Congregation on Call
INTERSECT: Becoming a Model Church
1 Thessalonians 1
Across the United States, young athletes have posters of famous athletes hanging on their bedroom walls. They look up to people they have never met, and, whether they consider it or not, those athletes function as role models. A role model is someone who provides a picture of what we want to become. While a superstar athlete may or may not provide a good moral example, young people identify those individuals as someone they want to emulate—at least on the court or field.
More broadly, we encounter and identify role models at work, school, and even at home. The best and most influential role models are not famous athletes or actors but people in our lives daily—up close and personal. I’m sure you had role models growing up, and, to some degree, we continue to have role models as adults. This speaks to the tremendous power of imitation for human beings. We see an example, and we try to emulate it.
What if an entire congregation served as a model church?
What if a local church was doing so well others pointed to their church as the model to imitate? While the church of the Thessalonians wasn’t perfect, the Apostle Paul went out of his way to brag on the church and to hold it up as a pattern to follow. Consider three characteristics that made the church in Thessalonica a model church and ask yourself if you and your church reflect these characteristics.
A model church practices Christian imitation (verses 6-7). The biblical meaning of imitation is not the same as the common use of the word today. We often use the word imitation to describe a cheap knock-off, something that looks like the real thing without the quality.
However, the Bible stresses the necessity of imitation, patterning your life after other mature believers. Since Jesus is no longer here physically, we have no perfect models to imitate, but we have genuine and growing examples of the faith in men and women dedicated to becoming more like Christ. This was true in Thessalonica. Paul indicates they had become followers “of us and of the Lord.” Paul and his companions not only shared the gospel with the Thessalonians verbally, they also demonstrated it through their lifestyle.
Verse 7 says they became a “pattern” for others to follow. As they followed Paul, who was following Christ, they too became examples for others to imitate. The word translated example originally carried the meaning of an impression left by a strike or blow. Picture an old-fashioned typewriter. When you punched the letter down, the letter arm struck the ribbon and ink with force, leaving an impression, a letter, on the page.
What kind of impression do we leave on others? Does our example provide a reliable Christ-like role model?
A model church possesses Christian reputation (verse 8). What a powerful statement that the Thessalonian church had “sounded out” or sounded forth the Word of the Lord
everywhere. The word translated sounded out communicates the gospel reverberated through this church to their entire region and beyond. Their “sound” carried.
On certain days, when the weather is right, I can hear the band practicing at the local high school, several miles from our home. It seems the band is closer than they really are. This is the picture we find in this passage. The Thessalonians heard the Word of the Lord, accepted it, and then sounded it forward. The gospel reverberated and echoed from them to others, perhaps reaching farther than they realized.
News spreading far and wide is no big deal these days, because it spreads instantly across the Web. Obviously, this wasn’t the case in the first century. News traveled by word of mouth. However, Thessalonica was a good launching point for the gospel, situated for travel and commerce, and made up of people and businesses from all over the Roman Empire.
Paul wasn’t saying the church at Thessalonica sent missionaries everywhere (though they might have sent some). Their reputation simply spread from person to person, as people saw firsthand what had happened in the congregation and the way they lived. Their faith spread through their own province of Macedonia, including Philippi, and to the south province of Achaia, including Corinth—cities hundreds of miles apart. For their faith to be known in all these areas was remarkable.
Everywhere Paul went, he heard more about what was happening at Thessalonica. John Stott described this phenomenon as “holy gossip,” when others marvel together at what the Lord has done in our lives.
A model church experiences true conversion (verses 9-10). Christian imitation and reputation spring from true conversion, as seen in these verses. The Thessalonians had turned from their idols to serve the true and living God, anticipating Christ’s return.
Prior to conversion, the Thessalonians were pagans, worshiping pagan gods. It is likely on clear days, the Thessalonians could see Mount Olympus, only 50 miles from their city and supposedly the home to the gods of the Greco-Roman world.
Paul painted a sharp contrast when he said the Thessalonians had begun serving the living and true God. His statement implies they previously served dead and untrue gods—idols. It is hard for us to imagine just how deeply entrenched these idols were in their culture and world. It was a matter of religious, social, and economic importance. But when these people heard the gospel, they made a clean break from their idols.
By the way, we must never forget an idol can be anything that takes God’s rightful place. Not all idols are wood, stone, and superstition. We all have made sin our idol at some point in our lives (Isaiah 53:6). The Thessalonians had turned away from their idols and toward God. Their lives had been transformed, characterized by serving Him and awaiting the Second Coming of Christ. This is the turnaround everyone was talking about. This was their turning point. When was yours? Have you experienced this type of turning point in your life?
The Model Church
A model church lives together in genuine imitation of Christ, sounding forth its faith in Christ, having experienced a life-changing conversion to Christ. Churches don’t automatically continue as role models. Every church must continue to cultivate its growing relationship with Christ, actively living out and sounding forth their faith. This doesn’t require perfection but consistency as we grow in our true faith in the living God together.
Every day, people watch a billion hours of video content on YouTube and “how to…” searches are among the fastest growing requests to search engines. The conclusion? When users need to learn something today, they rely on video. May I suggest, when it comes to the faith, we cannot rely on video to learn how to live out the Christian life. We need a role model—an in-the-flesh, up-close-and-personal example. Can you and your church provide that model for someone today?
About the Columnist: Dr. Barry Raper pastors Bethel FWB Church near Ashland City, Tennessee. He also serves as program coordinator for ministry studies at Welch College. Barry and his wife Amanda have five children.