I live in the South. In my town, tiny church buildings pepper every street, avenue, and alley. We have a lot of really nice people. We are polite, sometimes to a fault.

Small-town Southern culture is pleasant in many ways, but it can complicate church life considerably. In a city where everyone is a “member” of a church, it’s hard to know who’s a true disciple and who isn’t. Everyone is nice, but have they been made new? And even if someone has been made new, our genteel Southern ways can get in the way of our growth in sanctification.

Mere Niceness Is Overrated

One Sunday, I was filling the pulpit for a friend. I hazily remember stepping down from the pulpit, folding my manuscript in my hands, and crumbling into my seat. I had just finished preaching one of the worst sermons in 2,000 years of church history. And, as if on cue, several people passed me on the way out and said, “Thanks! You did great.”

The thing is, I didn’t.

I know the Lord can use bad sermons. But I’m here to tell you that I did not do a great job that day. Or an okay job, even. I preached a bad sermon.

That experience left me wondering. How am I ever going to get good feedback on my teaching if no one will look me in the eyes and tell me the truth? No matter how bad a job you do at preaching, it can be hard to find someone who won’t lovingly smile and say you did a good job and thank you for your service. The heart behind this dynamic is good—full of warmth, love, and sympathy. But is it always healthy?

I would argue that it’s not.

A few years later, I was sitting in my new pastor’s office in Washington, D.C. A group of men from the church gathered on Sunday evenings to discuss the church’s ministry activities throughout the week and how they might be improved. It was called “service review,” and here I first saw the distinction between being encouraging and being merely nice. Flattery and encouragement are different, I realized. For encouragement is godly, but flattery is sin.

Flattery vs. Encouragement

Flattery is defined as “excessive and insincere praise, given especially to further one’s own interests.” Much of what passes for encouragement in our churches these days is flattery in disguise. Though we may not necessarily be trying to further our own interests, some of our positivity is excessive and insincere.

Much of what passes for encouragement in our churches is flattery in disguise.

Biblically speaking, however, encouragement is never excessive; it’s exact. It’s never insincere; it’s always an overflow of the heart. I first saw this in those service-review meetings. A Sunday-school teacher would receive feedback (usually a mixture of critique and encouragement), and the positive feedback was always specific and concrete. There was never any, “You did a good job, bud. Thanks.” The feedback usually sounded more like, “I thought you did a great job with your illustrations today. I can tell you’ve been working on them. So good job taking feedback and applying it to your lessons. The body was really built up by your service today.”

Pocket-Sized Definition

I think a good, pocket-sized definition of encouragement might go something like this: Encouragement is pointing out the grace of God in the lives of others.

More can be said, of course, but I believe this sentence carries the freight of the meaning fairly well.

In Acts 11, Luke tells us about a great work of the Lord that broke out in Antioch. Many were turning to Christ for salvation. When the church in Jerusalem heard about it, they sent out Barnabas to be their eyes and ears: “When [Barnabas] came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (v. 23).

Do you see that? Barnabas saw the grace of God; it excited him; and then he told them about it. “I see the hand of the Lord here,” he said. “Keep going!”

And that, friends, is encouragement.

Let’s resist the urge to merely be nice. Instead, let’s look for real evidence of God’s grace at work in others’ lives—and then point it out to them.