By Annette Halsey
Do you ever wonder what you are spreading at church? The last three years during the COVID pandemic, we have been inundated with reminders that people can spread germs to each other and how to take precautions to protect our loved ones and others around us. While I enjoy meeting and talking with other people, I want to make sure I am not spreading any sickness. Even when I am not sick, I still try to watch my words to make sure I am not spreading gossip, partial truths, or discontent. There are so many ways to accidentally say the wrong thing and cause harm, and so many times that I don’t think I am really sick but I might be, that each time I get together with others I feel that I need to be cautious of what I might be spreading.
Not long ago I was enjoying a conversation with a friend at church when she asked me an unexpected question: she wanted to know how to care for sourdough that came from my starter. The question was unexpected because I hadn’t given her any sourdough—I didn’t even know she was interested. I had given a starter to a mutual friend, and apparently it had spread from one friend to another.
I like knowing other people who also bake sourdough bread. We can swap recipes, and if any one of us accidentally uses all of her culture in a recipe, without leaving out a starter, we can get more starter from one of the others. But I also recognize that growing sourdough is a morally neutral activity. I can use good bread to nourish my family and others; I can enjoy experimenting with baking, understanding creation better and how to use it in a good way; and I can even encourage others by sharing starter. While I can use sourdough to honor God in those ways, He does not command me to culture sourdough, and my baking does not of itself bring me or anyone else closer to Him.
What sourdough did do for me was to jolt me out of my focus on what is bad about fellowship. Viruses and harmful words are not the only thing that can spread in a congregation—if a physically good thing like sourdough had started spreading, could I also spread spiritually good things that are commanded? In Hebrews we find this passage:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging [one another]; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. –Hebrews 10:23-25 (NASB 1995)
That seems like a good place to start. I like those words “let us consider.” It doesn’t say, “if you have good intentions, your words and actions will be a spiritual benefit to those around you,” it says to consider, to think about, how to stimulate one another to love and do good works. The New King James Version reads, “let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works.”
Looking back in my life, I see quite a number of ways people have encouraged me or have inspired me to love others and to do good works: proffering a kind word, teaching me a skill I was trying to learn, reminding me of the good God had done in particular situations, listening to me, making a meal, showing hospitality, writing a letter, or sending a text message. Praying for me when life was hard. I can’t do all of those things for everybody all the time, but maybe I can do some of those things for some people. Even encouraging one person in one way is a better focus for me to have in a gathering than all the bad things that could happen.
I will probably make mistakes as I try to encourage people. Just as some of my experiments with baking sourdough bread have been inedible, some of my attempts to be encouraging will fail. Maybe someone will even be upset by them. I can pray for wisdom, watch the outcomes, and learn what to say and what not to say as I keep trying to encourage others and stir up love and good works. In my experience, that is part of the process of gaining wisdom for godly living. And as I grow in wisdom and love of the Lord, I pray I can see fellowship as an opportunity to share encouragement—and a Christian community that encourages one another is a culture worth growing.