I’m beginning a two-month Sabbatical, called an Inter-Mission, this week coming, so today at worship, I preached a message from Romans 12.6-13 that encouraged the congregation to stay the course, and how to do that. Have a look! The message itself starts at 31:40.
I have spent part of this week with a group of students from Presbyterian seminaries in Canada. They are required to attend what’s called a Guidance Conference at some point in their theological education in order to be assessed in terms of their understanding of their faith journey, call to ministry and gifting.
It was 25 years ago now that I went through one of these conferences as a candidate for ministry, and I remember how nerve-wracking and grueling it was to be watchedat all times, so I’ve done my best when participating in these conferences to be friendly and not to appear like Big Brother.
What these conferences remind me of, writ large, is that the Christian life is not just about being informed. It’s also about being formed.
It’s possible to shovel all manner of knowledge into people’s minds, and it may make them smart, but unchanged. There must be an aspect of formation, whether in theological education for pastors or ongoing discipleship for congregants. After all, you could get an axe murderer to memorize the Psalms and the Westminster Confession of Faith and that person, without the involvement of the Holy Spirit, would still be an axe murderer.
The Bible tells us, “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12.2, NLT).
It is God who does the transforming, not us. We do well to position ourselves for transformation, but the work of transforming belongs to God.
When God works to transform us, it changes our way of thinking, and therefore our way of living. Faith not just about knowledge, but about character development.
We don’t send congregants to things like Guidance Conferences, but there are all kinds of opportunities that exist for God’s people to develop their character in the Lord: conferences, podcasts, videos, online sources like RightNowMedia, as well as small groups and Bible studies at church, along with regular participation in worship.
September starts tomorrow. It’s a time for fresh starts. Why not determine that you will make time to prioritize your spiritual formation this fall?
In some cultures, I’ve learned that when an individual is celebrating a milestone of some sort, the individual gives gifts to those who have helped him or her to achieve the milestone, rather than the common North American tradition of others bringing gifts to the individual. I’ve come to appreciate that.
This year, our church decided to try that approach. We are celebrating our 60th anniversary of ministry and service to our community, so last Wednesday evening, we borrowed an idea from a friend of mine, and hired an ice cream truck to roam the streets of town for an evening. We stopped at a seniors’ residence, a soccer pitch, and a community park – and for any passersby as we journeyed along. People were expecting to have to pay for the ice cream.
But they didn’t. We did.
Why? We did it to invite our community to celebrate with us, and to get the word out that serving Jesus and having fun can be compatible.
We weren’t preaching to anyone. We told them St. Paul’s was celebrating its 60th anniversary by giving away ice cream cones. The driver/server of the ice cream truck was so thrilled at what we were doing that he told everybody he gave a cone to where the church is and what time worship begins!
Will this result in higher attendance? Possibly, but not likely. That’s not really why we did it. But if our act of kindness to our community planted a seed or two, it will have been successful. You never know what opportunities may come about down the road because we offered an ice cream cone on a warm evening, in Jesus’ name.
“Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically” (Romans 12.11, NLT).
Some folks just have a perfect, God-ordained sense of timing. Have you ever received a card or a phone call or a hug at just the right time? I can’t count the number of times this has happened to me over the course of my life and ministry. Even this week, after a particularly distressing few moments that had a more profound impact on my psyche than they should have, the Lord used two friends to encourage me: one with an “out of the blue” phone call that communicated just the right words, and another with a card that said exactly what I needed to read.
There is great power in the use of the spiritual gift of encouragement. Nobody gets too much encouragement, right? The Bible mentions this gift in Romans 12: “In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well….If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging” (vv. 6 & 8, NLT). People who have this gift find it very easy to seek out the positive and reinforce it. And they are responsive to God’s little nudges, and his overall sense of timing.
George Barna recently reported that more American Christians report having the spiritual gift of encouragement, which – if they use it – should be really good news for churches. Hopefully, this is true for Canadian Christians, too! Encouragement, as I see it, is the fuel for ministry.
Is your church running on empty? Suggest to your church leadership that they engage in a survey of the congregation’s spiritual gifts (I can help you with that, by the way…). A spiritual gift discovery is often a real revelation for people, as they learn what God has equipped them to do in the life of the church. You can be sure that at least one person in your fellowship has been gifted with encouragement. Once you know who that person is (or who those people are), draw them into a nurturing of their gift. Help them understand that their encouragement will strengthen the leaders of the church, and will bring a positive spirit to the life of the congregation. Never underestimate the value of encouragement.
Just ask me. I know.
This edition of Encouragement From The Word was first published on February 13, 2009.