When Ministry is Like Parenting

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians might be the most tender epistle in the New Testament. In every chapter—in nearly every paragraph—Paul’s love is evident, rising like carbonation bubbles and popping on the surface.

Though Paul’s face-to-face time with the Thessalonians was brief (see Acts 17:1–10), they built a deep, warm bond. So it’s no surprise when Paul describes his time with them in familial terms.

Like a Mother

In the beginning of 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul defends himself against accusations of bad behavior. He did not preach out of “error, impurity, or any attempt to deceive” (1 Thess 2:3). He and his companions were not interested in pleasing men, like many other traveling teachers; they were only interested in pleasing God “who tests our hearts” (1 Thess 2:4). Finally, Paul was not interested in glory from men (1 Thess 2:6). He would not use his office as an apostle to make demands on the people (food, shelter, or money).

In contrast, Paul compares his missionary party to a nursing mother.

But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thess 2:7–8)

These two verses paint such a warm picture of the relationship between Paul and the Thessalonians! Take note of the affectionate words: gentle, nursing, taking care, affectionately desirous, share ourselves, very dear.

Not all ministry situations will look this way. Paul and his companions were willing to share their lives with the Thessalonians because they “had become very dear” to them. The affection came first, then the sharing of life.

A ministry that has this gentle, affectionate flavor is compelling. Though not all Christians are called to traveling, evangelistic ministries, we are all called to love our neighbors. And Paul’s description raises some important questions.

Would our neighbors describe us as gentle? Are we cultivating affection for our neighbors? Are we willing to share our lives along with sharing the gospel?

Like a Father

Further on in 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul continues to defend his behavior in Thessalonica. He and his companions “worked night and day” so that they “might not be a burden” to the people (1 Thess 2:9). The Thessalonians were witnesses of their “holy and righteous and blameless” conduct (1 Thess 2:10).

Paul longed for the Thessalonians to walk closely with the Lord.

For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thess 2:11–12)

Each one of those verbs in verse 11 is important. Paul and his co-laborers exhorted, meaning they explained the expectations in detail from the word of God. They also encouraged, meaning they gave the Thessalonians courage, they cheered them on. Finally, they charged, meaning they emphasized the people’s responsibility to fulfill their duties.

To appreciate the beauty and power of Paul’s comparison to a father, imagine a good, kind father teaching his son to ride a bike. After a period of instruction, the father jogs beside the bike, helping the boy to balance. When he sees his son catching on, he is lavish with his encouragement, telling the boy how proud he is. The training time goes on and the father reminds his son of the timing and actions needed for success. Before too long, the boy is able to ride on his own.

It is possible—all too common, in fact—for Christians to act more like an overbearing boss or a scolding nanny than an encouraging father. We pedal along, scoffing at those who can’t yet ride on their own. Or we laugh when we see a brother take a fall, and we eagerly gossip about his mistakes and injuries.

Madness Without the Gospel

Paul describes a close, vulnerable kind of ministry, and this model of love is madness without the gospel.

After all, when we get as near to others as family members, they will see our scars. They will learn our secrets and our sins. And this will give our enemies ammunition. Why would we choose this path?

The gospel is the answer. Paul was eager to share his life with the Thessalonians because his life was no longer his own. He would share his life along with the gospel, the good news that the Son of God not only shared his life but gave his life for his people.

Paul could encourage the Thessalonians to walk worthy of the Lord because this same Lord called them “into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:12). The kingdom and glory that await—that are ours purely by grace—far surpass any damage that might come from people knowing the real us. In fact, we highlight the glory of that king and his kingdom by reminding others that we are welcome because of his goodness and power, not our obedience or worth.

Risk and Love

Don’t leave this passage in awe of Paul, thinking you could never follow in his steps. Leave this passage in awe of the Lord and how he works through his people.

We can love because we are loved. We can reveal ourselves because Jesus revealed himself. We can confess our weakness, because with Jesus that humility is strength.

