Of all the ministries God has given us encouragement is closest to his heart. God is the great encourager. He gives hope to the dispirited, healing to the broken-hearted and joy to those who mourn. Encouraging one another is one of the most godly things we can ever do. And, what’s more, we are all called to do it.
“Home on the Range” is the official song of the American state of Kansas. Originally a poem, it was set to music and adopted by 19th Century settlers, cowboys and others seeking the American dream. The song begins:
Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
And the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day
The opening line was for them an idyllic vision of security and contentment. To us second-decade-twenty-first-century urban London dwellers, the song is beyond the idyllic, bordering on the ridiculous. For us, buffalos, antelopes and cloudless skies are rare sights indeed.
But we cannot afford to ignore the third line in the first verse. In fact, we must take it and make it the gold standard of all our communication. Imagine a church community where every person was strongly-motivated and highly-skilled at encouraging fellow followers of Christ. Just think what it would be like if we all put aside pointless criticism, negative talking and fruitless fault finding. Imagine a people who are passionate about lifting others up and directing them toward the One who is the fountain of all that is good and true. That is Jesus’ vision for his church. We are called to be competent encouragers of others.
All too often, the reality is very different. Hiding behind our layers of self-protection, we develop strategies to project an image of who we want others to believe we are. We hide what is really happening inside us because we are too fearful to let anyone know. We think we will be accused and judged. So we engage in superficial conversation and hope that we make it through.
True Christian fellowship involves something deeper, more meaningful and more helpful than that. It goes beyond the standard Sunday conversation, “Hi! How are you?”. “Fine thanks!” (I’m not fine really, but I would never let on to you. There’s no telling what you’ll do with that information). When we have been criticised, talked about behind our back, and been the subject of mindless, yet hurtful gossip, we wonder who we can trust. It is important that we abandon all negative, destructive communication and begin to act in line with our identity and calling in Christ – as fellow members of the body of Christ.
It is sometimes hard to connect with other Christians in any meaningful way. The Sunday church services line up like jets on the runway at Heathrow airport. People are landing and taking off every hour of Kensington Temple’s busy Sunday nine-hour-long service schedule. London’s population is transient. Most people we meet today will be somewhere else in three year’s time. We don’t know where to begin and are unsure how to develop the positive and Christ-enhancing relationships we long for.
Most people agree that we need relationships that are more personal and significant than average in order to express who we are and to discover a kindred spirit in others. We long to connect with our Christian friends so that together we can encourage each other in our spiritual quest to know God, to become like him and to experience his presence as a life style.
But we live in a brutally individualist society and our lives are fragmented. Our work life is unconnected to our social life, our social life is divorced from our church life and our family life is caught in the middle or virtually nonexistent. The price is isolation. We are busy people. Our days are filled with activities but we feel we are treading the hamster wheel of motion without meaning.
We look to the church for the answer and we have a right to find it among God’s people. The church is the only institution that has community at the heart of its mission and strategy. Our purpose is to grow followers of Christ by connecting to him and to each other. The development of meaningful relationships where every member belongs, connects and serves is central to what it means to be the church.
However, we often find the same superficiality in church relationships that exists outside the church. Church services become yet another occasion to focus on ourselves with the unspoken rules of the “me culture”: come when you like, leave when you like, interact only if you really want to and move on when you become dissatisfied.
Encouragement through small groups
Mere “Sunday Christianity” fails us. It is part of the culture of isolationism, not of Christ. It is simply not fit for the purpose Jesus intends. We cannot develop the meaningful relationships needed to grow as Christians in a crowded service once a week. We simply do not get the chance to connect with each other and encourage each other as we must.
The cell groups are an ideal way out of the cage our culture traps us in. While we love the celebration atmosphere of the large Sunday gatherings, we connect with each other outside the main services where we live most of our lives. Faith suddenly becomes relevant to our daily lives. We discover the meaning of true fellowship and the encouragement it brings. Cell group fellowship is the place for developing our ministry of encouragement. We learn how to love one another by building one another up by our words and actions. We meet to stir one another up to love and good deeds.
This way the “settlers dream” can become a reality. We find a community, a home, not on the “coyboy’s range” full of buffalo or antelope, but in the heart of London, whether the skies are cloudy or not, because we have built an environment of encouragement where we can all grow and flourish for God.