen family and go to their home to deliver them with no strings attached. We tell a hurting family, “We love you, and we want this to be a great Christmas for you.”

We do an event the week of the Fourth of July and make it into a must-attend event for our community. We honor our military personnel. We say a big thank-you to our medical personnel. We invite all the law enforcement agencies so we can honor them. We hold a big thank-you rally for all that these people do for our community.

One of the keys to loving and reaching your city is to find out what the community sees as needs. Beyond our own food pantry, we contribute to the city food bank. We have told city officials, “We don’t want one homeless person in this town. What do you need? How can we help? We’ll support this shelter if you build it.” We have done Habitat for Humanity. We gave money to our senior citizens center when it was being built. It is not a Christian care facility, but you’ll see our church’s name on plaques all over our city because we give to high schools, junior high schools, and senior citizens. We give to community building projects to help the vision they have to reform the city.

I believe that is part of being a good steward of the gifts people are giving. It excites people to see local needs being met. At a recent missions banquet, we gave $50,000 to different agencies in our community to say, “We love you. We embrace you. We believe in what you’re doing.” When a church reaches out to its community and helps in tangible ways, people take note that the church is a vital component of that community. They believe in you, and they’ll listen when you talk.

Love touches the world

Some people reading this might wonder if Timberline is so focused on Fort Collins that we have forgotten the rest of the world. The Great Commission starts in Jerusalem and Judea, and we honor that in every expression of our ministry. But it also extends to the ends of the earth. We believe we are responsible to reach the world, and we take that responsibility seriously.

Missions awareness starts in our sanctuary. We support and feature a lot of missionaries. We do 5-minute spotlight windows to make our people aware of places in need around the globe. We show a lot of video footage. Assemblies of God World Missions has produced some wonderful material that we show from time to time, and we produce some of our own.

We promote a missions mindset throughout our building. As our missions convention approaches every year, we place pictures around our church of different places in the world—banners, posters and video screens people can touch to find out what’s happening in the world through our missions department.

Missions involvement extends to the many trips we organize. We may schedule a dozen missions trips within a year. We take people from our church such as medical teams and worship teams to different places where we partner with Assemblies of God missionaries. We have seen the power of taking people to a ministry site. But, you can’t spend all your money to take people there. You need to give money away to help the missionaries.

Once you get a missions mindset in the life of a church, you don’t have to take the same people over and over because they believe in giving. Our missionaries do a great job with the funds we send. So we take a lot of missions offerings and never apologize for it. Our people understand that when we give in a missions offering we’re excited and looking forward to how God will use it. We challenge people to give something in each offering if possible. This is part of being a Christian and having a godly worldview. These are just a few ways a church can get people engaged.

Love has many faces

One of the things that we constantly promote—I call it the DNA of Timberline—is the diversity of our city represented in our church. The rich and the poor, the young and the old, the traditional and the contemporary—you name an example of human dichotomy and we want Timberline to be an environment where differences can exist without getting in the way.

During the week, we have interest groups that meet. For example, we’ve got cyclists, motorcycle groups, knitting and many more. I think those are great catalysts to get people together to journey in their faith with God.

I love to look out over our main auditorium during worship. I will see someone in their 80s sitting on the same row as a 21-year-old, both worshipping God. And there will be elements of that worship service that appeal more strongly to the 80-year-old and others to the 21-year-old. But each component is valuable.

We always sing one hymn on Sunday because I think there are some great hymns that need to be sung. I don’t do that to please the older generation. I do that because I think the younger generation needs to value the power in those hymns. But let’s have that diversity.

We don’t have very many Hispanics in our town, but we have a large representation coming to our church. Many of them don’t even speak English, but they sit through the service because they want what God is doing among us. So we’re supplying headphones now with interpreters.

We have Democrats and Republicans worshipping together. We’re not here to tell them who to vote for. We’re here to say, “How many of you agree that we should be people who vote and pay attention to what’s happening in our culture and our city?” That’s how I present the issue whenever an election draws near. All of a sudden you will have everyone clapping over one issue saying, yes, let’s be involved. Let’s engage.

I believe in the power of diversity. I often will say, “You might not like this style. So what? It’s not about you. It’s about God. What does God like? God likes a lot of diversity. Look at the world. Look at who He created. Let’s not be self-centered in our preferences. Let’s be releasing to other people, let’s honor other people, and let’s respect diversity.”

Here is the crux of the matter. There must be unity in the body of Christ, but unity is not uniformity. Unity is diversity with cooperation. That is the life of the church, and I think that is what sets us apart at Timberline. Christ has given us this boundless love for one another amidst this incredible diversity He has created.

Let love live.