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How to Ask Better Questions

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Asking questions is like sending email. We do it many times each day, mostly without thinking. Our patterns are familiar and comfortable.

But questions, like email, are a foundational way we interact with other people. We all have room to improve.

The Importance of Questions

Questions are the way we learn. Without questions, you’ll have no understanding, no wisdom, no growth.

This is obvious in the world of facts and ideas. Where was the bicycle invented? What are the drawbacks of socialism? We don’t often get answers without questions.

But this is also (and more importantly) true with people. Questions drive conversations, and better questions lead deeper. A good question sidesteps small talk and draws out ideas and passions—it makes space to hear a person’s heartbeat.

Because questions are a key way to get to know other people, they are vital for being a neighborly human. And for the Christian, they are essential.

We all want to grow in our love for other people. So how can we improve in this area?

How to Improve

I offer no cheat sheet. You won’t find “5 easy tricks” here.

Instead, I have some hard news: To ask better questions, you need to grow. For most of us, the barrier to good conversations is our selfishness and our lack of love for God and neighbor.

Be Curious

Curious people are a delight. Instead of making polite conversation, they take an interest in you. They make good eye contact, they follow up, and they think about your words before responding.

Curious people are always learning. They are intrigued by everything from sea turtles to Saturn, from the periodic table to the printing press. And curious Christians are fascinated by their neighbors.

Growing in curiosity begins with worshiping God as creator. If God is creative, infinite, and wise, then everything he makes—from bamboo to Barbara in HR—is worth investigating. Any Christian who loves God and worships him as creator will never be bored. Everything is interesting; everyone is interesting.

Curious people reject the simplistic reflex that files people in boxes. He’s a gun-loving Republican. She’s a liberal academic. God makes people individually, and love demands we get to know people instead of making assumptions.

Be Humble

Honest questions involve admitting we don’t know the answer. We speak up because we lack some knowledge or explanation.

But no one likes looking ignorant or naive. So, depending on the listening audience or our conversation partner, we keep silent. We don’t mind confessing our limitations in the abstract, but when a specific person learns of a specific deficit of ours, it feels like torture.

In order to ask better questions, we must make peace with looking silly. Take a sledgehammer to your fascade of omniscience. God knows everything and you do not. That doesn’t make you weak or stupid, it makes you human. You’re only weak if you care more about the opinion of others than seeking the truth in love.

Listen

Many of us need to hear this word from James again and again.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19–20, ESV)

So often we only listen up to a point. We think of a response or a connection to our experience, and we start looking to jump back in. We ignore the other person by looking out for ourselves.

We must repent of selfishness in conversations. We can only ask good questions as we hear the other person and advance the conversation accordingly.

Listening requires a loving focus on the other person. With man this is impossible, but all things are possible with God because of Jesus.

Love Your Neighbor

Christians must be concerned about loving our neighbors, and the skill of asking good questions is crucial for the spread of the gospel.

Evangelism is much more than keeping a tally of monthly gospel shares. This approach makes the gospel seem like a water balloon we’re just waiting to pop over a person’s head. (Got one!) It smooths out distinctions between people and implies our task is limited to one conversation. We’re tempted to shoehorn the gospel in where it doesn’t belong or where its introduction is premature.

The gospel is rich, full, and deep, and it answers all of life’s questions and difficulties. But if we don’t know our friend’s struggles, they won’t see how the gospel addresses them personally.

Think through your conversational patterns and repent of them where appropriate. Take up the task of asking good questions of your friends. And pray for opportunities to introduce them to Jesus.

This isn’t just strategic and winsome, it’s the loving way forward.


Some of the ideas in this post were inspired by an interview with the author Malcolm Gladwell on Tim Ferriss’s podcast. Skip ahead to the 41-minute mark to hear Gladwell talk about the best question-asker he knows: his father.


Photo Credit: anonymous, public domain