The opening two chapters in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians are his account of his ministry to the Thessalonian believers. Here Paul identifies three relationships he enjoyed with them—that of a caring mother, a father, and a brother.
These three relationships are uniquely different, and give us objectives and techniques for person-to-person ministry.
The caring mother
Paul wanted to share with the Thessalonian believers “not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (Thessalonian 2:9). His desire for them was not merely that they would be saved, but that they would experience in real life the benefits and fruit of salvation. Paul wanted them to believe what he believed, and to be committed to all that he was. He wanted them to receive the very imprint of his soul.
There is clear evidence in this epistle that Paul fulfilled this objective. How did he do it?
Notice that in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 he describes his manner of dealing with the believers as “caring.” The deeper meaning of this word is “to cherish with tender love, to foster with tender care.” The chief ingredient in Paul’s ministry at this first level was tender love. He was not harsh, threatening, or challenging, but gentle and loving.
When our children are babies it is particularly important to relate to them tenderly. If we are loud it frightens them. If we threaten them they recoil. If we strongly challenge them they become less confident. So we mostly give them positive reinforcement and stimulation.
When our son started crawling, my wife and I didn’t try to instruct him on how to crawl. We didn’t challenge or exhort him to crawl. Instead, we got down on the floor with him, sometimes moving his hands and feet to help him get started. When he began crawling we would cheer and applaud.
When he began walking or throwing balls or learning other skills, we showed the same enthusiasm. And the more we responded this way, the more determined he was to succeed.
We could have strongly exhorted and instructed him, but instead of having a positive self-image and being eager to learn, he might have developed a negative self-image. During those early years, encouragement and praise were greatly needed.
Likewise, our relationships with those we are helping spiritually should not be threatening or intimidating. Even more than exhortation, they need our motivation, encouragement, and praise. They want to know they are loved and accepted. They want to know we believe in them, and they need to be confident that God will help them succeed in basic disciplines of the Christian life.
In addition to caring for the Thessalonians, Paul set an example for them. He reminded them “how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed” (1 Thessalonian 2:10).
Children, both physical and spiritual, do what they see being done. If we want them to have daily devotions, they must see us excited about our own daily time in the Scriptures. If we want them to meditate on Scripture verses in their spare time, they must know we are doing it too. If we want them to talk naturally to others about Christ, they must see us sharing naturally. Our chief message is our life.
That means our lives must be open to their observation. A friend of mine who is a missionary to the Chinese said they know that the missionaries who really love them are those who choose to spend their free time with them rather than with other missionaries. We, too, communicate where our heart is by how we spend our time, and who we spend it with.
The second relationship from Paul’s example is that of a father to his children. During this stage Paul’s objective was different, and his methods were different.
As our physical children grow older they want and need more clear-cut instruction and direction. This transition is introduced and evidenced by their asking a multitide of questions, and by their desire to try anything and everything their parents will allow. The parents may respond to this stage with exasperation, but they actually should rejoice in this healthy demonstration of their children’s desire to grow.
During this father-and-child stage Paul was still modeling in an uncontrived way the life he desired them to emulate. We should be doing the same. For the rest of our lives we should be practicing what we preach because we truly believe in it. This is the basis for a good father-child relationship in discipleship.
The objective of the caring mother stage was to help young believers develop a desire to grow, a heart for the Lord, and an eagerness for ministry. The objective for the father stage is to equip them to “live lives worthy of God” (1 Thessalonian 2:12). Now we can start challenging them to live up to their calling and their potential in Christ. Their performance is not forced-rather, we give them the opportunity to demonstrate worthy living.
This means urging them to do what they know they should. You reinforce basic disciplines and help them deepen their commitment. They are to learn to live this way because they believe it is what God wants them to do.
As a father to the Thessalonians, Paul said he encouraged, comforted and urged them. He defined for them the right course of action, urged them to pursue this, and comforted them as they did it.
As we help others spiritually, we can look for certain indications of when they are ready for this father-child relationship. Long-term consistency in basic Christian disciplines without constant prodding is one positive sign. Enthusiasm for learning and a desire to know and experience more is another. They may also indicate they are ready for more instruction by reaching out to others in evangelism and ministry.
Often I am able to encourage a person to seek more structured person-to-person training by taking the following steps:
1. I communicate to him that he is progressing well, and I ask him if he has ever considered discipling others.
2. Later I reinforce the above observation and encourage him to pray about the possibility of learning how to disciple others. I also let him know that I would be willing to invest some personal time strengthening and developing his ability to minister.
3. I ask him is he has thought and prayed about discipling others. We discuss his response. Then I ask him specifically if he would be willing to meet with me once a week for personal training.
This provides a clear purpose for training—to equip him to be a disciplemaker. This clear purpose removes the ambiguity of what to do in our time together, and lessens the apprehension that often accompanies person-to-person training.
The third way Paul related to the Thessalonian Christians was a brother in Christ. This is how he was writing to them-as a brother, telling how he had previously related to them as a mother and father.
What is different about this third level? In the first stage Paul worked to tenderly motivate them to grow and become eager to live a Christian life. In the next stage he straightforwardly helped them see and fulfill their responsibility as committed Christians. In this third stage, Paul knows that they have finally embraced in full both the message and their task.
He wrote, “When you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonian 2:13). They had embraced the divine message Paul taught them, and they did this “in spite of severe suffering” (1 Thessalonian 1:6).
They also embraced the task of getting the gospel message out to those around them: “The Lord’s message rang out from you” (1 Thessalonian 1:8). They had accepted the task implied within the gospel message.
How did Paul relate with the Thessalonians at this level? Though he was physically absent from them, we can see his personal concern in dealing with them. First and foremost he faithfully prayed for them and thanked God for them (1 Thessalonian 1:2). He also commended them for the success and fruit of their ministry, and rejoiced with them. We too should be faithful in praying for those we have helped spiritually, and in commending them for the good fruits of their ministry.
Another vital part of a ministry with our brothers is sharing openly the struggles we face. Paul mentioned to the Thessalonians some difficulties he had experienced (1 Thessalonian 3:1-5). We also should share both our triumphs and failures so others can learn from them.
Paul gave us a good pattern also for what to do when we observe needs or weaknesses in our brothers’ lives. “Night and day,” he wrote, “we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thessalonian 3:10). Chapters four and five of 1 Thessalonians deal with specific spiritual needs Paul had observed in their lives.
Having established a relationship of care and encouragement will give us a certain freedom to speak up about these specific needs as we see them. This, however, will be occasional rather than frequent. Our focus should be on exhorting them to continue doing the right things they have begun.
One of the mistakes made frequently in person-to-person ministry is the assumption that young believers are ready for a structured and intense approach. That can make them view Christian growth as burdensome rather than fulfilling.
Remember that most people have never received spiritual help regularly in a person-to-person way. Rather than challenge, most of them need the encouragement of a “caring mother.” Others who have a stronger foundation will be more eager for challenge and instruction as implied in the father-child relationship. Still others should be treated as mature brothers in the ministry.
It would be convenient if other people always fit clearly into our defined categories. In reality, they seldom do. But these guidelines are helpful for a general understanding of the kinds of relationships involved in person-to-person ministry. Ask God to give you wisdom in adapting these principles to your specific ministry to others.