A week ago, my wife and I took part in a church gathering that provided a wonderful opportunity for encouraging one another. Before anyone arrived, small rectangular blank slips had been placed on all the chairs. The pastor asked that we write our names, contact information, and prayer requests on our papers. Ushers then came by with bags to collect them. After switching stations, the ushers returned with the filled bags. Each of us now drew out a single piece of paper.
Since then, both my wife and I have exchanged a series of phone calls and emails with those whose prayer requests we received. Each of us is now in contact with someone in the congregation we had not met before. One request had to do with being an “encourager, helper, and cheerleader” for a spouse. All of us involved in this exchange have been greatly encouraged.
An Urgent and Never-Ending Need
Encouragement. Why do we Christians constantly need it? Because dead set against us is the relentless discourager. He tempts, then accuses us if we give in. He jams our paths with spiritual speed bumps, potholes, and detours. No wonder, then, that the Greek word for “encourage” shows up more than 100 times in the New Testament. Someone has called encouragement “oxygen for the soul.”
Countless people in our culture suffer from encouragement deficit. One blog title says, “Lack of Encouragement Nears Epidemic Levels.” Without encouragement, employees quit. Students drop out of school. Athletes give up. Even our biblical heroes of faith experienced extreme down times:
- Job: “I despise my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone; my days have no meaning.” (Job 7:16)
- Jonah: “It would be better for me to die than to live." (Jonah 4:8)
- Elijah: "I have had enough, Lord. . . Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors." (I Kings 19:4)
- David: “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.” (Psalm 73:2)
- Peter: “And he went outside and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:62)
- Paul: “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.” (II Corinthians 1:8)
Antidote for Spiritual Toxins
Four one another/each other passages in the New Testament specifically link one-anothering with mutual encouragement (1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11; Heb. 3:13; 10:25). Most versions translate the Greek word parakaleo as encourage. Others render it as comfort, exhort, or warn. In the verses just referenced, encouragement seems to be an antidote against:
- The damaging effects of grief and loss.
- The erosion of faith, hope, and love.
- A heart grown unyielding as a result of being deceived by sin.
- Swerving from the faith and turning away from God.
One-anothering is a major God-given channel for encouragement. Should we should encourage each other one-on-one and in small groups? Yes. But shared-church means we should also look for ways to do so when we gather with our congregations. Writing about a church-meeting context, Paul said, “For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged” (I Cor. 14:31). In church meetings, pastors can and should encourage. But encouragement is a whole-body ministry. We must never hand it off to the professionals on the platform.
Stories that Capture Attention
In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include an interview with Bob Maddox, one of the pastors at Grace Community Church in Gresham, OR. He explained why their church includes frequent one-anothering in their meetings:
“One of our pastors can get up and say, ‘We’re going to have Tom come up and illustrate this point.’ Suddenly, the mood in the entire auditorium changes. Everyone stops and leans forward, wanting to hear Tom’s story. In reality, the average person’s story grabs people. It is able to penetrate and cut through some of the hardness our culture has built into us. It also cuts through the ways we have conditioned ourselves not to listen when someone is preaching. We choose to have people from the body up front on a fairly regular basis, because they can say things we staff people cannot.”
Why can those in the congregation “say things we staff people cannot”? One reason: throughout the week they have slogged through faith-challenging crises as they worked and lived elbow-to-elbow with fellow employees and neighbors who are indifferent or hostile to the faith. What their stories may lack in polish they make up for in fresh-from-the-front-lines authenticity.
Encouraging All the More
Many of those present on a Sunday morning might not meaningfully cross paths with another Christian in the week to come. Pastors and church leaders would do well to stay awake at night thinking of ways to structure church meetings to make room for frequent encouragement. As forces in our culture chill relationships, the need for encouragement escalates.
Jesus warned that as the end approaches, lawlessness will cause the love of most people to “grow cold.” The Message paraphrases his words to say that, for many, “the overwhelming spread of evil will do them in—nothing left of their love but a mound of ashes” (Matthew 24:12). Paul cautioned Timothy about the “terrible times in the last days” (II Timothy 3:1).
A God-given defense? The writer of Hebrews calls for one-anothering encouragement to take place in our meetings—“and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (10:25).