I hold in my hand a picture of an envelope addressed to “God’s Man, Minnesota, U.S.” Forty-five years ago it was delivered through the United States postal service to Billy Graham. It actually reached him. No matter what you may personally think of Billy Graham, apparently he lived in such a way that the mail sorters in the postal service would direct a letter like that to him. And no matter what you may personally think of the Joseph we read about in Acts, he apparently lived in such a way as to have a certain nickname attached to him. The apostles gave Joseph his nickname, but why? They called him “Barnabas”—son of encouragement. We know from Scripture that Joseph sold some land and donated the proceeds to the apostles. But that’s not all. He became known for advocating on behalf of people, for good things, for the spread of the Word. Apparently, encouragement was a pattern with him, his habit, the standard way he went about relationships. If we follow his name through the New Testament, we find that beyond his own direct interactions, Joseph fostered a general atmosphere or culture of supportiveness among believers. So how can church leaders today cultivate encouragement among believers? I think the answer lies in valuing and modeling what’s commendable by discussing it, teaching it, commending it when it appears, and rewarding it with consistency.
At one of our pastoral staff meetings we were considering yet another e-mail from a woman in our congregation who had become known for making negative and critical remarks about the church. In momentary silence while we pondered our options, one of the pastors spoke up: “She is sure talented at spotting ways in which our church could improve.” At first we chuckled at his positivity; secretly, we all admired him for having such an uplifting attitude. We all needed more sanctification, and he saw this woman as a God-sent opportunity for that. Instead of whining about how difficult the ministry is, we rolled up our sleeves and looked for a way to improve the church. Tom’s heart overflowed with encouragement, not murmuring. His response added to a culture of encouragement. It was infectious. Encouragement stands in contrast with the bent of human nature: grumbling, murmuring, complaining, fault-finding. Unfortunately there’s a lot of cynicism in the church, as well as members thanklessly taking the goodness of others for granted, without stopping to comment with appreciation. Everyone’s a critic. As a result, churches, marriages, and families can so easily become known for trying to win arguments more than trying to win hearts.
Good leaders cultivate. They plow and sow seed. They prioritize—making time for the plowing and sowing, budgeting for it. They let others things go, if need be, in order to nurture a culture of commendation. For example, they write notes of appreciation and affirm demonstrations of Christ-likeness wherever they see them. They stop in the middle of meetings and conversations to highlight good things, commending the commendable. Historically, some leaders wrote down their encouragement in Spirit-breathed epistles. Indeed, encouragement is a chief reason the Scriptures were written:
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 15:4-6, emphasis added)
Good and wise leaders demonstrate their own pleasure and delight in commending the most commendable—namely, Christ Jesus. All commendable qualities originate and are supremely found in Jesus, whether people see it or not. The job of leaders is to help people see it.
Privilege of Affirmation
At the conclusion of each day of creation, God paused to comment on the goodness of it all. Affirmation is central to the universe, and it should be central in our lives as well, permeating all we do. We get to join our Maker in the privilege of affirmation. Or, as we see explicitly demonstrated in Proverbs 31, what are we to do with a woman who fears God? Praise her. All things point to God’s praiseworthiness, which is reflected especially in his image-bearers. Yes, this includes even the rascals in your church or family; they are made in the glorious image of God. Look for his image in them, and commend it where you see it. Finally, good leaders pray, because they know God is the main worker (1 Cor. 3:6-7). They ask him to work, to foster a certain kind of culture in their church. After all, if God doesn’t work, we labor in vain. But if he does work, our faithful yet imperfect efforts will meet with fruitfulness. Jesus will build his church, and he will build it to the praise of his Son and the edification and encouragement of his people.