The pastor’s email was stunning.

“I have recently been sick and in the hospital. During the stay, I was notified via text that my services were no longer needed.”

While the pastor laid suffering in the hospital the church leadership council chose to pull the plug. And deliver the unexpected news via text message.

Cold? Callous? Yes. But, unfortunately, not uncommon. Church people–staff and members alike–seem drawn into petty conflicts that lead predictably into destruction. And this self-inflicted wounding is killing the church–from the inside out.

I recently asked a church secretary to describe the interactions she deals with during a typical week. “These people are constantly fighting,” she said. “Somebody is always mad at someone for something.”

“But this is a church,” I said. “How often do you hear people talking about God?”

She just laughed. “Never.”

It makes me sad. And it’s draining the church. It’s the chief cause people leave a church. Some never return–to any church.

Sometimes the ugliness starts at the top. Church staff engage in turf wars, passive-aggressiveness, insecurities, prideful positioning, controlling behaviors, and personnel buffoonery.

And sometimes it’s the members who lead the way in bickering, selfishness, and side-taking over staff members. In some churches it becomes a matter of team spirit. Members decide and declare whether they’re on the pro-minister team or the anti-minister team.

People take sides. People get hurt. And hurt people tend to hurt people. That’s the insidious nature of church infighting. It feeds on itself.

In some ways, this is nothing new. People in the church have fought among themselves since the earliest days. It did not go unnoticed among the Bible’s writers. In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul warned about the folly of going through the motions of church without the central acting out of love for another. No manner of eloquent speaking, accurate exegesis or service to the needy matters without love for another.

“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 MSG)

Jesus said outsiders will evaluate his people by the quality of their love for one another. So, if we want a strong church, a significant church, a growing church, then we must first focus inside–on loving one another.

Before we’re ready to preach to the world how to live, we must first show the world how we on the inside love one another. How we learn to get along. How we learn to disagree with decency and civility. How we learn to work out our differences. How we learn to deal directly and tactfully with one another. How we learn to forgive one another.

This inward emphasis deserves a month of Sundays. Until we clean up our house on the inside we’re not ready to invite guests from the outside.