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His church was growing. The attendance, the finances, and the ministries were at an all-time high.
I called to learn the pastor’s secret. He told me that several months ago he was depressed and discouraged. In fact, he was ready to throw in the towel and quit. But, he said, “A thought occurred to me. If I feel this way then maybe my congregation feels likewise. Instead of scolding I began encouraging. I think I found the secret of a growing healthy church — encouragement.”
This pastor knew what we know, too. Christians are not immune from the demands, pressures, and crises of life. Life unfolds adversity, suffering, and sadness that accompanies triumph, victory, and joy. On any Sunday a pastor sees multitudes of hurting people. How is the pastor to respond? The preaching of the pastor needs to reflect a prevailing attitude of encouragement.
A Definition of Encouragement
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines encourage as “to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope … cheer on or up.”1 Lawrence Crabb, in his book Encouragement, gives a simple definition: “Encouragement is the kind of expression that helps someone want to be a better Christian, even when life is rough.”2
Encouraging preaching is proclamation that inspires people — hurting or otherwise — to courage in the face of difficulties, to hope in the face of despair, and to obedience as a follower of Jesus Christ. The heart of encouraging preaching is announcing good news. The good news of hope, courage, spirit, and cheer originates in the person of Jesus Christ.
Hebrews 3:13 instructs us to encourage one another. Here, the Greek work for encouragement means literally “to stir up, to provoke, to incite people in a given direction.”
Verbal encouragement embodies the idea of one person accompanying another on a journey. The companion speaks words that encourage the traveler to keep pressing on despite obstacles and fatigue. Preaching to encourage is sharing comforting words, words of life, that soothe. It re-routes a life from a bad direction to a good one.
A Biblical Basis for Encouragement
The mandate for encouragement is recorded throughout scripture. People have always cherished the Psalms and Proverbs for their inspiring words. The prophets have proffered words of solace to their constituents. The task of encouraging preaching is expressed eloquently in Isaiah’s charge: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem” (Isa. 40:1-2a). Effective preaching penetrates the deepest levels of fear and anxiety to speak words of comfort.
The finest examples of encouragement come from the ministry of Jesus. Jesus used life situations to encourage. Commonplace situations were filled with meaning. People experienced encouragement. They felt their burdens lifted. They knew a closeness to God that gave their lives new value. They gained courage to face their weaknesses.
Guidelines for encouragement are garnered from Jesus’ example. The recognition of problems and the possibility of solution was stressed. There was understanding of the cause-effect relationship in living. The emphasis, therefore, was on helping the individual to face the future, rather than condemning past behavior.
A realization of the power of guilt over the individual and the need for cleansing through forgiveness was also apparent. Furthermore, Jesus exhorted people to a new lifestyle. At the heart of His preaching was a concern, a caring, and a compassion that made the individual feel Jesus was a friend to be trusted and followed.
While his story is briefly told in Acts, Barnabas, whose name means “Son of Encouragement,” presents a vivid profile of an encourager.
The Preaching of Encouragement
How is encouraging preaching to be performed? What does the pastor proclaim? Just as important, what shall the pastor refrain from saying?
A sermon can injure as well as heal. Sermons may set false goals, stimulate unhealthy resentments, promise a security that is unreal. Sermons can encourage a submissiveness, on the one hand, or aggressiveness, on the other, that could easily lead to more anxiety.
The sermon may be guilt-inducing or impose rigid standards that are not congruent with the gospel. Sometimes, the sermon is based on the assumption of feelings that are non-existent to the congregation. Often, these feelings are the pastor’s and may be alien to laypersons.
So what is the pastor to communicate? Above all the pastor must express compassion. The minister must not stand “up there,” far away or secretly hidden, but in the midst of the people, with utmost visibility. Compassion is the heart and even the nature of authority. For the compassionate individual nothing human is alien — no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying.3
The compassionate preacher encourages by pulling the discouraged out of their despondency, showing them that somebody cares. He affirms persons by helping them to realize their value and significance.
The pastor assures people they are not alone in their difficulties and troubles. The pastor communicates that here is a fellow struggler.
Encouraging preaching helps people see the constructive possibilities in every experience. Life is not wasted when we experience difficulties. Doubts often lead to a stronger faith. Anxiety blossoms into a more obedient life. We learn from sin a deeper understanding of God’s love and grace.
