The Heart of a Great Church
Text: 1 Thessalonians 3
Proposition: The heart of a great church is like its DNA, it will replicate itself in those it raises up and its chief features will be the faith and love of Christ.
Introduction: Researchers at Penn State in their study of DNA think that they are closer to being able to approximate the image of a parent from the DNA of children. Facial features like hair color, shape of the cheek bones, eyes, chin, nose and mouth are determined from the coded DNA. They speculate that soon Law enforcement groups might be able to create a "mug shot" from DNA to identify both victims and criminals. For the last two weeks we have been talking about Example. There was the Power of Example or what empowers and enables us to be an example of Christ and then the Profile of Example, what some of the key characteristics are that an example of Christ ought to embody. Today we want to move from the micro approach of an individual example to the macro approach, of the example of a whole congregation. What this comes down to is a single question, ‘What is the heart of a great church?’ Whatever the answer to that question is be sure that this will be like the DNA of that church, it’s what it will replicate, it’s what will characterize it. The heart of a great church is not conditional upon the number of people that attend it, the size or beauty of its facility or the extent of its programs. When Paul writes to the Thessalonians he was writing to a church that for awhile he was unsure if they would even survive their first year of existence. It’s a trembling church, young in faith and experience and ability yet what Paul describes in chapter 3 is the heart of this church. To be sure it is a heart that is still being shaped, still growing to maturity and resilience and obedience yet it most certainly is the heart of a great church. Have a look at 1 Thessalonians 3 with me.
I. The Heart of a Great Church Has a Steady Beat, It Brings Encouragement.
In verse 2 Paul says that he, “sent Timothy, our brother and minister of God, and our fellow laborer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you and encourage you concerning your faith…”. Timothy’s primary task was to help the people grow in their understanding of the gospel of Christ, it’s about who Jesus is, what He has done and what they are now called to do in response to that. But here’s the man point, the effect of that gospel was to establish and encourage the church in their faith. That seems obvious until you look a little closer. To establish meant that the task was to stabilize them, to help them develop a steady heart beat in ministry and as that occurred they would be encouraged. Why is a steady heart beat encouraging to an infant? Is it just the regular rhythm, is it somehow assuring them things are all okay? The word for encouragement here is the term ‘parakaleo’, it means to call a person to you, to teach, comfort and strengthen them. When Timothy went to the Thessalonians it was to steady them and to ‘parakaleo’ them. The heart of a great church, and this is a great church, brings stability where before there was confusion, it speaks hope and courage where before there was fear and anxiety.
II. The Heart of a Great Church Readies Itself To Experience Pressure.
If you’ve ever done any scuba diving the instructor will tell you to clear your ears as you go deeper and deeper. He’s referring the need to equalize the air pressure in your ear drums because every four feet of depth you descend is equal to 1 atmosphere of pressure or 15 pounds per square inch. If you are not prepared for the pressure and don’t equalize it well the pain will be unbearable. The heart of a great church knows that their ministry will not be a walk in the park, they expect and ready themselves for pressure. Paul said that Timothy was sent to help stabilize and ‘parakaleo’ or encourage the church so that , (verse 3), “…no one should be shaken by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this.”. Have a closer look at that word ‘shaken’, typically we would think this refers to something shocking or jarring in some way. The word actually means, ‘to wag the tail’, it’s used metaphorically to speak about flattery. So what does flattery do that makes it so dangerous and such a favorite tool of Satan against the church? Essentially flattery is deceptive, it appeals to pride, it whispers to us about entitlement, what you deserve, how justified you are in your view of something. The end effect of this deception is that it brings afflictions and tribulation. These two terms are almost synonymous; they refer to the pressure that comes from temptation. So Timothy’s task was to help stabilize the church so that it would not be shaken by the spiritual warfare they would most certainly experience. In essence that’s what Paul elaborates on in verse 4, “For, in fact, we told you before when we were with you that we would suffer tribulation, just as it happened, and you know.” So the axiom, ‘The heart of a great church readies itself to experience pressure’ is true. The question then becomes, ‘How does it ready itself?’ What does a church, a great church do to withstand times of pressure?
III. The Heart of a Great Church Learns To Love At All Cost.
It almost sounds like a paradox doesn’t it, how does any person learn to love? Either you love as a response to goodness and love shown to you or you don’t. That would be true if it weren’t for passages like Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The word that catches my attention there is ‘demonstrate’. It’s a word that means to show or to prove but it has the inference that that you don’t just observe it, you’re supposed to see that this demonstration of love is what God intends our love to look like. In other words to learn love is to love others when they are yet sinners. The Thessalonians were learning that, they were coupling love to faith and by doing so were withstanding the temptations of the Tempter. . For a great church to learn to love will mean that it learns to celebrate the successes of others, you see this being taught to the Thessalonians by Paul. Listen to what he says, “…therefore, brethren, in all our affliction and distress we were comforted concerning you by your faith. For now we live, if you stand fast in the Lord.” What a great generosity of spirit, do you see how such love becomes a defense against spiritual pride and the pressure it could bring? In fact such love as this sparks, ignites and engulfs a heart to pray. “For what thanks can we render to God for you, for all the joy with which we rejoice for your sake before our God, night and day praying exceedingly that we may see your face and perfect what is lacking in your faith?” How does a great church learn to love at all costs, it becomes engulfed in a passion to pray for others, to yearn to connect with others to build them up in their faith. So what you begin to see more and more is that this whole business of learning to love is more the way the Spirit of God has greater access to our hearts than it is to try to dredge up some kind of good will for others out of some sense of Christian duty. If you will draw near to Christ he will most certainly draw near to you and His close presence is the way the Holy Spirit engages our hearts, will and mind. That’s the only way that I can make sense out of verse 12, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all, just as we do to you,”. The Lord makes you to not only increase in love towards one another and to all people but this very presence of Christ causes you to abound in that love. Abound means to give what’s needed and then overflow that. Why does the Lord do this? The last verse gives it to us, “so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints.” There’s that word ‘establish’ again, it is saying that the Lord makes love increase and abound in us to ‘establish’ or stabilize’ our hearts in holiness. He steadies us in our faith in Christ, He is our holiness, He is why we are blameless. The heart of a great church learns to love at all cost because that ‘all cost’ was the Son of God given for us on the cross. That all cost was the perfect love of the Father putting upon Jesus the very wrath of the Father towards sin itself. We learn love at the greatest cost known to the universe. The heart of a great church sees this, it’s what gives it the steady heart beat of Jesus, it is His body. The heart of a great church readies itself to experience affliction and tribulation knowing that we are not above our Master, it counts the cost and readies itself for the storms it will endure. The heart of a great church learns to love at all cost, it sees the demonstrated love of God, it joys with others in their faith, it gets swept up in a passion to pray and it draws near to Christ. It increases and abounds in love and its heart is established in holiness That is the heart of a great church, it’s eyes are fixed on the Lord Jesus and on the Father, looking to the coming of the Lord Jesus with all His saints. This church has the heart of a great church. That heart is your spiritual DNA and it will shape what your spiritual offspring will look like.