About three years ago . . . in a park near the south coast of England . . .
Last K of Parkrun*, I’m fading a little. Not too much. Just a little. I’m nearing the end and I notice a lady nearby who’s also flagging a bit. My back is tightening and the pain is starting to kick in but I’m starting to ease past her. Then, for no particular reason, I decide to gee her up.
“Come on, you can do it!”
“You're doing great!”
“Not far now, come on, keep up with me!”
She smiles. I smile back. She speeds up a little. We run together. Doesn’t take much, does it? The power of words, the effect of encouragement is a powerful thing.
But here's what I didn't expect.
The moment I opened my mouth, something happened physically inside me. It was as though I had received an injection of adrenaline straight into my veins. The surge of energy inside my body was remarkable . . . and unexpected. I thought, “I gotta find someone to encourage every week. I could run a marathon like this, just telling other runners they’re doing great!”
I'm not telling this story to claim some kind of moral virtue. Far from it.
I have two points.
Encouragement is easily done, but often neglected.
The New Testament is full of encouragement, but how often do we do it? Not enough. Not nearly enough. I wonder why. For a start, it’s free. It doesn’t really cost us anything, yet for some reason we neglect it.
Leaders, in particular, have a lot to gain from encouraging people. It is one of the most unused tools in the toolbox for fulfilling the calling set out in Ephesians 4.12—to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.
Built up. That’s a synonym for encouragement. Given that Ephesians 4.12 is essentially the job description for a leader in the church, it’s critical to know which tools we possess.
So where does encouragement fit in?
Well, it’s extremely difficult to equip people when they won’t step forward to be equipped. Certainly, the Sunday sermon is part of the package, but it’s not enough. Not nearly enough. The church is rammed full of people with marvellous gifts, and so often they just sit there, unused, their gifts lying dormant. Why?
For want of encouragement.
I have been in the church for many years, and I have to say I’m shocked by how reticent many are when it comes to stepping forward. Whether it’s false modesty, laziness, or lack of confidence, I do not know. What is clear is that many leaders struggle to nurture the gifts of their people.
Step forward encouragement.
To encourage is simply to feedback to a person the positive value they bring to a community. And not just their value but their potential value. Encouragement should be specific and sincere. Never flippant and offhand.
“Joe, I was listening to you at the end of the prayer meeting, and really appreciated your wisdom as you talked to Bill. Have you thought about joining our pastoral care team?”
“Fiona, you are fantastic at welcoming people. I saw you talking to those new refugees at the end of the service. I know the welcome team are seeking people. Have you considered doing that?”
And yet it doesn’t have to be connected to specific roles in the church. It might just involve identifying the gifts they’re already using. Period. Simply appreciating Joe’s wisdom will certainly give him more confidence, and perhaps no one has encouraged Fiona for a long time. Your words may well carry her through the day. Your words have power.
Back to a park in Southampton . . .
That surge of energy inside my body on Parkrun? There was a message in that, I think. For me, certainly, and maybe for you. Encouraging others, doing good to others, nourishes the soul. It certainly nourished my body. The act of speaking to my fellow runner drove me on, it generated increased energy for my own race. It cost nothing, helped her, and made me feel like I could run the course again.
So, here's a thought.
Many leaders have preached on Jesus’ summary of the law—the greatest commandment(s). Many may have also linked the two. To love God, we must love our neighbours as ourselves. Very true. But what about the message inside the second of these two commandments?
Love your neighbour as yourself.
Perhaps this injunction contains an internal dynamic we might have missed. For surely the best way to love yourself is to love your neighbour. And the degree to which you care for others—on Parkrun, that meant encouragement—is the degree to which you truly love yourself.
By encouraging my fellow runner, I generated a surge of energy that drove me up the hill. It did me good to do her good. We know this, and yet sometimes we forget. We allow people to walk away without giving them a word to lift them.
Let’s commit to changing that.
It’s free. It’s not hard. It just takes some thought.
So, this next week, why don't you identify someone in your life who could do with some “geeing up?” Don't be glib; don't make it a joke. Mean it when you say you appreciate what they do. You may find your body surging with adrenaline. Or you may feel your soul start to fly.
But one thing's for certain. Your “encouragee” will appreciate your words.
And you might even make their day.
*Parkrun is a worldwide movement. Using an army of volunteers, it organises 5K runs in parks for millions of people each Saturday morning.