People sometimes use the phrase “upward, inward, and outward” to describe our Christian lives. “Upward” refers to our relationship with God. “Inward” refers to our relationship with other believers. “Outward” refers to our relationship with nonbelievers. Let’s look at some of the ways these three areas can be expressed in words and in actions.
Our upward relationship is the most important, and I will say more about it shortly. But I’d like to begin with our inward responsibilities – the relationships Christians have with one another.
Inward in words
There are two major ways in which we relate to fellow Christians. One is through fellowship, and the other is through ministry, or service. That is, our relationships are expressed in words and in deeds. Sometimes our words are “small talk” – chatting about the weather, sports, jobs, and other facts. Other times, as relationships develop, our conversations go beyond that, so that we are also discussing opinions, feelings and matters of the heart.
Christian fellowship includes spiritual matters, too – not just doctrinal facts, but the practical issues of the spiritual life. Small group fellowship is designed to bring out discussions on such a level, because sharing such things helps us grow spiritually. That’s why I encourage members to find or form a small group in their congregation.
“Encourage one another daily,” Hebrews 3:13 tells us. Encouragement is a two-way process. It involves both the giving and the receiving of encouragement from one another. Sometimes I am up and can encourage others, while other times I am down and need to be encouraged by others. Frequent fellowship with other believers gives us an opportunity to help and to be helped in this way. God designed the church to be like this, with people helping, strengthening and lifting up one another.
“Encourage” is a translation of the Greek word parakaleo, which comes from roots meaning to be called alongside. God has called us to be together, so that we might give hope, courage and support to one another. That is a major reason that we should meet together: “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
How can we “spur one another on” in attitudes and in actions? In a variety of words and ways, all of which require that we meet together regularly. Otherwise, we will drift away (Hebrews 2:1), slowly and unconsciously getting further from Christ to the degree that we neglect Christian fellowship.
Inward in deeds
Our relationships need to involve more than words. We are exhorted to have brotherly love for one another, and that means more than lip-service. It means helping people who need help. The earliest disciples held their goods in common (Acts 2:44). Later, collections were taken to help the poor (Acts 11:29). Believers often ate together and helped one another in practical ways. Service can be person-to-person, or it can be toward a group or even toward the entire congregation. Setting up chairs for a meeting is one example. It serves the whole church and fills an important practical need. It is a type of ministry.
Each member is most “at home” in the body of Christ when he or she is involved in some type of ministry or service to others. Some serve by giving encouraging words. Some encourage by giving physical help. Some minister to individual needs, and some minister to the congregation as a whole. God takes joy in the wonderful variety of ways that we interact with one another.
Outward in words
Just as ministry applies to our relationships within the church, it also applies to our outward relationships. We minister to our neighbors, to our relatives and to the people we work with. On our jobs, we work not just for the money, but also to be able to help others. In our families and neighborhoods, we do not just do the minimum, but we try to make a positive contribution. Because we are God’s children in the world, we want every place we live, and every place we go, to be better because we have been there. This is not because we are so great, but because God has given us his love and called us to do the kinds of things he would do if he were one of us. We do this as individuals, and sometimes we do it as congregations. Working together, we can make a positive difference in our neighborhoods.
Our outward relationship also includes words. Words can be a powerful force – not in a magical sense, but in their potential to influence people. Words can give strength, or they can destroy. They can honor, or they can debase. “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21). As God’s people in the world, as ambassadors of Jesus Christ, our words should be wisely chosen to build up the people around us. Our words need to be truthful, filled with things of good report (Ephesians 5:4). We are to be good stewards of our tongues.
One way to be a good steward of words is through evangelism. The gospel is a powerful message that we have been given and told to share. This is the pearl of great price that we are to keep and give at the same time. This is the word of truth, the message of good report, the word of life we can give others. Paul says we have been “entrusted with the secret things of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1), the message of salvation.
Outward in deeds
By talking about words and deeds, I do not want to imply that everything we do can be neatly categorized. Our words and our actions work together. As we seek to encourage other Christians with our words, we also need to give them practical help when needed. The same is true for the words we say to non-Christians. If we are living like unbelievers, it is unlikely that the gospel will have any impact on their lives. If we lie and cheat, gossip and gripe, people won’t tend to believe us when we share the gospel, no matter how convincingly we say the words. If we ignore their practical needs, they will be skeptical that we care about them.
There is also an overlapping of inward and outward activities. Small groups are not only inwardly nourishing, but they are also an excellent entry point for people interested in Christianity. Certain kinds of inward service can also open doors for evangelism. For example, children’s ministry volunteers serve children by sharing the gospel, serve them physically in their needs, and at the same time, give parents a practical service so that the parents can take part in the worship service. Several types of ministry are being accomplished at once!
