Planting churches in new communities is hard work. Because each city has its own set of obstacles to the gospel and all of its instruction, pastors can become overwhelmed and discouraged in their efforts to share it.
Thankfully, the epistles have a lot to say about planting the gospel in new communities. Paul’s approach to the Thessalonian church, in particular, offers a powerful image of how Christians can approach new believers—like a gentle, nursing mother.
In light of Mother’s Day, it’s worth taking a look at this metaphor to see what we can learn. In 1 Thessalonians 2:5–8, Paul says:
“You know we never used flattery, or did we put on a mask to cover up greed — God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.”
Acts 17 tells us that Paul had already been preaching the gospel in Thessalonica, and began to see conversion among the Jews, “a large amount of God-fearing Greeks,” and “quite a few prominent women.” However, the local Jewish leadership grew jealous and instigated a riot in the city to drive him and his fellow preachers out. As a result, the persecution this young church already faced was fresh in Paul’s mind as he wrote his letter to them. It’s a letter filled with affection, familial language, and genuine concern for them.
For those of us planting churches in North America, our work probably doesn’t involve the same type of persecution. However, there’s much to learn from Paul’s deep concern for these young believers to follow the gospel. Like a mother who draws her child close to soothe him, Paul affectionately offers his full self to the Thessalonians. In these few short verses, we can learn four things from this type of care.
1. We can be deeply concerned for the well-being of new believers.
If you have spent time with new mothers, you know the early months are devoted to meeting the needs of this new, vulnerable life. It becomes the mothers’ main passion—and the object of all her energy—to shower this little one with love, protection, and care.
But persecution caused Paul to suddenly leave this church in her infancy. His affection for the Thessalonians was amplified by his longing to be with them and ensure their wellbeing. As church plants take off, some of the most exciting fruits are new converts, baptisms, and transformed lives. But these are hard fruits to grow if we don’t have a passion to ensure that new believers become rooted in the gospel. Pastors must be aware of the usual confusion or struggles in the early stages of one’s faith—every new believer requires nurturing and attention.
2. We don’t have to leverage authority.
In the early months of a child’s life, it’s unnecessary for a mother to name her authority over the baby, despite the fact that she has it. As a mother takes a baby into her arms, it’s already clear that the mother holds the power, strength, and control. The new child is vulnerable and needs care. Mothers don’t feel the need to exert authority to get a new child to stop crying (hopefully). Love, consistency, and dependability are what form a lifelong bond.
Paul was an apostle of Christ and had every right to exert his authority to the Thessalonian church. In some of his epistles to other churches, he does feel the need to defend his authority. However, as he planted the gospel among a new people group, he laid that aside and instead leveraged his love and affection for the Thessalonians.
Pastors are not apostles, so they do not hold the same weight Paul speaks of, but there is an authoritative weight attached to speaking God’s Word into people’s lives and becoming a trusted person who congregants can go to. That said, when you’re planting the gospel among a group of people who don’t attend church, a planter’s job title and knowledge of scripture probably don’t hold much weight to them. But those who don’t thoughtfully consider their own understanding of authority can subconsciously exercise it when they’re unsure what to do.
As ministers, we should consider the reasons Paul didn’t need to assert his authority to the Thessalonians—or, for that matter, why Jesus “being in the very nature of God did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (Philippians 2:6). When planters offer not only the gospel but their “lives as well” (verse 8), they display a servant’s heart that allows the bonds of love to unite them to these new believers.
3. We can be selfless.
The very life of an infant is dependant on a mother’s self-denial and selflessness. When a mother picks up her child to care for them, she does so because a precious life has been entrusted to her care. In the middle of the night, a mother rises to care for her child, but no one is around to praise her—and she certainly isn’t being paid to do it! She is motivated purely by the responsibility rooted in love to care for this treasured gift.
Paul goes through great lengths in this epistle to emphasize that their motives were not for financial gain or human praise, but that they came to the Thessalonians with something valuable they’d been entrusted with—the gospel. With this attitude, those with doubts about their motives could look to the sufferings Paul and his companions faced and see that the only remaining motive was one of selfless love for the Thessalonians.
Paul was not a dispassionate herald of the gospel. His affection for those he ministered to spills over throughout his writing. In 2 Corinthians 12:15, Paul uses similar language to describe his love for the Corinthians when he says, “So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. If I love you more, will you love me less?”
Like a mother who spends herself for the care of her young child, church planters are called to deeply love the people they’re planting the gospel among. Pastors are wise to evaluate the various snares that may encroach on love for their people. For example, how would not being able to fund our salary through tithes impact our joy to share the gospel and make disciples? In what ways is our identity tied to praise and larger platforms? Does our suffering look like that of a mother suffering a loss of sleep to see her child thrive or does our suffering become a source of discouragement and complaint?
4. We can show tenderness.
There is a tenderness to motherhood that Paul picks up on as he uses the image of breastfeeding to depict the ways in which he came to the Thessalonians. This emphasis on tenderness, nurture, and warmth is too easily overlooked when it comes to training and equipping church planters. John Calvin in his commentary on Thessalonians says,
“A mother in nursing her children manifests a certain rare and wonderful affection, inasmuch as she spares no labour and trouble, shuns no anxiety, is wearied out by no assiduity, and even with cheerfulness of spirit gives her own blood to be sucked. In the same way, Paul declares that he was so disposed towards the Thessalonians, that he was prepared to lay out his life for their benefit.”
There is something mysterious about the way God designed a mother’s very body to give and sustain life. It wasn’t enough for Paul to preach the gospel to the Thessalonians—he wanted to assure them that his very self was offered for their sake. How might we plant and pastor congregations with this type of tenderness, affection, and joy?
This Mother’s Day, perhaps we can take a moment and consider the ways in which our congregations need mother-like, pastoral care. Like Paul, perhaps it’s worth reflecting on some selfless, tender mothers we know and ask ourselves how our own leadership might benefit from weaving some of those practices into our caring for our congregations.