High on the 1980s list of important books ranked a volume entitled Megatrends by futurist and social analyst John Nesbitt. In this work Nesbitt sketched the future society he anticipated, the society which even now is engulfing the present from the future. The author documented 10 “macro-changes” developing in Western society, and these he termed “megatrends.”
Of the 10, one looms most crucial to the church of Jesus Christ — namely, the transition from what Nesbitt called “forced technology” to a society characterized by a balance between “high tech” and “high touch.” According to the futurist, each technological advance of the last few years has triggered in the hearts of people a desire for the corresponding change toward high touch. In his words, “The more high technology around us, the more the need for human touch.”
But where can be found that high touch which people so desperately crave? Regardless of their affiliation, many people look to the church as the one place in the society where high touch ought to reign. As a result, many come to the church expecting not technology but touch — the touch of another human being and the touch of God. Unfortunately, the high-touch component, which ought to characterize the church, can so easily be lost in “ecclesiastical high technology,” as the church seeks to imitate the latest developments of the modern world. With the contemporary emphasis on the superchurch and the electronic church, in order to compete with the secular media, congregations often become caught up in a bigger-and-better program which might be labeled “church technology.” As the focus shifts to programming and tasks, to goals and innovations, the high-touch component so necessary to the church can be displaced, and programming can usurp the place of love in the body of Christ.
In a devotional reading in Our Daily Bread, M. R. DeHaan II employs an appropriate analogy to characterize this tendency:
The South Pole could be called the healthiest place on the earth. There is no pollution, no dust and very few people. The air is fresh and clean. It is one of the few locations where man is not bombarded by germs. And since winds start at the South Pole and move northward, they tend to keep away any contaminants from that region. You would think people would be eager to live in such a germ-free environment. But they are not. Why? It is simply too cold. Some churches bear a striking resemblance to that kind of atmosphere. Although the truth of God is preached and error has no chance to survive, there is no corresponding obedience or love. The spiritual temperature is sub-zero. Unloved and untouched, many people leave the church.
A survey conducted several years ago among four denominations in southern California came to a similar conclusion. The assumption behind the poll was that people generally leave churches because of doctrinal disputes; but the survey proved this assumption false. Most people quit because “church people are cold and impersonal.” People expect to find high touch in the church. Unfortunately, they often discover the opposite: an abundance of high tech but little of the touch they crave.
This situation is not unique to our day. The church of Corinth in the first century was likewise a high-tech church. Its members emphasized programs, specifically the flashy “evidences” of the presence of the Holy Spirit. These believers sought diligently to discover and to display their spiritual gifts.
In their emphasis on high tech they lost the high-touch component. As a result the Corinthian church was wracked by divisions; its membership was polarized into factions; tensions, feuding, and strife ran rampant in the church. Paul’s desire to combat these problems issued forth in the poetic words of 1 Corinthians 13. Through this beautiful hymn to love he declares to the Corinthians an important truth: in the church of Jesus Christ love must be central. In these verses Paul explains that love must be central for three important reasons.
I. Love must be central in the church because it is indispensable.
Paul writes:
If I speak in the tongue of men and angels but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames but have not love, I gain nothing.
Here Paul vividly describes the indispensability of love in the church of Jesus Christ. He declares it is love that gives value to the use of spiritual gifts: “If I speak without love I am an empty noise.” His meaning is clear. I may have the gift of tongues or be an eloquent speaker but if I lack love then all of my speaking is but noise — “a clanging cymbal,” to use Paul’s metaphor. “Clanging” originally meant “to sound the war cry” but later referred to any loud, harsh sound. If not seasoned by love, the apostle asserts, then all my words are but loud, harsh sounds, and my spiritual gifts are as nothing.
Or, I may have the gift of prophecy which, Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 14, is the highest gift. I may have insight into the mysteries of God and the truths which belong to God’s plan of salvation but are known only by supernatural revelation. I may know and be able to expound all these prophetic truths but if I do not have love, this gift is as nothing.
Or, I may have the gift of faith. In context, this faith means the kind of trust in God that accomplishes goals. This “mountain-moving” faith says to a problem, “Be gone!” and the problem is overcome. I may have that kind of faith but if I do not have love, I am nothing. Love gives value to the use of our gifts, talents, and abilities in the body of Christ.
Likewise, it is love which gives value to our acts of sacrifice, Paul declares. His meaning is clear. I might sell all I possess and give the proceeds to the poor, thereby fulfilling the command Jesus gave to the rich young ruler, but if in this great act of charity I am not motivated by love, I have accomplished nothing.