Children’s ministry serves those within the church – but just by being there, it provides an avenue for evangelism, too. Children can invite their friends to join them for church, which in turn creates a relationship between the church and the friends’ parents. Members can also feel free to invite friends and neighbors to church, knowing their children will be cared for, given good teaching and enjoy the service.
Upward in words
Our upward relationship may also be divided into words and actions. Our words with God may be further divided into two kinds: God’s words to us, and our words to him.
How does God speak to us? Primarily through Scripture. These are the words he has inspired to be written and preserved for us today. These writings tell us how God has spoken in the past, and how he has been perfectly revealed in his Son, Jesus Christ. As we read these words again and again with spiritual openness, God speaks to us afresh, helping us apply the words to situations in our lives. Bible study is part of our worship response to God, who has revealed himself and his Word to us in the Scriptures.
God speaks to us in sermons, too. Anyone who speaks to the church should seek to speak “the very words of God” (1 Peter 4:11). It is appropriate for us to listen, then, with the expectation that words of God will be spoken. Not every sermon is a “thus saith the Lord,” but we still need to listen attentively, for this is one of the ways God speaks to us. We evaluate the sermon by Scripture, our ultimate authority, but we still listen for what God may be saying through the imperfect speaker. “The others should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Corinthians 14:29).
Elders have the responsibility to speak “the very words of God.” That is an intimidating challenge! It underscores the need we all have to pray constantly, and to prepare thoroughly. Speakers want their messages to be words that Jesus himself would approve. Teachers will be called into stricter judgment (James 3:1). That is another reason that we encourage exegetical sermons: messages that explain the written word of God. A message that conveys the sense of the text will be speaking the words of God.
God speaks through sermons; he may also speak through any member of the church. As we are called to exhort one another to good works, we are called to speak God’s words of encouragement to one another. We often learn from one another what God wants us to do. Through fellowship, through small group discussions, we can come to know his will better.
These words from God to us are part of our upward relationship: our worship. When we listen attentively, willing to respond, we are worshipping God. The sermon is part of our worship service. Our worship does not stop when the “worship leader” sits down – rather, our worship changes from singing to listening. Our willingness to learn is part of our worship.
Our worship includes the words we speak to God, too. In prayer and in song, we speak to God. This is part of our upward relationship. We are telling him what we think about him, about ourselves, and about others. Praise is a form of worship, but even our requests are a form of worship when we recognize that God is the one who has the power to grant all our requests (and the wisdom and the love to not grant them all!). “In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).
The Psalms give us examples of worship songs filled with great emotion – fear, frustration, anxiety, even anger, as well as joy, hope, peace and love. In our relationship with God, we do not hide our true thoughts (it does no good, since he knows them, anyway).
Upward in deeds
Last, I want to comment on actions that we do in our upward relationship. The Old Testament stressed actions of worship: sacrifices, rituals, times and places. The New Testament has little of this. Our rituals include baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Some Christian traditions have more rituals – they may follow a liturgical calendar, recite creeds and prayers in their weekly liturgies, have a more prominent place for communion, etc. Such rituals are not wrong, but neither are they commanded. Christian traditions vary, and each of them can be respected for the particular strength it brings to the fabric of the body of Christ.
What other actions form part of our worship? We offer our “bodies as living sacrifices” – that is a “spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1). Everything we do is part of our worship, our service toward God. God doesn’t need anything from us, but we serve him by obeying him and by seeking to make a difference in this world for his kingdom. In our words and in our actions with other people, we want our lifestyle to be one of submission to the One who is all-wise, all-powerful and all-loving.
When our actions are done in obedience to God (at home, at work, in the marketplace, etc.), they are an expression of our worship of him. When we use our time for his glory, to advance his glory instead of ourselves, we have actions of worship, actions that strengthen our upward relationship. When we use money for his glory instead of for ourselves, we have actions of worship. In our words, in our time, in our finances, in our spiritual gifts, we want to use what God has given to serve him. Stewardship in all these areas is a life-style of worship.
As a denomination, we want to be good stewards of what God has given. We want to be good stewards of the gospel in our local churches. We want to encourage and edify our brothers and sisters in Christ. We want to be good stewards in our physical and financial assets, too.
“So, as the Holy Spirit says: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts’” (Hebrews 3:7). Let us look to Jesus, our apostle, our high priest, the author and perfecter of our faith. Let us strengthen our arms and knees, and run with endurance the race set before us. For we have come to a kingdom that cannot be shaken, a kingdom of incomparable glory. Therefore, “let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28).