Encouraging preaching gives the assurance of a Power and a Presence always available. Our relationship with Christ provides the resource that brings healing and comfort to troubled lives.
The People and Encouragement
People are bombarded with manifold pressures daily. Encouragement is needed to ease life’s pressures. Some of the difficulties we need to address in our preaching are as follows:
Stress. The feeling of being a bit out of balance is stress. Some medical researchers claim seventy percent of illness is stress induced.
Preaching needs to reflect the awareness that people’s lives are filled with stress-related concerns. Encouraging preaching shows the value of Sabbath rest, proper priorities, relationships, balance in life, solitude, and a growing faith in Christ.
Depression. The feeling of being overwhelmed or in a hopeless situation which may lead to the desire to give up is depression. It results in feelings of worthlessness, of pessimism about the future, and of intense sadness.
Preaching to depressed individuals may take various avenues. The principles Elijah received in his depression (1 Kings 19) offer excellent remedies: “Get up” — physical refreshment; “Look up” — spiritual refreshment; “Link up” — emotional refreshment (see sermon, p. 27).
Anxiety. It has been called the official emotion of our age, and the basis for all neuroses. Anxiety embodies fear, worry, and all those emotions that seem to gnaw at people’s energies. It destroys good feelings.
One prescription for anxiety would be: 1) discern God’s presence (Josh. 1:9); 2) discover God’s promises (Prov. 3:5-6; Isa. 26:3-4); deliver specific prayers (Phil. 4:6-7); develop enduring patience (Isa. 40:31).
Loneliness. Several psychiatrists have estimated that between seventy and ninety percent of Americans are chronically lonely. Lonely people lose a sense of belonging. The loss may be caused by social separation, or emotional isolation, or spiritual dryness.
Preaching to loneliness must contain understanding and sympathy. Feelings of loneliness will not go away by merely being told to do so. Paul’s course of action in I Timothy 4 provides cures for loneliness: Companionship, Bodily comfort, Books, and the Scriptures.
At the heart of life’s pressures is the worth and meaning of the individual, or the individual’s self-esteem. The core of our preaching must express the value of person. Each person we address is significant in the kingdom of God. Each person has gifts and abilities that are unique.
When many encounter the pressures of life their self-esteem is threatened. The preaching of encouraging pastors must reestablish the worth and significance of individuals.
This list of life’s pressures is by no means all inclusive. The point to remember is that all people face the pressures of life and have needs that must be met. For many people the reason they are at church is to obtain help in facing the pressures of life. The pastor’s purpose is helping to meet needs and to provide encouragement to troubled persons.
The Calendar and Encouragement
Encouragement should be a prevailing attitude in all of our preaching. Yet there are specific times in which preaching to encourage persons can and should be the dominant theme.
When should encouraging preaching be done? Sundays when life’s pressures are forefront in the congregation’s mind are excellent times. The responsibility and anxieties of parenthood can be addressed at an infant dedication service. The fear, yet challenge, of the future can be communicated in May to the high school and college graduates.
Early fall is a superb time to address the trauma of a new school and school year for both children and adults. In a transient area, the spring or summer would be an appropriate time to speak to the physical and emotional isolation of moving into a new community.
Preaching to encourage persons can be linked to the church calendar. Youth Sunday, Single Sunday, Grandparent’s Day, and other special days would be excellent opportunities for encouragement. A knowledge of when life’s pressures are greatest would be advantageous in encouraging people. For example, Christmas and holidays are times when people experience greater depression and loneliness.
Andrew Blackwood said that “in summer more than any other season good people suffer disorders of the soul.”4 Possibly, the summer months would be an appropriate time to have a series of sermons on encouragement.
True, encouraging preaching is a prevailing attitude, but its importance demands specific sermons on specific occasions to people who are hurting and discouraged. A knowledge of the needs of people and the events in life will enable the pastor to be more effective as an encouraging preacher.
1. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Springfield: G. & C. Merriam, 1949), p. 271.
2. Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr. and Dan B. Allender, Encouragement (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 10.
3. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (Garden City: Image Books, 1972), p. 40.
4. Andrew W. Blackwood, Planning A Year’s Pulpit Work (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), p. 187.