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Helping New Converts to Grow

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

9 For what thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God;

10 Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith?

11 Now God himself and our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way unto you.

12 And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you:

13 To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.


Peter the Great, one of the most famous czars of Russia, was instrumental in moving Russia from the isolation and backwardness of his day to a place of prominence in European history. Peter was in many ways a man of humble spirit. When he set out to build Russia’s first naval vessels, he hurled himself directly into the action. He slept in a small log house next to the shipyard and rose before dawn. He warmed himself by a fire with his carpenters, was surrounded by the sound of ax, hammer, and mallet blows, and joined in the work as a common laborer.

Later, after his navy defeated the Turks, he joined his troops in a triumphant march into his capital city of Moscow. To the amazement of the Muscovites, instead of leading this glorious assemblage on a white horse or in a golden carriage, Peter was walking with his troops behind his general’s carriage. He was recognizable only by his great size.

With a desire to modernize Russia, he sent more than 50 Russians, most of them young sons of the noble families, to Western Europe to study seamanship, navigation, and ship building. These 50 were only the first wave. A “great embassy” would follow, numbering more than 250, and they would be absent from Russia for more than 18 months. Peter himself accompanied them. However, he did not travel with the pomp and splendor of most czars. He traveled incognito as a mere member of the ambassadorial staff. Before his departure he had a seal engraved for himself. It bore the inscription: “I am a pupil and need to be taught.”

That motto ought to characterize every disciple. The word disciple literally means “a learner.” A disciple is a person who has accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior and is seeking to follow him, learn of him, and obey him. We are all pupils. We should all desire to be taught.

Most of us are where we are spiritually because at some pivotal point in our life, someone took time to teach, train, and mature us. Most often that somebody was just an ordinary man. In testimony meetings I have often asked people to tell about the person who meant the most to them in their Christian life. Never once in 28 years has anyone ever named a pastor. It is always a mother, a father, a godly aunt or grandmother, a Sunday school teacher, or a close friend.

The reason for that is very simple. A pastor has the responsibility for hundreds or perhaps thousands of people. He touches lives here and there in a meaningful way, but then moves on to someone else. Usually those who have influenced us the most are those who spend a great deal of time with us over several years.

In my experience, it was a cracker salesman named Elmer Nelson. He happened to be the coach of the church softball team I played on shortly after I became a Christian. The fact that he was a softball coach was incidental. He could just as well have been a Sunday school teacher, neighbor, employer, or close friend. Softball happened to be the thing that brought us together. It was our point of contact. It enabled us to establish a relationship that blessed my life.

Elmer loved me and had a special interest in me. After practice he took me home and we sat in his car in front of my house, and he talked to me about God, life, girls, and all the things a father should discuss with his son. By the life he lived and the words he spoke, he taught me much about Jesus Christ. I might not be here today had it not been for the help he gave me in those formative years of my life.

There are over more than million Southern Baptists who are non-resident church members. That means that at some time in the past they made professions of faith and were baptized, but now we cannot even locate them. Why is this? What happened to those people? In all probability no one took time to follow up on them so they could grow, develop, and mature in their Christian life. The result is that those newborn babes in Christ soon fell away.

It is the responsibility of every Christian to win others to Christ. We are not to leave them hanging in the baptistry. It is our responsibility to also disciple them and mature them. The Great Commission says that we are to be evangelists as well as teachers. Just as a father can best teach his children by example, we can be a Christian example to new Christians.

The apostle Paul is the greatest missionary-evangelist-discipler who ever lived. In his writings we can see many of the follow-up methods he used. When he won people to Christ, he did not drop them. He carried them on to Christian maturity. We should do the same.

In his book Evangelism Explosion, Dr. James Kennedy said, “Those who are satisfied with merely proclaiming the Gospel and receiving professions are like immoral seducers. The seducer is satisfied merely to exploit and then tell of his exploits rather than entering into a meaningful marriage commitment.” We are not to exploit people; we are to help them to become all that God wants them to be.

One of Paul’s first letters to new converts was the book of 1 Thessalonians. That whole book in general and chapter three in particular helps us to see his primary follow-up techniques. Paul states in verse three that night and day he prayed exceedingly that he might be able to see these new believers face-to-face and “perfect” that which was lacking in their faith. The word perfect means “to complete,” “repair,” and “supply” what is lacking. Paul led these people to a genuine faith in Jesus Christ, but their faith was not yet complete. It lacked maturity. So he wanted to add to that which they had already received, and carry them to Christian maturity. That was always his great goal for every believer.

In this chapter Paul either states explicitly or implies to us those follow-up techniques that he used so effectively. There are four of them: personal prayer, personal visitation, personal correspondence, and personal assignments. Let’s look at these four follow-up techniques, for they are things we ought to use ourselves in helping new converts.

1. Personal Prayer

The first follow-up technique that Paul used was personal prayer. He knew the nearest way to any man was through the heart of God. That’s why the apostle Paul started every book he wrote in the New Testament (except one) with a prayer for believers. Those prayers are in the New Testament to encourage us to pray for new converts and to give us an example of the specific things for which we ought to pray in the lives of others.