In fact, I may give my very life — be poured out as a drink offering on the altar, be sacrificed as a martyr for the cause of Christ — yet even that accomplishes nothing, Paul concludes, unless it is motivated by love. Love gives value to acts of sacrifice.
Why is love so indispensable? Why is love the quality that gives value to the use of gifts and to acts of sacrifice? The answer lies in the relationship between programs and ministry. The programs we design, the plans we develop, even the goals toward which we are oriented, do not in and of themselves constitute our ministry to the world as the people of God. On the contrary, programs, plans, goals, and activities are but ecclesiastical “high tech,” the means by which we can touch others with God’s love.
Thus it is the presence of love for God and others that transforms our programs, activities, plans, and goals into true ministry. Only love provides the high-touch component which alone can ultimately meet the needs of people around us.
When Ira Gillett, missionary to East Africa, returned home to report on his activities overseas, he related an interesting phenomenon. Repeatedly, Gillett had noticed how groups of Africans would walk past government hospitals and travel many extra miles to receive medical treatment at the mission compound. He finally asked a particular group why they walked the extra distance when the same treatments were available at the government clinics. The reply is instructive: “The medicines may be the same but the hands are different.”
This is the essence of Christian ministry: the hands are different. The high-touch component, love, transforms a program into a ministry for the cause of Christ. For this reason love must be central in the church of Jesus Christ. Love is indispensable.
II. Love must be central in the church because it is unmistakable.
This is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Even though love is undefinable, Paul maintains, it is unmistakable. No concrete definition can ever encapsulate exactly what love is. Nevertheless, the presence of love is unmistakable and its absence cannot be hidden.
Paul declares that love’s presence is unmistakable because it is revealed in attitudes and actions that flow out of it. And love’s absence cannot be hidden because this absence is betrayed by conduct and attitudes that love’s presence prevents.
Among these negative portrayals Paul lists jealousy, boastfulness, arrogance, improper conduct, self-centeredness, irritability, and vengefulness. What a contrast they form to the attitudes and characteristics that love portrays: patience, kindness, rejoicing with the truth, endurance in the face of frailties of others, a trust that looks for the best in others, hope. Because these positive traits are produced by love, love’s presence is unmistakable.
Love was unmistakably absent in the church in Corinth. High among the desires of these believers was the possession and display of spiritual gifts. Unfortunately, in exercising this desire they put love on the periphery and this resulted in the presence among them of unloving behavior. They became jealous, boastful, arrogant, self-centered, irritable, and vengeful. Finally the church was wracked by divisions and strife, as Paul declares in the opening chapters of the epistle.
The problem of Corinth has not faded away. On the contrary, the temptation arises today for churches to focus on the high-tech component –to elevate programs, plans, and goals to the center of their focus. But to do so runs the risk of losing the high-touch, love component which must be central in the church.
I recall a situation in a church I served. A woman, who was very gifted working with children, aspired to be a singer. After completing a few voice lessons she thought she was ready to exercise her musical talents. Although her solos were painful experiences for the congregation, she adamantly maintained she had the gift of blessing others through music. It was not long, however, before her focus on her “talent” engendered problems between her and the music committee. This woman had kept a running tally as to how many times she was asked to sing, and the times of other singers in the congregation. Her focus on “high tech” — on talents and gifts — caused an unmistakable loss of love in that body of Christ.
A well-educated atheist was incarcerated in a large prison. Despite repeated visits of the chaplain, no amount of argument or pleading could shake this man from his viewpoint. In spite of all attempts to get in touch with him, he remained hard and callous. One day, however, the breakthrough came. The chaplain made his normal rounds and again attempted to convert the atheist. But as he was speaking he noticed that the convict’s foot apparently had been injured and now seemed to be bandaged too tightly. The chaplain stopped speaking, bent over, unbound the bandage, then rewrapped the man’s foot in a more comfortable way. As he was doing this, he felt something wet on the back of his head — the tears of the hardened atheist. This one act of loving-kindness had accomplished what his many words could not; it had touched the criminal’s heart.
Love must be central in the church because love is unmistakable.
III. Love must be central in the church because it is ultimate.
This thesis underlies the remaining verses of the chapter:
Love never ends; as for prophecy, it will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Here Paul sketches the true value of love. Love is the highest value, he declares, and is to be valued even above spiritual gifts. Love must be valued above all of our abilities and above all we think we can do for the Lord.
