“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
There are only two ways of “doing church.” The first is to see it as a business, with deadlines, productivity graphs and poor quality biscuits. The second is to see it as a family.
Ultimately, you either think of projects or people.
If you think along the business track, then therte are lots of advantages.More gets done, and it gets done much more efficiently (by and large).
The family way is messy and slow. In fact, those two adjectives themselves would be considered either negative or positive, depending on how you understood “church.” To be messy or slow is liable to get you sacked from a business!
In a family, however, “messy” might just mean allowing space for creativity, or maximising the moment. And “slow” means more time to listen, and opportunity to develop relationship.
And where are you trying to get to anyway, if being slow getting there is somehow wrong?
There is no doubt where Paul stood on the matter. The verse above belongs squarely to an understanding of church as family life. We are here together to put heart into each other (that’s what “Encourage” means); to spur one another forward and make sure no one slips back. We work together.
My oldest son has had years of experience in corporate sales, and his stories of cuthroat competition form (or should form) the exact polar opposite to thinking of “church-as-family.” What have we to do with putting each other down in order to succeed ourselves?
Paul uses the term four times in the five chapters of 1 Thessalonians. He was clearly trying to buoy this young church up. They weren’t perfect. Chapter 4 suggests that some struggled with sexual impurity; and both 1 and 2 Thessalonians speak against laziness – believers who were so head-in-the-clouds absorbed in waiting for Jesus to return they didn’t want to do anything else much!
So the fact that the church wasn’t perfect and that it had issues makes it all the more instructive (and encouraging) to imperfect churches like ours and imperfect believers like us. But what does the Bible mean when it says we are to encourage one another? And how do we do it?
First, it doesn’t mean we flatter each other! John Maxwell used to say “Man does not live by bread alone. Sometimes he needs a little buttering-up.”
Well, I guess I know what he means, but there’s an unhealthy aspect here: Flattery is defined as excessive or insincere praise or saying nice things to people in order to get something from them. Tom Fuller said, “As a wolf is like a dog, so is a flatterer like a friend.”
It might look a bit like encouragement but it’s not! It mightrather indicate a desire to win someone’s approval or to make them like us, or even to manipulate them to do things we want them to do. Flattery is a wolf, not a friend. So encouraging one another doesn’t mean flattering one another.
Neither does it mean spouting platitudes (especially Biblical ones). This kind of stuff is big-business these days, but it doesn’t go very deep. Sometimes it’s just plain unhelpful. Telling someone who has cancer that “All things work together for good, you know,” is just plain crass and insensitive. Better silence anyday.
The words Paul uses for encouragement, parakaleo and paramutheomai, both have a sense of coming along side. That is to say: Encouragement isn’t distant, it’s close: it’s the voice that says, I relate, I understand, I’ve been there too. And, of course encouragement has different voices because what people will need to hear is different at different times.
But Biblical encouragement always points us to God. Where motivational posters point us to look within, to dig deep, find inner qualities of perseverance, determination, courage from within, biblical encouragement has a different focus: it comes alongside to call us to look to God, look to His promises, trust in His faithfulness. Because ultimately, both our strength to keep going, and our greatest encouragement, comes from God.
Here’s Paul again: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:5,6)
Encouragement belongs to the family way of doing church. One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone.The greatest joys in life are found not only in what we do and feel, but also in our quiet hopes and labors for others. For this is what God himsekf is like. He is “the God of encouragement,” -the perfect Dad. As John Ortberg said: “God is never a God of discouragement.” When you have a discouraging spirit or train of thought in your mind, you can be sure it is not from God. He sometimes allows pain in his children’s lives-conviction over sin, or repentance over fallenness, or challenges that scare us, or visions of his holiness that overwhelm us. But he never brings discouragement.
So today, Lord, let me be one who builds up, who comes longside, who strengthens and supports, who gives a word to the weary and confidence to the doubting. May I be a useful and productive family member that together we may with one voice glorify our wonderful Father.