I lived through ten years of church planting—rewarding but brutal years—that tossed together legitimate conversions, ornery church members, belly laughs, plenty of my mistakes, and elders doing their best to walk with others through gut-wrenching tragedy. But in the end, when our fledgling congregation chose her next pastor, a church had been planted. God had done what he is pleased to do: accompany the preaching of the gospel with the planting of churches.
During those difficult years, the lives of the people detailed in Acts 16–17, 1 Thessalonians, and 2 Thessalonians were constant companions of mine. Those passages chronicle the planting of another church centuries ago, a church planted in circumstances that seemingly precluded church planting. Those passages describe Paul’s arrival in Thessalonica after he fell asleep and dreamed of a Macedonian man pleading with him to come. After Paul ministered in Philippi, seeing the conversion of a jailer and a dyer of cloth, he passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, arriving in Thessalonica. Paul spent three consecutive Saturdays among the Jews of Thessalonica, preaching at their local synagogue, proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ promised in the Old Testament. Sometime after that third preaching engagement, some of the Jews chased Paul out of town, accounting his preaching the equivalent of blasphemy. And these Jews were motivated. They didn’t stop by chasing Paul out of Thessalonica. They kept chasing him, and chased him out of his next stop—out of Berea as well. Having chased Paul off, they would’ve returned to Thessalonica convinced that they had stopped a church from being planted in a little less than a month. But they hadn’t. A church was there. God had planted one against all odds in the midst of incredible persecution. When Paul, in Corinth (Acts 18:5), likely wrote the first epistle to the Thessalonians he opened it with, “to the church of Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:1). He wrote, “to the church.” That gave me hope as a church planter in frequent trials. I took great comfort that if God could plant a church in Thessalonica, he could plant one in my town.
The Milieu of YRR
When I planted, the YRR movement was in full swing. I think I failed to meet the standards of two of the adjectives in that acronym. But YRR marked a media blitz around church planting—books, blogs, podcasts, and social media. Everyone who was anyone who thought he was even semi-successful at church planting had a best practice to recommend, a model to push, and a method to champion. We were all doing THE HARD THING of planting a church. We were scared, haggard, challenged, and hungry for any advice that we thought we could employ for at least seven days or until our next elder or board meeting. The titles of the books we read had key words in their titles, repeated across works—essential, missional, simple, incarnational. This was the milieu in which we lived, worked, and planted; it was the air we breathed. Time progressed, churches were planted, others were shuttered, and it all got a little backwards and sideways for a few years. The church planting culture we were establishing leaned heavily toward pragmatism and methodology while creating several blindspots that no one would notice for years.
One of those blindspots is revealed by our potential incredulity over what happened in Thessalonica. A church planter showed up, preaching Christ from the Old Testament for three weeks, was run out of town by a thuggery of a few angry Jews, and a church was birthed. No one, and I mean no one, would recommend that as a church planting methodology. “So, Rev. Church-Planter, did you try establishing your launch team by getting run out of town by a gang of angry Jews?” No, that wouldn’t have worked among my crowd. But it should have told us something crucial about how God plants and grows churches.
Re-centering on Thanksgiving
Let’s return to Paul hunkered in at Corinth, dealing with another church plant that will consume multiple letters with a different tone. Silas and Timothy show up after a tour through Macedonia and let Paul know what is going on, not the least of which was that a church was planted. So, Paul fires off an epistle to the church of the Thessalonians, beginning with a rolling, layered outline of thanksgiving.
Now at this point, unfortunately, we need to define thanksgiving to a modern reading audience. To thank has traditionally been used as a transitive verb, demanding an object. For example, you cannot simply be thankful, you must be thankful because you are thanking someone for something. A new generation of verbal rapscallions kidnapped the verb to thank and forced it into a despicable intransitive slavery, forced to endlessly thank without ever thanking anyone for anything.
Traditionally and grammatically speaking, to thank is a relational verb that can be used two ways. You can thank someone for an action they have done. “Thank you for picking me up when I had a flat tire.” “Thank you for the generous gift.” “Thank you for the encouragement when I was feeling depressed.” These are all examples of thanking someone for something. You can also thank people for who they are, for their character and personal attributes. “Thank you for being so dependable.” “Thank you for your ingenuity.”
“Much like the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer and a pattern of prayer, so the Pauline epistolary thanks are patterns of thanksgiving for God’s work in churches.”—Joe Holland
Now, let’s transition our growing lexical description of thanksgiving to God. We thank him for who he is (his attributes) and what he has done (his works of creation and providence). But we have one more delineation to make when it comes to what God has done. God works generally in the world and should be thanked when he does. We should thank him for beautiful mountain ranges, sunsets over oceans, healing us from illness, and restraining our cultures from becoming larger dumpster fires than they currently are. But God has a certain set of actions that he is most focused on and emphasizes in the economy of history. It is these actions that we should thank him for most, the actions that he undertakes to start, build, grow, and protect churches. Because that is what he says is the main thing he is up to in the world. God’s focus is on churches. He is exalting his Son, Jesus Christ, through and in the church (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22; 3:10; Col. 1:24).