What did Paul pray for in the lives of these new Christians? There are three things mentioned specifically here. First he prayed for God to direct their lives. Paul longed to see these Christians face to face and help them grow in their Christian life, but he was having some difficulty in getting back to them. So he prayed that the Lord would “direct” his way unto them. If you are having a difficult time getting with someone you need to disciple and nurture in the Christian life, why not pray about it? If the Lord is able to order the movement of the planets and make everything in the universe work with such precision and accuracy that we can set our watches by them, surely he can direct your life to bring you in contact with the person you need to help.

Second, he prayed that their love for one another and for all men would increase and overflow. The final proof that we know God is that we love all men. If we fail to love we are missing the essential ingredient of our Christian experience. One first-grade teacher sent home a report card with the notation: “Alvin excels in imagination, group integration, responsiveness, and activity participation. Now if he would only learn to read and write.” Imagination, group integration, and all of those are important, but reading and writing are essential. If we do not learn the essentials, then we have failed. Immaturity is failing to be responsible for ourselves—our actions, our keep, our whatever. Immorality is failing to take responsibility for others—their needs, their lives, their whatever.

At the outset of human history Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” There is no answer to that question in the scriptures. But I will give you an answer. The answer is “no.” I am not my brother’s keeper, neither am I my brother’s father. I am my brother’s brother. To let God be God is a big relief.

The story of the good Samaritan helps me to see my duty as a brother and a neighbor. It suggests that I’m not responsible for every traveler on every highway in the world. However, I am called to serve as a spiritual highway patrolman on those roads that I travel. I have a responsibility for other people along life’s way. If I miss out on love, then my faith will never grow perfectly.

Finally, Paul prays that we will be steadfast in our holiness. It is scarcely possible to overestimate the value and potency of the quiet, consistent, day-to-day living of a Christian layman. Without this sustaining characteristic, whatever activity we may engage in is largely neutralized. Before we become Christians, we have the nature of a pig. After we become Christians, we have the nature of a lamb. We are made for the Shepherd and his fold. It is inconceivable that a lamb would live comfortably in a pigpen. A sheep may fall in the mud, but it will not wallow in it and enjoy it as the pig does. It has a different nature.

If we are the children of God, we ought to live like it. During World War II reporters sought out the sons of Theodore Roosevelt, who were conducting themselves in a very splendid fashion in the European theater of war. When congratulated, one of them replied, “Well, after all, we are the sons of Roosevelt, and we must conduct ourselves accordingly.” As the sons of God redeemed by his grace in Jesus Christ, with hearts full of love and appreciation, we ought to live as the sons of God.

Do you pray for your Sunday school members, fellow church members, and your church staff in this way? Or do you only pray for them when they are sick or when they are chronically absent? We ought to pray that God will bring us together in meaningful encounters. We ought to pray that God would cause our love for one another and the whole world to be increased. We ought to pray that God will strengthen us in holy living. This kind of praying helps people to mature.

In a certain textile mill where a lady had been recently hired, a foreman was explaining her machine and job to her. After his instructions he added, “The day will come when your thread will get tangled and your machine won’t work. When this happens, be sure to call on me.” Everything worked beautifully for a few days, but it did happen. All went wrong, the thread became tangled, the machine was clogged, and the lady became nervous. She looked over the situation and thought to herself that this did not look too hard, and that she should be able to straighten it out by herself. She tried. She tried hard to do it alone. Finally, in desperation, she called on the foreman. His first glance at the predicament brought a reprimanding smile and this question: “Why didn’t you call on me when this happened?” She replied, “I thought I could do it. I was doing the best I could.” Then he gently but firmly corrected her with this counsel: “Remember, you haven’t done your best until you have called on the foreman.”

Do you pray for the members of your class? For your pastor and staff? For little children? Paul in the book of Romans mentioned 12 or 13 people by name. He knew and prayed specifically for individuals. We should do the same. It is one of the surest ways to help people grow.

2. Personal Visits

The second method Paul used in follow-up was personal visits. In fact his prayer was that God would make it possible for him to make a return visit to Thessalonica. In this chapter he repeatedly writes about things he said when he was with them the first time and about the desires of his heart to return once again (vs. 4, 6, 10-11).

This was Paul’s pattern of work. He would move into a city, win people to Christ, establish a church, and then move on. Later in his travels he would say to his companions, “Let’s go back and establish or strengthen the new converts.” Then he would make return visits to deal with problems and help people continue to grow in the Christian life.

There are some things that are learned best by such personal contact. Early in my ministry I had a desire to be an effective personal witness for Christ. I had attended study courses and read books, but these did not teach me sufficiently. So I began to schedule revival meetings in my church and invite pastors whom I knew to be effective personal witnesses. As we would go out visiting for the revival I would say to them, “I have already visited these people and I have talked to them about Christ. This time I want you to do the talking.”