Christians are confronted with a perennial temptation — namely, the tendency to employ a faulty standard of valuation. We all too readily develop a mistakenly high opinion of the gifts, abilities, programs, plans, and goals we set in the church. We tend to see these as ultimate in significance and as ends in themselves. As Christians we sometimes come to believe that the programs we set before ourselves must be accomplished for their own sakes.
Paul suggests, however, that these programs, gifts, activities, actions, and goals are actually only of relative, not ultimate, value. They are not ends in themselves but only means to a higher end, the goal of ministry to people around us. In fact, ministry to people in the name of Jesus is central to the mandate of the church. All church programs, activities, and actions are subservient to this ministry and ought to work toward that goal.
Even at their best, church programs and the exercise of spiritual gifts within the programs of the church are only interim means. They are to be used during the present period between the resurrection of Christ and His return. When Jesus comes back, this will all change. We will no longer minister with gifts, devise programs, or make plans for the on-going work of the church. All these will cease, for they will then belong to a past era.
Not so with love. Love will continue to be present throughout all eternity. Love, therefore, is ultimate and is to be valued above all our gifts, abilities, plans, goals, and programs. In fact, love even surpasses those two other eternal realities, faith and hope. Paul declares, “Now abide these three, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (KJV).
What is the basis of Paul’s conclusion? Why is it that love is of such surpassing value? Paul does not address this question; John provides the reason. “God is love,” John’s first epistle declares (1 John 4:8, 1 John 4:16). This means that God’s very nature is love. Self-giving, divine love was revealed when God gave Christ for us. John writes, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son” (John 3:16). Because God’s own nature is love, when we love we are reflecting the divine nature. When we love we are motivated by what motivates God. When we love we reflect the being of God and thereby truly are the image of God. As we love, we show to others who God is and what God is like.
Love is ultimate. Love lasts. Love continues. After all our programs, gifts, and plans have ceased to be operative, love will remain — even throughout all eternity.
No human being treated Abraham Lincoln with more contempt than did William Stanton, who called Lincoln a low cunning clown. Because of Lincoln’s physical features, Stanton nicknamed him the original gorilla, and joked that it was foolish for Europeans to go to Africa to try to cage a gorilla when they could simply go to Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois.
Despite Stanton’s ridicule, Lincoln said nothing. In fact, at the time of the Civil War, President Lincoln called Stanton to be his war minister, because he knew Stanton was the most qualified person for the task. Then the tragic night came when the assassin’s bullet struck Lincoln. In the little room where the president’s body had been taken stood Lincoln’s adversary, William Stanton. As he looked down at the silent face of the president, he declared with tears in his eyes, “There lies the greatest ruler of man the world has ever seen.”
Love is ultimate. Love stands firm and wins the victory in the end. Love, therefore, must be central in the church.
We are living in a high-tech society but, in spite of all our technological advances, people still seek high touch. They still crave the touch of a human being and ultimately the touch of God. This means that the church has a great and awesome responsibility: the mission of mediating the touch of God’s love to people living in a high-tech world. For this reason it is unfortunate whenever a church becomes caught up in the high tech of its own programs, innovations, traditions, activities, plans, and goals. All of these may be good in themselves but they can so easily displace the high-touch component essential to the mission of the people of God.
The solution to this problem is to retain love as the focus of the church’s identity and mission, to keep the high-touch component at the center of the life of the church. This is necessary because love is indispensable; it is love which changes programs into ministries. Love must be central because love is unmistakable; its presence reveals itself, and its absence cannot be hidden. And love must be kept central in the church because love is ultimate, for it characterizes the very heart of God.
This simple biblical truth is confirmed by modern psychology. The studies of psychiatrist James Lynch, for example, in his book The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness, indicate that single, widowed and divorced people are likelier prey to physical disease than are married people. The reason? Loneliness kills.
Lynch reports that the free-wheeling, singles-oriented state of Nevada has a higher rate of death from heart disease than does neighboring Utah, where the Mormon tradition of close family ties is present. Why? According to this secular psychiatrist, it lies in the reaffirming importance of the family and in the caring for friends and neighbors. In Lynch’s words, “There is a biological basis for our need to form human relationships. If we fail to fulfill that need, our health is in peril.” Or as W. H. Auden said, “We must love one another or die.”
People in our high-tech world are dying. Our task is to show them the path to life by extending to them the touch of the hand of the believing community, and to bring them into contact with the healing touch of God. Our calling is to be the high-touch church in a high-tech world.
What is the solution to this problem? According to Paul, Christians must forever focus on the love component, the high touch. As they do so, love’s unmistakable presence can shine forth in church.

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