I wonder how many times you have found yourself in discussion about the secret of the early church’s phenomenal success? The dramatic way in which what was perceived as little more than a Jewish sect completely turned the Roman Empire upside down in three hundred years is impressive by any standard.
There are all sorts of explanations for this incredible turnaround.
The miraculous witness of its apostles and evangelists. The love that was the hallmark of the Christian church. The holy boldness. The willingness to embrace martyrdom. The passionate love for Jesus.
All of these are undoubtedly key factors.
I want to suggest another factor that is related to the above, but deserves mention on its own: encouragement.
Encouragement is mentioned over thirty times in the New Testament. It is linked with another key concept: oikodomeo, the Greek word usually translated “building up”. When you combine the proliferation of these terms and concepts and their connection with the prophetic, you begin to realise that they reveal something very fundamental to the life of the early church: it was awash with encouragement.
A quick search on Bible Gateway or some such Bible search engine will demonstrate the viral nature of encouragement in the New Testament church and the value placed on it by the apostles.
Apart from recognising the value of encouragement in some sort of formal or academic way, how can we begin to develop an environment of encouragement in our own churches, small groups and families and friendship networks?
Firstly, we can strategise encouragement.
That might sound like a grand statement, or even a clinical statement. After all, encouragement is all about “heart” rather than strategic plans, is it not?
Well, consider these scriptures. In Ephesians 6.22 and in Colossians 4.8, Paul told the churches at Ephesus and Colosse that he was sending Tychicus to them for the purpose of encouraging them. Not to instruct them. Or counsel them. Or in a consultancy capacity. Important as all these were and are – and of course Tychicus might have ended up ministering in any or all of those ways – but his priority was encouragement.
Sometimes we, especially we who are leaders, need to think strategically about how we deliver encouragement to the people we serve.
Secondly, we can speak encouragement.
Paul says in Ephesians 4.29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up, according to their needs, that it might benefit those who listen.”
If we could all manage to go one full day every week when we speak only what builds people up, think of how we would change the worlds we live in!
Encouragement and building people up is accomplished by the words we speak. Of course the reverse is true as well, we can tear people down by the words we speak. The power of words. Keeping a rein on our tongues and using them to speak words of encouragement releases the kind of divine power that builds people’s lives in such a way that they glorify Christ.
Finally, we can stay connected to the Spirit.
The Spirit is the ultimate encourager. In John 14.16 and 16.7 Jesus refers to Him as the Paraclete. That Greek term is very hard to translate in a single English word, its meaning is so rich. Various translations offer counsellor, advocate, comforter and helper. Of course the Spirit is all of those – and more! Without trying to enter the debate, I simply want to point out that the word Paraclete is from the word translated encouragement elsewhere in the New Testament.
Acts 9.31 says “Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, [the church] increased in numbers.”
The Holy Spirit is the great encourager. The more we allow Him to fill our lives and His church, the more encouraged we will be. And perhaps the early church’s best kept secret will be secret no longer.