We're coming to the end of a series called "Get Connected." In today's wired world, everyone is getting connected. They have email addresses, pager numbers, cell numbers, and work numbers. But no matter how connected we're getting technologically, we're getting less and less connected to the people around us.
You weren't made to live that way. The Bible says in Genesis 2:18, "It is not good for man to be alone." You were made for relationships. You were made for connections. There is a universal need to belong. From the moment we're born, we long for the warmth of loving other people. There's a desire to belong and to be accepted by other people. There's a need to connect at the deepest level. The Bible has a word for that: it's called fellowship.
Fellowship is extremely important for one reason: we get discouraged. Life has a way of wearing us down. Proverbs 17:22 says, "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person's strength." There are going to be times that we have a broken spirit. There are going to be times where we just don't have much strength. With the crowd that we have out today, it's possible that some of you are in that condition. You're discouraged, and you could barely find the strength to drag yourselves here this morning.
Now, when we get discouraged, what do we do? We complain. We feel sorry for ourselves. We get bitter. But I'm finding that a lot of us also isolate ourselves. The very time that we need other people is the time that we run away. Sometimes we're so discouraged that we stop going to church. It's ironic that we do this, because times of discouragement are the times that we most need to be at church. Isolation isn't the answer.
There's a book in the Bible that has a lot to say about encouragement. It's the book of Hebrews. This book was written to Jewish Christians who were probably undergoing fierce persecution. It appears that many of them were ready to give up the struggle, and to go back to their old way of life. It was a group of people who were struggling with discouragement.
This morning, there is somebody sitting near you who probably needs encouragement. People are hurting more deeply than we know. Now, we are different from any other organization of people. You can have clubs or organizations. You can have labor unions or guilds. You can be friends in the workplace. But the church is different. Any group of compatible people can enjoy themselves, but only followers of Jesus Christ can know that when they spend time together, they can have an eternally significant impact on one another. The Bible says that true fellowship has the power to revolutionize a life. True community is when the "masks come off, conversations get deep, hearts get vulnerable, lives are shared, accountability is invited, and tenderness flows."
Why do you need to encourage? Three reasons.
1. BECAUSE IT'S COMMANDED
You need to encourage others simply because it's a command. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 says, "So encourage one another and build each other up, just as you are already doing." Hebrews 10:24 tells us, "Think of ways to encourage one another." You need to encourage because it's commanded.
Last week someone showed me a fake driver's license along with a real one. I looked at the two and couldn't tell the difference. They looked completely the same, right down to the hologram. How can you tell whether something is genuine or not? Jesus told us in John 13:35, "Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples." Jesus has loved us without reservation and without limit. The way that we can show we're followers of Jesus Christ is to do the same with one another. That's what shows the world that we're the real deal.
A lot of people don't understand what Christianity is about. Christianity is about relationships - relationships with God, and relationships with other people. It's not about rules. It's not about knowledge. It's about relationships. Jesus said, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matthew 22:37-39). That's what Christianity is about. It's about relationships.
The best thing you could do this morning is to get in a right relationship with God. You don't have to earn it. All you have to do is to accept the gift of this relationship through Jesus Christ. The Bible says, "For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people's sins against them. This is the wonderful message he has given us to tell others" (2 Corinthians 5:19). You need this right relationship with God. Once you've done this, you're commanded to love one another.
Encouragement is an expression of that love. Why should we encourage one another? Because it's the clear command of Scripture. There's another reason why we need to encourage one another:
2. BECAUSE IT'S NEEDED
Once in a while I'll sit in my office after meeting with people, almost stunned by the amount of hurt that people carry around silently. More than once I've met with people and been humbled by the weight that they're carrying and how well they're carrying it. All around us this morning are people who are being crushed by life. Their marriages are falling apart. Their finances are a mess. They're worried for their jobs. They're worried about their kids. They have regrets - huge regrets - from the past. Their health isn't what it used to be. Job 5:7 says, "People are born for trouble as predictably as sparks fly upward from a fire." Life has a way of wearing you down.
