As fairly new parents, my wife and I read child psychologist Gary Chapman’s book self-help books for parents, The Five Love Languages of Children. Whilst the practical outworking of the book is probably a lifetime’s hard parenting, the premise is relatively simple: children need love, and are most likely to flourish and co-operate when they feel loved. Chapman suggests that there are five main ways in which we all give and receive love: loving physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, and acts of service. All five are important, although each person will tend to have one or two primary love languages which we most like to receive, and most like to use to give. We had fun working out which were our primary love languages, and which the children most seemed to appreciate.
But working in church-based education, the book also got me thinking about how any of this related to our walk with God, our Christian discipleship, and the shape of local church life. Chapman himself is a Christian and one of his series of books on the love languages specifically deals with our relationship with God. Whilst this is clearly just a tool in the spiritual toolbox, it does make sense if spirituality, at root, is in large part about desire for God. But what of church? My hunch, and I’d love to explore it further, is that the five love languages approximate to what many people are looking for in a church community. For example:
Regarding ‘touch’, people probably aren’t generally looking for actual physical touch from a church, but an equivalent may be a sense of intimacy – with God and with each other. Intimacy with God cannot be programmed but can still be enabled; yet I cannot think of a single local church which systematically and as a high priority provides help to individuals in learning to pray (beyond the existence of prayer meetings, times of intercession in church, the occasional lent course, etc). Regarding intimacy with others, the former vicar of my previous church, St Chad’s Woodseats, Matthew Porter, always used to say that 90% of the pastoral problems he dealt with were amongst people who did not belong to any of the smaller house groups or fellowship groups which were part of the church (such groups generally tended to look after members relatively well and provide a supportive forum for people to share their problems and questions).
Regarding ‘words of affirmation’ I remember the minister father of a good friend saying that at heart, what many people want from church is to know that God loves them. Whilst it may be a bit more complex than that, and there’s always a danger of church becoming a spiritual comfort blanket, Christian faith says a very great deal about the worth of each individual, and indeed every created thing. How might we provide opportunities for people to hear these things, enable them to take deep root, and be changed by them?
Regarding ‘quality time’, one significant pattern emerging from conversations on discipleship through my work is that the best thing a local church can do to raise the profile of a particular issue or aspect of Christian discipleship is to carve out dedicated time to address and explore it. Perhaps at a median level many churches could also be a lot smarter about the way they use the time that people have available. In his recent excellent book Imagine Church, Neil Hudson of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity notes that of the 110 hours people have available each week after sleeping, only 10 are usually available for ‘congregation-based activity’ and so churches need to be more systematic in asking how to use these 10 hours to equip disciples for the other 100.
Regarding ‘acts of service’, I have a hunch that many Christians would love to be able to put their faith into action much more than they do, but are struggling to find the best way of doing so – either through personal lack of confidence, or lack of opportunity, or lack of someone to accompany them and give them reassurance, camaraderie or moral support in that journey. It is often not enough simply to provide worthwhile community engagement programmes, since these often appeal only to those who already feel confident enough to step out in that way. Meanwhile opportunities for learning more about faith often leave that learning at a more theoretical level, leaving the impression that being a better Christian is about having more knowledge of Christianity. Instead, what would it look like to design a programme of learning and growing in which people are encouraged and supported to step out in action first and then reflect on what happens? (Christian educationalist John Hull has often suggested such a thing). Meanwhile, the importance of a ‘bridge’ to enable individual Christians to connect up their desire to serve with the opportunity to do so is fundamental to the vision of an organisation such as Besom (www.besom.com).
‘Gifts’ is an area where many congregations do somewhat better already. Local churches have often been places in which individuals have been enabled to grow their gifts. One of the commonplaces of the historiography of the 18th century and early 19th century evangelical revival is that new dissenting churches were one of the few places where the ordinary working person could learn to read, learn organisational skills and gain confidence in leadership. As a result, many early working class activists had a chapel background. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the charismatic movement brought a welcome re-emphasis on the gifts given by God to individuals in a variety of spectacular and less spectacular forms. A shift in the language of discipleship from one of duty to one of calling and gifting became a welcome feature of the latter half of the twentieth century. How can that be maintained? But as well as the gifts we give as Christians, churches can and should also be places that we receive. In recent years one of the best initiatives to have emerged within my own local church community is a loose network of people who will cook meals for others in the congregation who are struggling with hard times. Friends who are not church members are sometimes amazed that people will do such a thing for people who are not close family or friends.
In short, a church shaped by the five love languages might cultivate intimacy with God, be places of encouragement and affirmation (as well as challenge), to give time and attention to what is happening in the lives of individuals and communities, to enable people to grow and share their gifts, and to provide opportunities for acts of service (which would encompass all aspects of mission in a holistic sense).
By the same token, I have a hunch that a flourishing church should also allow members to express the five love languages, to God, to each other, and to people beyond the congregation, in workplaces, local communities and families. (The description of Chapman’s book on his website hints as much itself). What might it look like for a church to set out deliberately to equip its members for expressing these five aspects of God’s love?