As those men shared the Gospel and their faith with these prospects, I made mental notes of what they were saying and how they said it. When I returned home I jotted down those notes. I still have them until this day. Throughout the past 28 years I have used their same techniques, illustrations, and truths to present the Gospel to countless thousands of people. What I could never have learned through reading books and taking courses I learned by personal contact and visitation with these effective men of God.

When people have made decisions for Christ, they need to be contacted within 24 hours after they have made that decision. We need to get with them and help them begin to grow from the beginning. We need to visit them again and again to see to it that they are grounded in their new faith.

3. Personal Correspondence

The third method Paul used in follow-up was personal correspondence. The entire book of 1 Thessalonians is a testimony of that fact. Paul could not visit with the Thessalonians personally and so he did the second-best thing: he wrote them a personal letter. In fact this letter and all the books of the New Testament are “follow-up” writings to new Christians. Did you know that the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were both written to follow up on just one man? His name was Theophilus, and Luke wrote to ground him in the Christian faith.

In all of our craze over modern communications such as radio and television, we have forgotten the tremendous power of the pen. If you listen to a message on the radio and someone in the room coughs, you may miss a crucial statement in the message. If you do, it is gone forever. If you are watching a religious service on television and there is interference on the cable, then you may miss the thrust of the whole message. It cannot be reclaimed. However, if a message is written down with pen and ink it can be read, reread, pondered, laid down, and picked up again. As someone has said, “A drop of ink can make a thousand think.”

The Russians have a proverb that says, “What has been written with a pen cannot be hacked away with an ax.” The writings of Christians like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have had a tremendous impact upon Russia. All the power of that mighty nation has not been able to stifle the work of God through their written words.

I still have in my possession the very first book I ever owned. The home I grew up in had no books in it. My dad had a Masonic Bible but he never read it. He kept it tucked away in a drawer. We did have a Sears and Roebuck catalog in the home that we often read. But there were no other books. The very first book I ever owned was Christian Doctrine by W. T. Conner. It was given to me on the occasion of my being licensed for the ministry. Could you guess who gave it to me? That’s right—Elmer Nelson. He had jotted a note in the flyleaf. It said, “Stay on the beam. We are behind you 100%.”

There was nothing eloquent about that, was there? However, it was a tremendous encouragement to a boy who grew up in a non-Christian home and had little if any encouragement from his family. I knew that somebody was behind me, and somebody cared. He also wrote a scripture text under that note. It was 2 Peter 1:5-8. Here is what it says: “And besides this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That passage has been a tremendous encouragement to me through the years. I’ve not yet added all of those virtues to my life, but I am still working on them.

Then on the back flyleaf of the book he wrote a poem. I’m not sure why he put it on the back flyleaf. Perhaps it was to see if I would read through the book. It reads: “Just sitting and wishing won’t change your fate. The Lord provides the fishing, but you have to dig the bait.”

I’ve owned that book for more than 30 years, and as you can imagine, it is a tremendous treasure to me. It is a constant reminder of a person who loved me, kept up with me, and cared about me. When Elmer Nelson gave me that book I was no longer on his softball team. He was still working with 14- and 15-year-olds. I was far beyond that, but he had not forgotten me. He was still praying for me, visiting with me, and encouraging me.

It would be impossible to overestimate the tremendous impact of the personal notes and letters that people have written to me through the years. What an encouragement and help they have been to me. So if you want to have an impact on the lives of others, why not take the time to write them a personal letter of encouragement? They may remember that as long as they live. There are few things you could do that would encourage people more than to personally correspond with them or give them books that have been especially meaningful to you and now have your note of encouragement to them in it.

4. Personal Representatives

Paul’s fourth method was to send a personal representative. As he grew older, Paul won so many people to Christ and started so many churches that he could not keep up with all of them himself. However, he had trained men like Timothy and Titus and was able to delegate some of his follow-up work to them. He trained these men, trusted these men, and then gave them personal assignments. He encouraged the Christians and churches to receive them as his personal representatives and emissaries. Paul was always sending somebody to help in the work of God. In this way he multiplied himself.

Sending another to take your place can be effective, but it also has its drawbacks. I remember reading once of a young man who fell in love with a young lady and planned to marry her. Just to show his love for her he decided to write her a postcard every day for an entire year. At the end of that year, she married the mailman. Sending a representative is better than doing nothing, but to go yourself is by far the best.

It is the responsibility of every Christian to be both an evangelist and a discipler. We are to be busy winning other people to Jesus Christ and then helping them grow to Christian maturity. G. K. Chesterton once said that whatever else man is, he is not what he was meant to be. None of us are yet what we are meant to be. Even though we have received Christ as our Savior, we have not yet arrived. We will not be what we were meant to be until we become like Jesus Christ himself. He is the ideal man, and the standard of perfection for every one of us. We must keep working, striving, and growing until we become like Jesus Christ.

Bernard Falk, the famous editor, wrote about the secret of the success of Lord Northcliffe. The secret was this: “He was never satisfied.”

I pray for a holy restlessness for you and for myself. I pray that we will never be satisfied with our present growth or spiritual maturity, but that we shall press onward and upward until we become everything that God wants us to be.

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Paul W. Powell - www.PaulPowellLibrary.com

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