When the letter to the Hebrews was written, as I mentioned, things were tough. It looks like some people were ready to pack it in and give up spiritually. The circumstances of life had got them down. It's the same today. Every week there are a few people teetering on the edge. They don't know whether or not they're going to continue. They're not sure if they're going to make it spiritually or not. They don't know if other people care. We need to encourage them because it's needed.
There's one more reason why we need to encourage others:
3. BECAUSE SO MUCH IS AT STAKE
One of my heroes is William Wilberforce, the man who pushed Britain's Parliament to abolish slavery. Discouraged, he was about to give up. His elderly friend, John Wesley, heard of it and from his deathbed called for pen and paper.
With trembling hand, Wesley wrote: "Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God?"
"Oh be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery shall vanish away before it."
Wesley died six days later. But Wilberforce fought for forty-five more years and in 1833, three days before his own death, saw slavery abolished in Britain. Who knows what would have happened of John Wesley hadn't encouraged him?
Encouragement is important because so much is at stake. Hebrews 10:25 says, "And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming back again is drawing near."
Jesus is coming back very soon. We need encouragement if we're going to be able to stand before him without regrets. Eternity is at stake. The influence we can have on others is at stake. That's why we need to encourage others. Because it's a command. Because it's needed. And because so much is at stake.
At this point, you're probably thinking that you agree that we need to be encouragers. The question is, how? The answer is this: by selecting words that will influence others meaningfully toward increased godliness. It's all in the selection of words that are genuine and meaningful. Proverbs 25:23 says, "How delightful is a timely word."
Bu t how do we do this? The Bible gives us three principles on how to encourage effectively:
1. CULTIVATE RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHER BELIEVERS
Listen to Hebrews 10:25: "Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming back again is drawing near."
If you study what the Bible says about the church, there are some things the church can do well from a distance. This morning you could turn on the television and hear some of the highest quality sermons preached from Dallas, Atlanta, or even Toronto. You could hear some of the most inspiring worship. If church was just about preaching and music - the service - you could stay home and watch television.
But that's not what church is about. God gave a mandate to a church that goes far beyond the preaching and the music - as important as that is. It's called community - the idea of fellowship. It's to love and be loved. It's to know and be known. It's to serve and be served. It's to celebrate and be celebrated.
You can't do that at home watching television. You can't do that even coming to church and leaving immediately after the service. It's done in community.
Over a dozen times, the New Testament uses the phrase "one another." Love one another. Forgive one another. Serve one another. The only way that you can effectively encourage is if you commit yourself to being part of a church family - not just for the sermons or the music, but to live in relationship. You need the support of other believers.
Howard Hendricks says, "You can impress people at a distance; you can only impact them up close. The general principle is this: the closer the personal relationship, the greater the potential for impact."
Now listen: some of you have been coming out for a long time, but you've never taken that step of committing to relationships with other believers. You're not part of a small group. You may come to this church one week, but you'll go to another church another week. Or you'll miss church altogether. The time is going to come when you need a church family. Before that time comes, you need to build relationships with other believers. The time to do that is now. Commit yourself to relationships with other believers.
2. CREATIVELY EXPRESS ENCOURAGEMENT
Should you encourage? Absolutely. But how? By giving thought to the most effective method. Hebrews 10:24 says, "Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds." It takes thought. The way that you encourage one person might not be effective with another. You need to be creative in how you encourage.
The word for encourage here is interesting. It's a word that usually has a negative connotation. It means to irritate or incite. It's a word that has the connotation or prodding and poking. It's a little like the company that introduced a new pension plan, that called for a small employee contribution. One hundred percent employee participation was needed; otherwise the plan was off. Only one employee refused to sign up. His name was Sam. His fellow workers pleaded and cajoled, but to no avail. Finally, the company president called Sam into his office. "Sam," he said, "Here's a copy of the new pension plan and here's a pen. I want you to sign the papers. I'm sorry, but if you don't sign, you're fired. As of right now." Sam signed the papers immediately.
"Now," said the president, "would you mind telling me why you couldn't have signed earlier?" "Well, sir," replied Sam, "nobody explained it to me quite so clearly before."
That's basically the idea of the word encourage here. In a positive way, we are to incite others to outbursts of love and good deeds. Use your creativity.
