NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Words like loneliness, isolation and alienation describe how many people feel about their existence. We have become such a transient people that few people live near their nuclear family. We move so often that we find it challenging to make friends; as a result, many people simply don’t try. The people around us are little more than faceless and anonymous acquaintances.
Sounds depressing doesn’t it? Yet the apparent loneliness and the need for fellowship provide one of the greatest opportunities for the church to advance the Kingdom. If people need and desire fellowship and the church is the only place where authentic fellowship can occur, then why are we failing to make the connection? Tragically, many people who have attended our churches indicate that they have not experienced fellowship. Exit interviews with those who have dropped out of church indicate that many left the church because they sensed that they didn’t belong and that no one cared about them.
I am a guest in a different church nearly every week, and I know that most believers do care. How, then, do we express our concern in such a manner that those attending our church will experience genuine fellowship? I think our largest barrier is that we often attend church so focused on our own needs that we fail to minister to others. What we need is a Kingdom refocusing and an intentional strategy for expressing fellowship.
FIVE UNDENIABLE TRUTHS
— Fellowship is not optional to biblical Christianity. Man was created for fellowship. From the very beginning, God declared that it was not good for man to be alone. While this statement was the prelude to the declaration on marriage, it nonetheless indicates man’s need for community. In His final instructions to His disciples, Jesus repeated a single command three times: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34; 15:12, 17). It is an inescapable truth — we cannot belong to Christ without belonging to a community of believers.
— Fellowship with other believers is essential to personal spiritual growth. One of the most powerful prayers for the church is found in Ephesians 3:14-21. Paul prays that believers would know the love of Christ which “surpasses knowledge.” How can we know something that surpasses our understanding? The key is found in the critical phrase, “with all the saints.” None of us know all there is to know about God’s love, but together we have a larger picture of His love. To think that we can individually grow in our love of Christ while we neglect other believers is utter nonsense.
— Fellowship is essential to ministry since the unified body is the platform for the proper functioning of the spiritual gifts. In every passage where spiritual gifts are mentioned the issue of unity of the body and the common good are always preeminent. The imagery of the properly functioning body in 1 Corinthians 12 establishes the need for fellowship among body members.
— Authentic fellowship can only be found in Christ. One of the key Greek terms that is translated “fellowship” in our English Bibles is “koinonia.” In secular Greek, a public park might be referred to as “koinos” because it belonged to everyone. When applied to people, “koinonia” could indicate a business or marriage partnership. For the early church “koinonia” was a group of believers who were bound together by their common loyalty to Christ. Our fellowship crosses racial, cultural, gender and other artificial boundaries to find its basis in Christ alone.
— Fellowship is essential to Kingdom expansion. Since people are created with a need for fellowship, the church that practices biblical fellowship will function like a magnet to the fellowship-hungry world. This truth is articulated by John in his first letter. In the first two verses of the first chapter, John speaks of believers declaring what they had experienced concerning the Word of Life. Why? “What we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may have fellowship along with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John. 1:3). Notice that fellowship by definition could never be diluted by numerical growth.
THE ACTS MODEL
You can’t read Acts without developing a profound appreciation for the deep level of fellowship enjoyed by the early Christians. These early believers, Jew and Gentile alike, were thrust together by their common conviction that Jesus was the Messiah. No doubt, many of those radical enough to declare their loyalty to Christ were cut off by former family members and friends. After all, they had identified themselves with a group of persons who many deemed to be a dangerous and heretical splinter group from historic Judaism. Thus fellowship was not an option but a necessity. The new community of believers had literally become family.
In Acts 1:14 we have our first hint of the depth of first-century fellowship. We are told that they were “continually united in prayer.” The word “continually” indicates that these early believers spent a large amount of time together. Luke uses the word “devoted” to indicate the depth of the commitment of the early believers to their fellowship (2:42). Fellowship was not an occasional pot luck meal with people one barely knows by name; it was an intimate family connection that created a passionate desire for daily communion. Listen to this description of the early church: “And every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart” (2:46).
The fellowship of the church had practical implications. “Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. So they sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need” (2:44-45). This does not suggest that they established a commune -— they did not dispose of all earthly possessions and retreat to an outpost in the Palestinian desert. While they maintained personal property rights, they willingly sold excess property and possessions as the needs of others dictated. Simply put, they responded to one another’s needs as family members would —- spontaneously and generously.
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
The Pauline letters are filled with imagery that speaks of the intimate nature and necessity of fellowship in the church. He often illustrates the work of the church by comparing it to a physical body which must be unified to function properly. He declares that God has “placed the parts, each one of them, in the body just as He wanted” (1 Corinthians 12:18). He indicates that the body members are so interrelated that the suffering of one member impacts the entire body (1 Corinthians 12:26).
But let’s be honest. The church today is made up of such a widely diverse population that unity and fellowship are challenging at best. We are diverse in terms of gender, age, race, financial strength, musical tastes, leadership styles, giftedness —- and the list goes on. This diversity could become a barrier to fellowship. In Ephesians 2, Paul explains how such barriers can be broken down. Paul speaks of the most formidable barrier of his day -— the barrier between Jew and Gentile. In his description he uses words like “excluded,” “foreigners,” “far away,” and “with no hope.” What could overcome this isolation? “But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of the Messiah. For He is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:13-14).
In Ephesians 4 Paul entreats believers to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. One aspect of that worthy walk requires believers to accept “one another in love, diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us” (2b-3). Paul follows this with the sevenfold unity that believers have in Christ. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope at your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (4-6).
THE NECESSARY ATTITUDE
In Philippians 2 Paul speaks of the attitude necessary for building fellowship. Paul begins with several statements which anticipate a positive response. “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal. Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (1-4).
What would happen in your church and in the broader Christian community if we began to embody the truths of these verses? Do you think such a level of fellowship is possible? Before you answer, remember it is the work of the Spirit to create this fellowship. Perhaps you noticed that our unity is based not only on our common relationship to Christ but on our sharing of a common goal —- God’s Kingdom and His glory.
What would happen if everyone in your church shared this common goal? That is what the Kingdom-centered church is about. I continually tell people that the longer I live, the simpler I become. I don’t believe that anything or anyone will change the hearts and minds of our people except the Holy Spirit as He applies Scripture to the hearts and minds of our people.
Kenneth S. Hemphill is the SBC national EKG strategist.