It is at this last point that all the gratitude-as-mindfulness-technique that floats through Christian circles is completely abiblical. Be a thankful person filled with gratitude, but ensure that your gratitude focuses on the glory of God-the-giver rather than on you-the-mindful. Thank God for things every day. Thank God for health, and wealth, and family, and friends. But especially thank God for what he is focusing the bulk of his activity on—glorifying Jesus Christ in the church. That is what Paul is excited about and thankful to God for when he pens his first letter to this surprising church plant in the city of Thessalonica.
The Oddity of Paul’s Thanks
Having reviewed the biblical and grammatical use of the concept of thanksgiving it is important to point out that the Pauline letters, especially his first letter to the Thessalonians, provide us with a unique genre of literature—the epistolary thanksgiving. Both of these descriptors—epistolary and thanksgiving—are important. These sections of written gratitude to God are epistolary—set in the context of a letter. The thanksgiving section in 1 Thessalonians is an opportunity for the church of the Thessalonians, and us through the letter written to them, to listen in on a conversation that Paul has with God about the Thessalonian congregation; it is a type of holy eavesdropping on divine gossip. In this way, the letter format is dually personal. Paul isn’t writing a theology textbook or a ministry report. He is writing to a group of new converts to whom he recently preached. He knows their names and their faces, and they know his. They would know his voice if it came from the other room. We can never forget how very personal the epistolary genre of literature actually is. That God chose to deliver the heaviest theological freight of the New Testament, of the Bible even, in the container of a personal letter is shocking, really.
But secondly, this is an epistolary thanksgiving to the Thessalonians about the Thessalonians. We should pause and ask why Paul didn’t just thank the Thessalonians directly. If the thanksgiving section were written that way, I don’t think many of us would think it out of place at all. But Paul is very intentional here as he is in his other letters. Everything that happened in Thessalonica, the planting of a church in such a short period of time, had nothing to do with the Thessalonian Christians; it was all the sovereign, gracious work of God. So, Paul gives thanks where thanks are due—to the God who planted the church and grew up those believers in the holy faith.
These two things come together in startling symmetry. God receives all the credit, all the glory, all the thanks for what happened in Thessalonica. But the Thessalonians needed to hear about it from Paul. It couldn’t just be contained in Paul’s private prayer life. They needed to hear how Paul thanked God for his work in their midst. The thanks needed to be to God but shared personally with that persecuted church. The epistolary thanksgiving possesses more pastoral power than we realize.
How the Epistolary Thanks Functions
The power of the epistolary thanks is expressed in at least two ways. First, it provides God’s perspective on his own work in the world. Paul, writing inspired and inerrant Scripture, is detailing how God thinks about his activities in the Thessalonian church. Imagine for a moment that you take a brief survey of everyone in your church asking this one question: “What is God up to in your church?” What do you expect would be the answers? Now, if you could, in some way, receive God’s answers to that survey about his work in your church, how do you think it would compare to how your congregation answered? I believe there would be some overlap and some glaring discrepancies. And that is where the epistolary thanksgiving is so helpful. As we see in the sections of Scripture where Paul includes a thanksgiving section, the things that God is doing in a congregation are not always our ministry priorities, much less the things for which we give him thanks.
The Pauline epistolary thanks also provide us with a worshiper’s perspective on assessing a growing and maturing church. If Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth are any proof, God expects churches to mature at a consistent rate, incurring apostolic rebuke when churches willfully remain in ecclesial infancy and immaturity. But as the modern church growth movement has illustrated over the past forty years, fast-growing churches can be marvelous or malignant, fruitful or festering. How can a church set a standard by which it can judge its own growth, pursuing maturity according to biblical standards? Epistolary thanks provide just such a calibration. Paul is providing the perspective of a thankful worshiper of God, extolling his gratitude to God for his work in maturing the church, even as Paul invites the Thessalonians through his letter to thank God for the very same things. Much like the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer and a pattern of prayer, so the Pauline epistolary thanks are patterns of thanksgiving for God’s work in churches.
The church planting culture will always employ the best methods for starting churches. Budgets need to be written. Chairs need to be put out. Sermons must be crafted and preached. The saints need shepherding even as the lost are called and gathered. But if we are going to be biblical in these many good activities, we are going to do them while giving robust thanks to God for what he alone can do: birth a church.