All entities- clubs, teams, corporations, and local churches – have an identity based on the prevailing atmosphere. Sports teams talk about the culture in the dressing room or in the club house. Generally teams that perform well have a good atmosphere and good leadership. Local churches also have an atmosphere which may be friendly or unfriendly, warm and inviting or cold and intimidating, or legalistic or realistic.
Paul expressed his desire for the assemblies in Colosse and Laodicea in the following verse:
That their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, Colossians 2:2 (ESV).
The marks of a true fellowship
Paul gives a standard that should be true of every local church regardless of the name on the building or the name of the group. There are three characteristics that should mark a local fellowship: a place where people are encouraged, where they experience God’s love, and where Christ is preached. The atmosphere should be one of encouragement and of love, and the ambition should be to preach and exalt Christ.
In my experience, it seems that few places do all three well. There are some that seek to encourage but show little love. There are some that teach and preach Christ but do little to encourage God’s people. Christians will respond to sound teaching far better in an encouraging, loving environment from one that is unloving and harsh.
1 ) Encouragement
Everyone enjoys and appreciates encouragement. It is sad to think that there are people who never receive any positive input into their lives. Some of God’s people are beat up in the world and maybe by the world and the last thing they need is to be beat up in the local church.
There have been men and women who think their gift is that of criticism, to point out the faults of others. There are men in pulpits who regularly bash the saints for not living as they should or possibly how the preacher thinks they should live.
It is widely known that children respond better to praise more readily than to criticism. Criticism is often counterproductive in that it reinforces negative behavior. Adults may handle a negative message with more maturity, but they still respond better to praise. A local church that has an encouraging atmosphere is a great place to be. People go out feeling lifted up and encouraged to face the rigors of life.
The hallmark of the Christian life is love, yet there are many local churches that exhibit little love to those in fellowship. It is sad when believers feel that if they do not show up on a Sunday hardly a person will miss them and that those in fellowship do not care.
We all want to sense that we are part of the assembly and that our presence means something. Some folk come from a very unloving environment and desperately need to feel loved by God’s people. How sad it is if people come and go from times of fellowship and meetings and leave without experiencing the love of God. This is part of the testimony to the world, how we demonstrate that we belong to Christ.
3) Preaching Christ
The mandate of the local church should surely include solid teaching that exalts the person of Jesus Christ. Paul said in 1:28 that he exhorted, taught, and preached Christ with a view to presenting each person mature in Christ. The exaltation of Christ is the means of bringing believers on in maturity. No amount of programs, entertainment, or plans will accomplish this. It is the preaching of Christ that achieves this goal.
Many churches in North America seek to attract people and to grow numerically without preaching Christ and His claims. There are some local churches that offer poor preaching which does not connect with the audience. Thankfully, there are still those who clearly communicate the mystery of God, even Christ. We must be careful in our assemblies we continue to have our focus on the Lord Jesus Christ in out preaching.
Likely all who read this will agree to the importance and value of an atmosphere of love and encouragement. Most believers would like to be in fellowship in an assembly that is characterized by these attributes. The question is: how does this happen? Simply putting these words on a plaque at the entrance will not make it true.
All of corporate life is dependent on people. For example, assemblies do not do a children’s work, but individuals in the assembly do the work. The same could be said for every corporate activity. If no one steps forward to do the work nothing will get done.
This is especially true of love and encouragement. The atmosphere is established because individuals show love and give encouragement. We all want to experience these things, but it is up to me to demonstrate these and help to establish the atmosphere.
Often we focus our love and encouragement only on those we feel comfortable with or get along with and ignore or neglect the rest. It takes effort to reach beyond our comfort zone to love and encourage all within our own assembly.
“Him we preach” expresses Paul’s ambition and desire. Paul was interested in people and wanted to see the believers go on to maturity. The leadership is primarily responsible for the preaching, so they must ensure it is Christ centered and Christ exalting. To a large extent the leadership also establishes the atmosphere – one that is conducive to receiving the teaching or one that is counter-productive.
In the previous verses, Colossians 1:24 – 2:1, Paul expresses his perspective on how this atmosphere was produced and the ambition was realized. As to the atmosphere, he said he suffered for the sake of the body of Christ. He was willing to lay down his life to supply what the saints needed.
He also said he strived and struggled – words of great exertion – for the sake of the church. He saw himself as a servant to the Lord’s people and for the sake of Christ.
The atmosphere is set by my desire to expend myself for the sake of others. To have the thought, “what can I do for you?” as opposed to, “what can you do for me?”. As I go to gather with God’s people, I need to look for opportunities to encourage others and show them God’s love.
Instead of complaining about the lack of these virtues, I go with a desire to supply them. I go with the attitude of a servant looking for opportunities to serve.
A stewardship from God
Paul not only suffered, struggled, and strived, but he understood he had a stewardship from God that was given to him. That involved the responsibility to teach God’s Word and to preach Christ, “the hope of glory”. The ministry given to him was practical as to both the object and the outcome.
He was to explain a mystery in words that could be comprehended and with an application to God’s people so that they could apply the truth and grow in Christ.
If I am in a place that lacks love and encouragement, I need to do my part to produce such an atmosphere. One person can make a difference. I had a friend, now home with the Lord, who did not preach or do much in a public way but was an encourager and showed love in practical ways. When people visited that assembly, my friend was the one person they mentioned. I want to be like my friend and to be like Barnabas in Acts, an encourager.
What atmosphere does your assembly have? How would visitors characterize you? Are you doing your part to show love to others, be an encourager and focus on the Lord Jesus Christ?