More often than not, when I hear the expression “a word of encouragement” I think of it in terms of one individual speaking to another one a word that edifies, uplifts, or sustains a fellow believer or sometimes even a stranger. (In some future post, I want to talk about “prophetic encouragement” which is simply another way of describing the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when we believe the Lord has given us a specific “word” for a person, group or situation.)
However, just recently in my personal home group we had the experience of what I would call “full body encouragement”! In other words, there were 12 people present and fully engaged for the meeting and after a few brief words of welcome and introduction, we simply prayed that the Holy Spirit would lead the meeting. There was no particular person that was in charge of providing direction, focus, a teaching or a flow of ministry, etc.
If you think this sounds a little bit uncomfortable, I will confess to you that, as someone who has been blessed to provide leadership for literally thousands of such meetings over the past decades, I find it hard to let go and simply believe that the Holy Spirit will lead every individual in that room in the direction that He wants.
In 1 Corinthians 14, after a rather long word of correction to the church about the focus of spiritual gifts not being on “rating manifestations” but on “strengthening the entire church,” Paul says this:
“When you conduct your meetings, you should always let everything be done to build up the church family. Whether you share a song of praise, a teaching, a divine revelation, or a tongue and interpretation, let each one contribute what strengthens (encourages) others.”
Over the course of the 90+ minutes, we didn’t just grow in our knowledge of what spiritual authority in Christ meant or our understanding of what spiritual gifts were about, we actually grew in our experience and manifestation of those truths. The meeting was a wonderfully edifying time and much ministry took place that was not prescribed or predetermined.
Here are three practices that I believe led to a “corporate word of encouragement.”
- We began with a time of expressive praise and worship. It’s not unknown to me that quite a number of small group leader training manuals discourage worship in small groups. Most think it’s awkward for a dozen or so people to try to openly worship together. Even though it takes a little bit of adjusting and accommodating, we have found that our worship times are vitally important in transferring our control from ourselves to the Spirit of the Lord as we focus heart, spirit, mind and soul on Jesus and His presence with us. (Even during the worship time, individuals felt the freedom to quote a scripture, to lead out in a word of specific praise or thanksgiving and most everyone sang whether they were gifted in doing so or not!)
- Everyone had something to contribute. I thought this through carefully in reflecting back over the meeting and all 12 participants made some sort of contribution. A few had very powerful prayers of ministry for specific needs including healing, relational breakthrough and wisdom and peace for a major business decision. When you’re participating in a meeting like that and no one is leading or giving anyone else permission to speak, you begin to realize that literally, the Holy Spirit’s controlling the meeting. It’s not an individual leader or a specific protocol that’s been established in a guidebook. It’s the Spirit Himself, which is new territory for many of us. Let me say that though it’s a bit stretching, the end result is truly uplifting and encouraging in ways that we rarely experience.
- We keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace by focusing on the love of Jesus as the highest focal point of the evening and not the various expressions of encouragement or ministry to one another. We did this by celebrating the Lord’s communion together, and frequently, not just at the end of the meeting, acknowledged that everything that is happening in and through us is to the glory of Jesus and an acknowledgment of His presence with us by His Spirit.
Corporate words of encouragement where the whole gathering is involved in giving expression to those words is an amazing experience. However, I believe it’s what Paul was talking about in the book of Corinthians and other places and is possibly one of the clearest expressions of the reality of the living “body of Christ” that one can ever see or experience.
By all means, believe that such experiences are meant for everyone in the body of Christ and not just a select few. This is the normal Christian life!