With some of you, encouragement just happens. I'll tell you why. It's because you have been given the spiritual gift of encouragement. Some of you have been saying, "I don't have a gift," when all along, God has given you the gift of encouraging others. You derive joy from it. You almost can't help yourself. You've got to encourage other people. Romans 12:8 has a message for you: "If your gift is to encourage others, do it!" Use your spiritual gift of encouragement. You have a vital ministry that is needed here by all of us.
But for the rest of us, encouragement won't happen unless we plan ahead. So if you're not gifted in this area, let me give you some ideas on how you can encourage other people.
What are some creative ways that we can encourage others? I don't know what your mailbox is like when you go home, but mine is stuffed full with magazines, bills, and junk mail. When I see a handwritten note, I'm surprised. One of the most effective ways of encouragement can be to simply drop someone a short note telling them that you're thinking of them.
I'm one of these people who has a love-hate relationship with the phone. I can't decide whether to pick it up or throw it through the window. But what would happen if you and I picked up the phone to say, "I can't talk, but God just put you on my mind. I wanted you to know that you're in my prayers." Use your creativity to encourage others using the phone.
Some of you who have been bereaved know how tough anniversaries of that bereavement can be. Use your creativity to encourage someone on the anniversary date that they lost a loved one.
Sometimes the best way to encourage isn't through words at all. It's through listening. It's by trying to understand the other person. Understanding is better than advice.
There are countless ways to encourage. The Bible says, "Think of ways to encourage one another." You need to put some thought into it - to use some creativity. That's the second principle on how to encourage effectively.
3. COMMIT TO ENCOURAGING EVERY DAY
Hebrews 3:13 says, "But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness." Encouragement is to be a daily action. Commit to encouraging every single day that you're alive.
This means encouraging even when there's very little to encourage. An elderly pastor's wife was known for her ability to make positive comments about every facet of her husband's Florida ministry. The church choir, however, often defied positive but truthful comment.
She finally solved the problem one Sunday morning. As the choir members filed into the choir loft, she leaned over to me and remarked, "Aren't they walking well this morning?" There's always something positive that you can say about another person! Encourage every single day.
The reason we need to encourage everyday is simple: if we don't make it a habit, we'll only do it when we feel like it. When you came to church, it's likely that you weren't thinking of other people's needs. That's true of me and it's true of you. Hidden opportunities for encouragement will surface only as we express sensitivity to other people - only as we've made a commitment to a habit of encouragement.
Proverbs 12:25 says, "Worry weighs a person down; an encouraging word cheers a person up." I was 19 years old, and invited to preach my first sermon ever in my home church. I stood up one Sunday night after months of preparation with just a few notes and ideas about what I wanted to say. My mouth was dry. I gave it everything I had to give, and it was over in about twenty minutes. I sat down and said to myself, "I never want to preach again."
That evening we went out to celebrate at a hotel on Dixon Road. I remember the waitress spilling something on me, and I almost felt like I deserved that. If someone had told me that night that I was a disgrace to the pulpit and should never get in front of people again with an open Bible, I would have believed them. I was low.
But the next day a friend told me that he saw potential. He took me aside and pointed out the things he appreciated about my sermon. He didn't gloss over my f ailings, but he looked me straight in the eye and told me, "You have potential as a preacher."
"The tongue has the power of life and death" (Proverbs 18:21). Your encouraging words can change someone's life.
Following God is about relationships. There might be someone here who has never realized that Christianity is not about church attendance, following rules, or Bible knowledge. It's about a relationship with God. The Bible says that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people's sins against them. Today you can have a relationship with God, and he will no longer count your sins against you. Pray these words: "Thank you, God, that you desire a relationship with me. Thank you that Jesus came to reconcile the world to you. I accept what Jesus did on the cross, and pledge to follow you. Accept me as your child, I pray."
If you've prayed this prayer within your heart, you've taken the most important step you'll ever take in your life. Welcome to the family! In a few minutes I'm going to tell you the steps that you can take to get established as a new follower of Jesus Christ.
Father, thank you that our words can have an impact on others. You've told us that our words have the power of life and death. I pray that you would grant us understanding hearts, that we may see people - their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and despairs, their efforts and their failures - and touch them with your love. May we encourage one another, not just today but creatively, everyday. In our Lord's name we pray, Amen.