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While studying and preaching through the book of 1 Thessalonians on more than one occasion, it quickly became apparent that I was face-to-face with one of the greats. The church at Thessalonica was showered with honor and affirmation by the apostle Paul; the first 3 chapters alone are dedicated to thanksgiving and prayer for them. He praised the Thessalonians effectiveness and positive influence in early Christendom and even highlights their example as a local church body (1 Thess. 1:6). 

What made this church so worthy of being followed as a standard in ministry? What qualified them to be set apart as a timeless model for the people of God as they seek to do the work of God? John Stott provides an answer when he notes that in this letter, Paul is providing a portrait of “how the gospel shapes the church, as the church seeks to live a life that is worthy of the gospel.” 

Finding a model church is often hard because we focus on the wrong things, or maybe lesser things. Our concerns and observations, though well-intentioned, tend to be on the method and function of the organization rather than the foundation and core of the organism. A closer look at the Thessalonian church is thus needful to evaluate one of the greatest models of a local church and hopefully assess our own ministries to be like one of the best. 

This edition of Leadership Helps will be useful if you are 1) in church leadership wanting to assess the health of your church, 2) in a place where you are looking for a church to join that is living a biblical model, 3) if you are leading a Christian ministry and want to include in its DNA these biblical characteristics.

Since churches are to be organisms and not organizations, they are made up of Christian people.  This would mean each of these four characteristics need to be in your life.  If they are and if they are in the lives of others in the faith family, then the church or ministry would be a model like the church at Thessalonica.

Here are 4 distinctive features of a gospel-shaped and gospel-honoring church, as seen in Thessalonica: 

1. An Expressive Church 

The Thessalonians were consistent in living out, expressing the spiritual virtues granted to them in Christ. Paul’s commendation of this church as he remembered them was centered around their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:2-3). 

Every spiritual reality in Christ has a tangible manifestation in the church, and a church expressing this manifestation is a sure sign that their devotion to the Lord is strong. Put even more simply: faith works, love labors on, and hope endures through all. Faith that is demonstrated through a diligent and careful obedience of the truth (not for salvation, but because of salvation (Rom. 16:26). Love that expresses itself in word and not in action is merely flattery, broken promises, selfishness, or cruelty (1 Jn. 3:18).

Love always bears burdens and conveys outwardly what is treasured inwardly. Hope is not wishful thinking or desired outcomes; it is confidence in what one knows is true (Heb. 11:1).

That hope is on display through a life that endures in the face of various trials, temptations, and tribulations (Js. 1:4). 

Faith, love, and hope are virtues that find their expression in the everyday life of the church.

Paul attaches each to the Person and work of Christ; thus, these each find their footing and substance in Him. This is the essence of true worship…doing this for God’s glory.

2. An Empowered Church 

For the church to express itself in step with its virtues, it must acknowledge it cannot do so in its own strength or by its own authority. By the end of this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul prays that they be sanctified completely and kept blameless (1 Thess. 5:23). To seal that prayer in power, Paul doesn’t appeal to the church’s striving or diligence. Diligent as they might be all spiritual growth is guaranteed in the character and integrity of God. The church’s assurance of spiritual life development is because “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:24). 

That appeal to God’s character not only assures us that God will grow His church, but that God’s means for producing that growth are necessary and effective. In commending the church in Thessalonica, Paul knew that every spiritual act of faith, love, and hope was rooted in the truth of the gospel (1 Thess. 1:4-6). During opposition and trouble for the sake of Christ (see Acts 17:1-9), the Thessalonian church drew from the only source of strength able to both save and set them apart with a holy purpose: the living Word of God and Holy Spirit, that work in the hearts of all who believe in Christ alone (1 Thess. 2:13; cf. Jn. 17:17). 

3. An Evangelistic Church 

In the first chapter of his letter, Paul notes the excellence of the Thessalonians both in their love for one another (the church) and their devotion to others (the world). “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere” (1 Thess. 1:8). The admiration Paul had for this church centered around a refreshing simplicity embedded in their ecclesiology (understanding the biblical nature and structure of the church). In Thessalonica, the Word was central, and its transformative power was on display. The depth and vibrancy of Christian living takes place in the church was the organic product of the Spirit at work through the gospel of Christ       (1 Thess. 1:5). 

The church can only ever work out what God works in it (Phil. 2:12-13). By God’s powerful grace, people become Christians with the indwelling Holy Spirit and are made to be renewed by the Word of God and Holy Spirit’s transforming power. Even more so, that same grace enables evangelistic effort that isn’t forced or merely programmatic. Scripture doesn’t record that the church at Thessalonica did or didn’t have an evangelism team or outreach ministry. What Scripture did record was that the Thessalonians had simply their “faith in God.” That faith was evidently so bold, so counter-cultural, so life-changing, so set apart from the world, so rooted in the living and true God

Written by Stan Ponz
Dr. Stan Ponz is founder and president of Make It Clear Ministries (a national ministry that began in 1973 to help people take the Gospel and the Word of God into every person's world!). Stan also serves as President of Clarity Christian College. and is married to his high school sweetheart Carol, who led him to the Lord in 1966.