From Colin Marshall at Gospel Coalition.
n Marshall is the CEO of Vinegrowers and conducts their training and coaching ministries. Together with his wife, Jacquie, he has spent the past 30 years training men and women in the ministry of the gospel, both in university and local church contexts. He is a graduate of Moore Theological College, Sydney. He is the author of Growth Groups, a training course for small group leaders, and Passing the Baton, a handbook for ministry apprenticeship.
We've just heard the Word read and proclaimed, sung the praises of our great God, and petitioned him for mercy in our time of need. And then we spend our time afterward talking about last night's movie, the game, the hobby, the state of the nation, or whatever.Anything but the great truths of the gospel we've just heard and by which we're saved. Why do we do this?
"Drive-thru church" doesn't help. We have six other commitments on Sunday, so we aim to get through church as efficiently as possible on the way to the next thing. Some of us have just never thought about having conversations about the sermon (apart from pestering the preacher about something). Others know it's crazy to talk about everything but God, yet they still feel uncomfortable striking up "spiritual" conversations. We've never been in a context where this is normal. Sometimes, perhaps too often, we leave the service with no sense of engaging with God by Word and Spirit, and so we have nothing to say to anyone.
For still more, the underlying problem is our consumer view of church---an unsurprising consequences of "what's in it for me" contemporary Western culture. "Church is put on for me by the professionals and their teams," we assume. With this mindset, engaging in spiritually encouraging conversations certainly won't be on the agenda.
Ironically, those with a serving mindset---the antithesis of consumerism---can also find it difficult to get into "God talk" at church. The busyness of serving can keep us from stopping to encourage others and can let us feel we've done enough by helping to organize things.
Why We Meet
But why should we use our conversations at church to encourage one another in the faith? Because that is the reason why we meet.
But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. (Heb. 3:13)And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb. 10:24-25)
The church gathers God's people to hear his Word, respond in obedience, and use our gifts and abilities to strengthen one another in the faith. All believers are involved in building Christ's church. Therefore, we shouldn't see ourselves merely as part of an organization called "St. Hubert's Church," but as servants of God's people, eager to meet the needs of others even if it means stepping out of our comfort zone.
Not the Only Ones
I love our heritage of expository preaching delivered by godly, studious, articulate pastors. But somehow we've inadvertently communicated that they're the only ones (plus a few others on the stage, perhaps) who do the work of encouraging and building. If that's your assumption, read the New Testament (e.g., 1 Cor. 12-14; 1 Pet. 2) again with an eye toward how the whole body builds itself up, with each part doing its work by speaking gospel truth in love (Eph. 4:15-16).
Perhaps some of you are thinking, I may not talk much about God and what we've learned in the sermon, but I do show love in lots of other ways, through caring for people in need and asking how to pray. But encouraging someone isn't only putting our arms around them and urging them to press on. What gives courage is the truth of the gospel. We see a clear example of this in 1 Thessalonians 4:18: 'Therefore encourage each other with these words." In context, "these words" that encourage are the words of the gospel (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
Here's my question for you: Do you come to church expecting God to use you to minister to others, to encourage them in faith, hope, and love through the Word? Are you asking him to provide such opportunities?
What to Ask
So how do we start these encouraging conversations after church? Asking "What did you get out of the sermon?" might work, but often you'll get a blank look or worse. Here are a few suggestions:
- Pray during the service that God would lead your conversations, and pray for specific people around you.
- Listen to what God is saying to you through the sermon (or songs, creeds, and so on) and formulate a comment or question to start a conversation. This past week at our church, the sermon was on what it means to praise the Lord, from Psalms 146-150. Since I was thinking about this article (and, I hope, for more godly reasons), I picked out two things to try as conversation-starters after church.
- With another couple we somehow got into a conversation about their blended family, and I reminded them of God's favor towards the alien, orphans, and widows (Ps. 146). Since the husband is not yet a believer, I was deliberately talking about God's character. I have no idea what effect it had on him.
- Even if the conversations don't always get off the ground, your enthusiasm for learning the Bible and knowing God will be contagious. And non-Christians will see that church isn't dull and boring but fascinating and life-shattering.
- These intentional conversations after church will sometimes lead to prayer for one another. Why not stop for a moment and give thanks or petition God for some need?
- Another way to deepen our fellowship is to ask each other how we came to salvation in Christ. Sometimes we've been in church with people for years without ever learning their story. The other day at church I asked a guy named Phil how he became a Christian, and we discovered God had worked in us in very similar ways as young men. The door is now open to building a friendship with this brother. What a joy!
Family, Not an Audience
The benefits of working at these encouraging conversations go way beyond the few minutes after church. Our gatherings are enriched, and our partnership with one another in the gospel is enhanced. We know each other as God's family, not as anonymous audience members at a performance.
Moreover, I'm convinced we don't "gossip the gospel" with our unbelieving neighbors and friends at least in part because we've never learned to talk about God and our Christian life, even with otherChristians. How will we engage unbelievers about God's grace in Christ if we don't talk with our brothers and sisters about these great truths—especially after listening to a sermon together?
If your church gathering doesn't include coffee and refreshments after the service, let me encourage you to consider doing so. You'll set the pattern of staying afterward to minister to others, and, after a while, it will be quite normal.
Too costly? Going deeper in Christian friendship and stirring up one another to love and good deeds? I don't see much cost there.
Colin Marshall is the CEO of Vinegrowers and conducts their training and coaching ministries. Together with his wife, Jacquie, he has spent the past 30 years training men and women in the ministry of the gospel, both in university and local church contexts. He is a graduate of Moore Theological College, Sydney. He is the author of Growth Groups, a training course for small group leaders, and Passing the Baton, a handbook for ministry apprenticeship.