Paul ends his first letter to the Thessalonians with many short exhortations. Sandwiched between encouragement to honor pastors and popular verses about rejoicing always and praying constantly are four necessary exhortations.

“And we exhort you, brothers and sisters:

  • Warn those who are idle,
  • Comfort the discouraged,
  • Help the weak,
  • Be patient with everyone.”

(1 Thess. 5:14 CSB)

While there are multiple ways these can be applied, each has an application for the American church today.

Warn those who are idle (or undisciplined or disorderly)

Many Protestant churchgoers are idle and undisciplined when it comes to being engaged in Kingdom work. According to Protestant pastors, on average 44 percent of churchgoers are involved in a small group Bible study or Sunday School class. This has declined from an average of 50 percent in 2008. Slightly fewer (42 percent) have regular responsibilities at church. Far fewer (27 percent) are serving in the community.

Pastors notice this lack of engagement. When asked about six challenging people dynamics within the church, 47 percent of pastors said “people’s apathy or lack of commitment” was the most challenging. This far outpaced people’s political views and general resistance to change.

What does it look like to “warn those who are idle”? How can we best warn those not involved in our church’s discipleship pathway, not volunteering, and not serving in the community?

Being idle, undisciplined or disorderly in following Christ is a discipleship issue. We must treat discipleship issues with discipleship solutions.

  1. Emphasize the importance of every adult being in a small group Bible study or Sunday School class 

Overall, 71 percent of churchgoers agree their church communicates it is important for every adult to be involved in a small group.

These churchgoers reported their own groups participation habits prior to the pandemic. Among those who strongly agree their church says it is important, 80 percent were in groups. Among churchgoers who somewhat agree, 60 percent were in groups. And among churchgoers who disagree, around 40 percent were in groups.

Emphasizing the importance of every adult being in a small group directly corresponds to more people being in groups. And having a higher percentage of your current worship attendance involved in a small group or Sunday School class is a predictor of higher worship attendance over a five-year period.

Small groups are the most viable discipleship solution because those engaging weekly in groups have higher levels of evangelism, service, giving, engagement in personal spiritual disciplines and meaningful relationships. These are the opposite of apathy. God intends for us to follow Him together with other believers.

  1. Emphasize evangelism

The number of people who indicate a new commitment to Jesus Christ as Savior through your church is also a predictor of higher worship attendance over a five-year period. Not only does attendance increase when new people accept the Gospel, but this shared mission motivates more believers to participate in weekly worship.

  1. Assimilate new believers into the life of the church 

Having a higher percentage of new believers who become active in the life of your church is another predictor of higher worship attendance over a five-year period. Consider the impact their transformation stories have on others in your church. Also consider what it says about your church if a new believer is not welcomed and included. Having an intentional plan for helping new believers connect in fellowship with the congregation energizes your congregation.

Comfort the discouraged (or fainthearted or disheartened)

Pastors are often among the discouraged. When pastors identify the mental challenges they face, they point to stress (63 percent), discouragement (48 percent), distractions (48 percent), a lack of friendships (28 percent), depression (18 percent) and a lack of contentment (17 percent).

Despite these challenges, few pastors leave the pastorate. Just 1.5 percent leave each year for reasons other than retirement or death. While discouraged, stressed and faint, pastors rest on the assurance of God’s calling and His sufficiency for what they are facing.

According to this study, 71 percent of pastors feel they must be “on call” 24 hours a day. Half of pastors agree they often feel the demands of ministry are greater than they can handle. There is a spiritual sense in which it is true the life change pastors desire in their congregations is more God’s work than theirs. But the foreboding of exceedingly high demands is a human resource nightmare.

Nearly 2 in 3 pastors agree their role is frequently overwhelming (63 percent), and 38 percent feel isolated as a pastor. These experiences do not promote effective ministry or personal well-being.

One of the ways churches can specifically improve the odds of their pastor staying in ministry is by regularly providing the pastor’s family with genuine encouragement. Nine in 10 pastors agree their family regularly receives this encouragement, but there is room for improvement. Just over half of pastors strongly agree they receive this encouragement (54 percent), meaning half of all congregations need to offer encouragement more frequently or in more authentic ways. Has your congregation gotten out of the habit of frequently and genuinely encouraging your pastor’s family?

Help the weak

Every church has weaknesses. Let’s aim this exhortation to a weakness that is common today: reaching the next generation.

Among Protestant young adults who attended church regularly for at least a year in high school, 66 percent stop attending church regularly (twice a month or more) for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.

To help with this weakness, we need an example to follow. Let’s turn to the advice of pastors of Hispanic American churches—not because they are masters at reaching the next generation but because they give the next generation dedicated attention. A third (35 percent) of the average U.S. Hispanic church congregation is under the age of 30.

Most pastors of Hispanic churches highlight the following as extremely or very important for helping youth and young adults stay involved in the church and grow spiritually:

  • Developing friendships with Christian peers at church
  • Being received with acceptance and not judgment
  • Having parents who love the Lord
  • Attending worship services regularly
  • Participating regularly in fellowships
  • Joining a small group Bible study or Sunday School class
  • Receiving tangible help from members of the church during a personal crisis
  • Developing friendships with caring adults at church
  • Having 1-on-1 time with the pastor to answer questions

And 57 percent of pastors indicated praying specifically for youth and young adults was another significant practice that has allowed their church to reach youth and young adults. Which of these ministry activities does your church need to strengthen in order to help the weak?

Be patient with everyone

In the past month, 64 percent of self-identified Christians prayed for the salvation of a friend or family member. It can be easy, in the current wave of secularization in America, to doubt whether people we share the Gospel with will become Christians.

A familiar passage in Luke 11 highlights the importance of patience and persistence in prayer for those who are not yet Christians. Jesus shares this parable, portraying God as a friend who has gone to bed and the Christian as a panicked host who has no food for a late-night visitor.

In this passage, Jesus doesn’t cite a personal relationship with God as the reason God might grant what we need. Instead, He says, “yet because of his friend’s shameless boldness, he will get up and give him as much as he needs” (Luke 11:8 CSB). He reveals our persistence in prayer is what will prompt God to action.

In the familiar verses that follow, Jesus says:

So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10 CSB).

Despite what appears to be an impossible spiritual environment, Jesus tells us to keep knocking, and the door will be opened.

What does the Father finally give? He gives the Holy Spirit (verse 13)—the gift of the salvation of our friend.

There are friends and travelers coming into our lives. Are we asking God for their salvation? Are we patiently knocking even though it feels like we are in a spiritual night of closed and locked hearts?

Photo by Ernest Brillo