Church Write-Up: Lots on Encouragement

For church last Sunday morning, I went to the “Pen Church,” an evangelical church where I get a free pen every time I attend.  The preacher was the pastor’s father-in-law, who used to pastor the church.

What I will do in this post is identify three things in the sermon that rubbed me the wrong way, but, for each of these items, I will mention a related aspect in the sermon that especially resonated with me.  Then I will comment on two additional items in the sermon.

A.  The preacher said that Christians should be multiplying themselves.  That means that they should go out and try to convince other people to become Christians.  That sort of terminology makes Christianity look like a mass sales project, a copy machine, or people trying to make others into their own image (ever hear the phrase “cookie cutter Christian”?).  I see faith as more personalized than that: people have their own reasons for believing in God.

The preacher told the story, though, of when he was a young man and a new Christian, and two Christian men mentored him in the faith.  They gave him suggestions on how he could have personal time with Jesus each day, and he has been doing that for fifty-five years.  That resonated with me: people passing on something that they do that they have found helpful, such that it helps and guides somebody else.

B.  The preacher was exhorting us to be encouragers.  He asked us how we would feel if nobody comes to our funeral.  The implication was that, if we encourage people and invest in them, they will be more inclined to come to our funeral after we die.

I was actually thinking about this topic earlier this week.  I was thinking about how I cannot imagine too many people coming to my funeral after I die.  I then thought about those “inspirational” stories in such periodicals as Our Daily Bread, which talk about someone who helped other people, and it was standing room only at their funeral after they died, as people packed into the room to honor the person who helped them.

I hate those stories.  Believe me, I respect the people who helped others, but, speaking for myself personally, I am not that extroverted.  I will try, in my own way, to show concern and support for people, probably online, since I doubt it would be socially appropriate for me to stop random people on the street and ask them if they need help.  Will encouraging people online make enough on an impression on them, that they will attend my funeral after I die?  I doubt it.  But I don’t think that should be the main reason that I help people.

Those kinds of stories may be helpful in that they can encourage us at least to try to be better.  They are somewhat of a turn-off to me, even though, again, I am glad that there are people in the world who have helped others.

C.  The preacher was saying that encouragement should be sincere, specific, and regular.  I agree with him.  But, if I am encouraging others because I am obeying some divine commandment that I believe I have to follow to please God, does that undermine the encouragement being authentic?

At the same time, maybe it needs to be a commandment, otherwise some people simply will not do it.  The preacher was talking about how his parents never encouraged him: for example, they never thanked him and his brother for chopping the wood that would keep the family warm that winter.

Maybe we can encourage others in obedience to a divine command, while also providing encouragement that is sincere and authentic.  The pastor talked about looking for the good in people and telling them about it: the good is there, but we need to take the initiative of looking for it and acknowledging it.  Encouragement can also entail telling others that we are praying for them when they are in need.  That is not necessarily offering false hope, but it is showing concern.

D.  On that note, the preacher said that we should give people what they need, not what they deserve.  He said that twice.  That stood out to me on account of my own resentful thoughts.  “So-and-so does not deserve my encouragement,” I thought.  And, indeed, I would feel phony encouraging a person against whom I have feelings of resentment.  I do not know if the preacher’s statement will influence my actions, but I hope in can influence my attitude: I can try to see all people as people with needs, like me.  And maybe that can influence me to act with charity and forgiveness.

E.  The preacher was talking about constructive criticism.  He said that, in his earlier years of preaching, he received constructive criticism about his homiletical approach.  Essentially, he made powerful points with his fists clenched.  But he was advised to open his hands, since that communicated love.

That sounds like tactful constructive criticism.  How have I taken constructive criticism?  Well, it varies.  I remember giving a sermon, and a lady told me afterwords that I spoke too fast (I know that should be an adverb, but “fastly” does not sound right).  I was befuddled and replied, “Well, I was nervous!”  But I went home, took what she said to heart, and before my next sermon told her that I would try to follow her advice and speak more slowly.

Another time, I did not take constructive criticism that well.  A colleague was critiquing my paper, and he meant well.  He gave me solid advice.  He was making his critiques for my benefit: he knew what professors wanted, in terms of research and papers, and he wanted my paper to be good.  I followed a lot of his advice.  But his tone was often derisive, as he talked to me as if I was an idiot.  I was trying to think of where I was at fault: maybe I was defensive, and that sparked his derisive tone.  I don’t know.

The pastor of the church that I attended this last Sunday morning, in a sermon a while back, talked about giving people an encouragement sandwich when we are offering constructive criticism.  We say something good about a person, a paper, or a sermon (whatever we are offering constructive criticism on); we mention an area that we think needs improvement; and we follow that up with encouragement.

I have a writing coach, and it seems that this is her approach to me.  She shares extensive critiques, but she also says good things that I have done in my writing, acknowledges that I have worked hard (rather than calling me lazy), and offers me suggestions that can encourage me to keep on keeping on, in terms of my writing.

When I have critiqued others’ writings, at their request (I am not talking about my reviews of books), I often say things that I liked, but I may have come across as harsh in my critiques.  Not that I intended to do so, but I can come across as blunt and terse.  Maybe I should structure my praise and critique as an “encouragement sandwich.”

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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