“So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already.”
1 Thessalonians 5:11 (Common English Bible)
In the January, 2020 issue of Runner’s Worldmagazine, a woman shares her struggle to complete the New York City Marathon. Halfway through the twenty-six mile run, personal resources ran out. Physical and emotional resources depleted, she would walk to the sidelines and drop out. Except, there were people on the sidelines. Strangers to her. Moreover, not one of them would let her stand with them on the side of the street. They were not rude. Rather, they shouted, and cheered, and pushed her forward with words of encouragement. Strangers would not allow her to quit. She finished the marathon in last place. However, she finished the race!
That is the business of the church! We encourage people not to give-up on the race. We shout words of encouragement. We urge them to continue, particularly when it is difficult. We do so in the certain confidence of God’s strength that never falters. Showing-up for worship is a shout from the sidelines. Serving in some ministry, alongside others, is a shout from the sidelines. Financial giving to ensure that the church continues to move forward is a shout from the sidelines. Paying attention to others, listening deeply, caring with an expansive heart, is a shout-out from the sidelines. Each is a real and meaningful means of urging people forward when they face every kind of struggle, difficulty, and challenge.
Some years ago, the distinguished Christian thinker and teacher, Lesslie Newbigin taught that the primary task of the Christian is engagement. Preaching is important. Teaching is important. However, the primary task of the Christian is deep and meaningful engagement in the lives of those we encounter every day. What the church preaches and what the church teaches is not the primary concern of most people. What is most urgent in the lives of the common person is the question “Is there someone who cares?” Authentic engagement in the life of another, championing them through difficulty, creates a ripple effect that changes multitudes of lives.
The single greatest mistake that Christians make is the assumption that their faith is a private matter. Such an assumption directs the believer down the path of selfishness. Comments such as, “I can be a good Christian without going to church” reveals that selfishness. As Newbigin argues – and as the apostle Paul asserts here in his letter to the Thessalonian Church – Christians are to gather so that they may mutually encourage one another. Demonstrations of care, support, and encouragement are shouts from the sidelines to those discouraged and defeated by life. These “shout outs” become enough for those whose own resources have become depleted to finish the race.