Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A guy in a suit and tie walks into a bar; everyone in the place turns toward the door and yells, “Norm!”
Okay, I admit it’s not much of a punch line, but perhaps it still elicits the emotions I’m going for here. The 1980s sitcom Cheers had it right. I might be dating myself, but I’m guessing that even if you’ve never seen a full episode, you could sing the opening theme song with me. You know, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”? (And now it’s stuck in your head, so you’re welcome.) Why was that Boston bar so popular? People returned, not for the delicious craft beer Sam and Woody were slinging but because they were welcomed in, known by name, and loved.
The church in Ephesus should have watched Cheers more often, because God called them out and chastised them for being a bit … unloving. In Revelation 2:4, after spending a couple of verses encouraging that church in the things they were doing well, God says, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.” Meaning, if Norm had walked in their doors on a Sunday morning, they might not have known his name or saved him a smile and a seat. They might not have looked his way at all, and he might not have stayed for the service. Perhaps he would have left that church a bad Yelp review on his way home.
Names are important. Why? Well, because knowing and loving people is important, and that starts with something as simple as learning a name. Have you ever met someone, made introductions, but then immediately forgot his name? And then later you meet again, feel bad because you forgot the guy’s name, but you don’t want to ask … so you don’t … and then all of a sudden a few weeks pass; now you definitely can’t ask his name because that would be embarrassing. How close do you think you’ll be to really knowing that person ever? If you don’t even know his name, how many other things will you get to know about him, and how deep can that relationship ever get?
My husband and I own a brewery/restaurant/coffee shop, and we have a lot of “regulars.” I learned very quickly the importance of knowing someone’s name (and I’ve had a few of the aforementioned awkward situations of forgetting as soon as they’ve told me, so I’ve gotten better at just asking again). As soon as I introduce myself and learn their names, there is an immediate breakthrough into a new and deeper realm of knowledge about them. But it starts with a name. Our regulars love to be called by name when they come into our place. It is a sign that they are known and welcome. And it has led us to know many more things about them.
So what does this have to do with our churches? Well, let’s look at Ephesus again. The church there was preaching the truth about Jesus, and it was commended for that (Revelation 2:2,3). We too need to hold to God’s truths; that is an extremely important foundation. But let’s not forget the loving part. Learning people’s names leads to getting to know them deeper. Which leads to knowing their strengths and blind spots and being real with each other. Which leads to praying for each other by name and building each other up and sometimes calling one another out. Love from God’s people leads people to know and love God.
I love the following quote from pastor/author Timothy Keller from his book The Meaning of Marriage:
To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.
Our churches can all use improvement. People are not perfect, and we don’t love one another perfectly. But at the very least we can try to emulate and point people to the One who does. Jesus.
We are loved and known and named by God. He says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). He says, “I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:15,16). Engraved. Not penciled in. He knows your name and mine. We are his. When we enter the kingdom of heaven, the heads will turn and people will yell out, “Norm!” or “Maria!” or “Alex!” He’s saving us a seat.