For I want you to know how greatly I strive for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ, in Whom are hid all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge.
Saint Paul framed his words in I Thessalonians 5: 11-24 around general Christian encouragement. In verses 25-28, he connects encouragement with the life of the Church. In verse 25, he asked the faithful to “pray for us” and we discussed intercessory prayer, praying for others, and praying with others. We concluded with the idea that everyone is worthy of encouragement.
Verse 26 brings our thoughts to the spiritual intimacy that a church community is supposed to have. This study on encouragement has focused a lot on feeling encouraged and giving encouragement in everyday life. This section will focus on encouragement as it relates to the church. Our connection to the church is supposed to be part of our everyday life as well.
Greeting one another with a hug is a cultural norm in social situations. In some cultures, the greeting is done with a kiss. For instance, in the Greek culture, people exchange a kiss on both cheeks, while in the Arabic culture, three kisses are given. In a business context, a handshake is used. In other countries people might bow to one another. When one goes to eat at a restaurant, the restaurant staff will not hug you or shake your hand but there will be a verbal welcome. The point is that being greeted denotes a sense that one belongs. Imagine if you go somewhere and no one notices you, no one greets you, no one welcomes you. You would feel like you don’t belong.
The question we are reflecting on today is this—are our churches places of encouragement or discouragement, places where people are welcomed or made to feel that they don’t belong? One of the significant aspects of encouragement is not only helping others feel confident in themselves but assuring them that they belong and are wanted. We’ve probably all had the experience of going somewhere and not being noticed. It leaves one feeling like they are invisible and unimportant. And this might be the norm at a large store or a sports stadium. However, it can’t be the norm when it comes to church communities.
We don’t think of shoppers at a supermarket as being “close-knit.” Maybe the employees are but the customers are not. They are a large group of individuals who share the same space and purchase the same food but do not converse. They do their business and leave. Saint Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, encourages members of church communities to be close to one another, “that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love.” (Colossians 2:2) It is only when they are knit together in love that they can come together to “have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ.” (2:3) When a church community is not knit together, when it resembles a supermarket rather than a family, people will loosely come and go and will never find “the treasure of wisdom and knowledge” of Christ that comes only when one has a deep-seeded understanding of Christ, rather than a superficial one.
Intimacy with Christ is certainly helped by intimacy in a church community.
Which then leads to the question, can one be a Christian and not be connected to a church community? In today’s world, we have many people who identify as “spiritual, but not religious,” in other words they seek to find God (or their “higher power”) on their own, outside of the confines of a community.
That doesn’t really work, and here’s why. If a person has no contact with anyone regarding their Christian journey, how can they know they are on the right track, or believing the right things? Where does a person who has no community go when they are feeling discouraged in their faith or have a setback in their faith? Who will notice if a person is falling away from the faith if they are not part of a community? And obviously there is the connection to a church community that provides opportunities for worship, learning, fellowship, and service.
There is so much discouragement already in the world today that if a church is a source of discouragement, people will be turned off from that church, and from the idea of belonging to a church community in general. This is why our churches need to not only be places of worship and learning, but they need to be environments of encouragement, because encouragement is an attraction while discouragement is a turn-off.
If you are part of a church community, ask yourself, if my church a place of encouragement or discouragement, and what am I doing/what can I do to bring more encouragement into the community? We know that from the two-thousand-year history of the Christian church, the church community is a foundational unit. We also know that creating an encouraging environment is foundational to any social unit—family, workplace, friendships, etc. Thus, as we build church communities to spread the message of Christ, we must be cognizant of making them environments which are encouraging.
Lord, thank You for sustaining the Church for the past two thousand years. Thank You for those who have served as encouragers in communities, who have served to draw people to You. Help my church community to be a place of encouragement, which draws people to know and to serve You. Help me to be an encourager in the context of my community. May I serve You and through me, may others be drawn to You. Help Your light to shine through me, so that others may come to know and love You. Amen.
Do your part to create/maintain an encouraging environment in your church community!