Is Your Church Neglecting the Heart?

Posted on: February 6th, 2017 by Kay Swatkowski

The following is an excerpt from Make Yourself at Home: Discovering the Heart of the Church. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

final heart graphic


Never Neglect Your Heart

It was rush hour. Snowplows were busy clearing the streets, but not even a broom had touched the grocery store parking lot. I wrapped a blue scarf around my face, trudged through the slush, and grabbed a wet and icy cart. We just needed a few things for dinner.

Inside the store, as I rounded the end of the bread aisle and headed toward the dairy cooler, my heart began to pound so loudly I was convinced other shoppers could hear it. Panting, I hoisted a gallon of milk into the cart and then shuffled to the meat counter. Eager to get home, I even skipped the ice cream aisle.

It was bad enough putting my purchases on the checkout counter, but I realized with dismay that the most difficult part of this shopping trip still lay ahead—maneuvering the cart outside through frozen slush and snow. My imagination ran wild, and I began to wonder how long it would take a store employee to find my frozen body by the cart corral.

But I knew this feeling well—it had plagued me for nearly thirty years. Pushing a shopping cart, carrying a computer bag, breathing in cold or humid air, even at times just the process of eating could all trigger a rapid heart rate that left me weak and frustrated.

Doctors, never able to observe this recurrent condition, chalked it up to anxiety. Maybe, they suggested, it was related to an arthritic condition that flared from time to time.

After a while, I gave up searching for answers or asking for help. I just learned to live with the frequent frustration of having to collapse in a chair, lean on a wall, hug a tree, or clutch a shopping cart handle when my rebellious heart decided to sprint ahead of the rest of my body. I knew I had a problem; I just didn’t want to think how serious it might be.

Then one day, my heart took off on a sprint of marathon length. After twenty-four hours of unrelenting tachycardia, I was unable to walk across the room. My exhausted heart wasn’t pumping enough blood to my extremities, and I learned that when the heart is in trouble, nothing else works as it should.

I thought I was going to die.

Clearly, I survived that experience, but I learned a costly lesson: Never neglect your heart. If you do, expect to pay a high price.


The Heart of the Church

Today, some churches are paying a high price for neglecting their heart. They invest deeply in programs and spend hours brainstorming ways to stay afloat. But the cultivation of a thriving, deeply loving Christian community may take a back seat. I believe many churches are ignoring the symptoms of serious heart issues. They may sense the problem, but they don’t want to consider how serious it is.

Over forty-five years of ministry, my husband has planted and pastored churches in St. Louis, Missouri, and Menton, France. Ray has worked with dozens of churches in the United States, and with groups of pastors in the Philippines and Japan, directly or indirectly impacting more than two hundred congregations. He has come to believe that the greatest challenges confronting churches today are relational.

When we as Christians don’t connect meaningfully with other believers, we become discouraged. Our individual spiritual growth is impeded, and our churches’ health suffers too. Whether we keep a cool distance or allow unresolved conflict at church, we will not be everything we can and should be. A light in our community will be snuffed out. Lack of love for one another dilutes our witness to the world.

The night before Jesus was crucified, He shared powerful words of instruction with His followers. After His death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven, Jesus would no longer be physically present with His followers. But He would still be visible to the world. How?

From that point on, the disciples’ relationships with one another would change dramatically. Now, the world would see Jesus through the unity and love of one believer for another, the unity and love that reflected His love for them. This love—the heart of the church—witnesses to the reality of Christ’s love.


“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:34–35 NASB


Jesus had come for this very reason. He appeared to unveil God’s love in a way the world had never seen before. The love He commanded His followers to have for one another was revolutionary.


“One Another”

The gospel—the good news of God’s love for humanity as shown through the work of Jesus Christ—provides the theological foundation of the church. The unselfish love of one believer for another shapes the emotional heart of the church. We need both.

Does your church suffer from any of these symptoms? Apathy? A lack of congregational commitment? Financial distress? Declining attendance? Volunteer burnout? Disgruntled leadership?

Ideas for a simple solution: Motivate people. Raise more money. Call a consultant. Start a new program or preach a sermon series.

However, if lack of love is the underlying cause of the trouble, none of these remedies will do. In fact, sometimes the treatment can aggravate a deadly condition and send the church into cardiac arrest. As with any health problem, an accurate diagnosis is crucial. So knowing what ails the church is the quickest path to finding a cure.

When my husband guides pastors and other church leaders through a process meant to revive their congregations, he often reads aloud a list of relational commands: “Love one another. Pray for one another. Serve one another. Accept one another.”

Once, as he finished reading the list, someone excitedly asked, “Where does that come from?” Ray replied, “The Bible.”

There are more than fifty “one another commands” in the New Testament. They give us a window into the kind of Christian community God has planned and desires for us. They offer us a plan to care for the heart of our churches, tools to self-diagnose and effectively correct our relational infirmities. By meditating on the “one another commands,” we gain insight into the root of the struggles in many of our churches. We also find the cure.

Following these commands is not optional. If we neglect our heart, the cost will be much too high.


Heart and Home

When I was a little girl, we often took weekend drives in rural Ohio and West Virginia. On winding roads, we sped by small country homes. Some were perfectly maintained, with nicely groomed lawns and colorful flower beds. Others were broken down, with peeling paint and yards full of rusty car frames. Every house was quaint in its own way, but what attracted me most was the thought of the families behind those walls.

Did children live there? Did Mom laugh at their knock-knock jokes as she cooked at the stove? When Dad came home, did the children rush to greet him? Were there grandparents who played games and sang songs? I had an idealized view of home as a place of acceptance, belonging, and affection. That childhood view still tugs at my heart today.

Now imagine someone considering a church home. When they drive by our churches, are they wondering, “What programs do they have? What is their style of worship? Is their building new and up-to-date in decor?” Some people might be thinking that. But I imagine many will have questions similar to the ones I had as a child, sitting in the back of our family’s Chevrolet: Who are these people? If I visited this church, how would they treat me? Would the congregation accept me? Welcome me? Would fellow believers help me bear the struggles of life and encourage me when I am down? When I fail, will they love me, forgive me, and help me recover? Could we share a meal, a laugh, and life together? Can I trust them enough to confide my deepest sorrows? Would their love give me a glimpse of God? Would these Christians care for my heart? Would I truly belong and feel at home?

Let’s begin a journey, of understanding what it means for our churches to love one another, forgive one another, bear one another’s burdens, encourage one another, and pray for one another. Let’s see how the church should (and can) be a place of hope and healing, love and laughter, empathy and encouragement—a place where you can make yourself at home.

So we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

Romans 12:5 ESV


WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT BUILDING LOVING RELATIONSHIPS IN YOUR CHURCH? Make Yourself at Home: Discovering the Heart of the Church by Ray and Kay Swatkowski will help the reader understand the Biblical commands that foster meaningful Christian community. 

Released September 2016 by Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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