One of our members recently encountered a bout of illness and was hospitalized. It has been a difficult time. As she was visited, she underscored several times how much the prayers and meals, visits, etc. have meant to them. She said:
“Sometimes you think that God has given you more than you can handle – but then he brings people to help you to handle it.”
Fellowship is important for the health of any church. The Greek word is κοινωνία, which also means participation or sharing. It is not just showing up and being in the same room as others, nor is it synonymous with potlucks or exchanging small talk. It is deeper than these things; a unique characteristic of the church. Acts 2:42 states:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Fellowship is another stop on the Christian’s pathway to spiritual growth. It may be the one that is most overlooked or taken for granted. Maybe fellowship is more than what we assume. First of all…
Fellowship was a necessary element of life in the early church, as it is today.
κοινωνία implies much more than just being in the same room with others. It means close association. In the first century, as it was unpopular to be a Christian, this fellowship was the one opportunity to live in solidarity with others.
In the first century, there was much opposition to the early followers of Christ. Not only did you have the Jewish religious establishment that were hostile to Christians, but you also had the Roman government, who encouraged its citizens to worship the Roman pantheon, as well as consider Caesar (king) a god.
But early Christians could not do this. Their loyalty was to Jesus. And they were encouraged by others who were sharing in their suffering.
In 1989 as I was a student at Missouri Southern University, the college ministry was called κοινωνία, letting us know that our relationships were vital to the thriving of our faith in that secular environment.
Fellowship is critical for today’s church. This is why small group settings are so important, for it gives you an opportunity to share life with others and give and receive help.
Fellowship was a badge of partnership and support among the early Christians, a family.
Galatians 2:9 reads:
“…and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.”
The actions of Peter, James and John were monumental because Paul was a former persecutor of the church. But now he knew the Lord and the early Apostles forgive his former behavior and accepted him.
Fellowship also implies connection. In Philippians, it denotes partnership in a cause, as Paul was writing to the Church of Philippi and is greatly blessed by the efforts of Christians there.
Paul writes from prison in the opening comments of his letter to the church in Philippi: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership (fellowship) in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
And finally, fellowship is that which brings with it life which flows from God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and extends to every believer across all times and places.
”…that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
1 John 1:3-4, ESV
We participate in fellowship because it mirrors the relationship of the godhead. The Athanasian Creed, dating back to fourth century states in part:
“And in this Trinity, no one is before or after, greater or less than the other; but all three persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal; and so we must worship the Trinity in unity and the one God in three persons. Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity.” (The Athanasian Creed | Reformed Church in America (rca.org)
We tend to downplay the importance of doctrine and ethics, but they are both important to Christian witness.
Furthermore, fellowship is the church’s answer to a depressed and lonely world. One of the greatest needs in our society today is the need for fellowship, as reports of the pandemic of loneliness plagues our land. Ben Sasse points out:
“…there is a growing consensus that the number one health crises in America right now is not cancer, not obesity, and not heart disease- it’s loneliness. Loneliness is surely part of the reason Americans consume almost all of the world’s hydrocodone (99%) and most of its oxycodone (81%).’” (Michael Horton, Recovering Our Sanity, p. 131-132)
Fellowship is not optional.
We tend to think that fellowship is optional. But fellowship is what makes faith a cooperate exercise, a characteristic of church life that is synergistic. It is what John Ortberg states:
“Fellowship has become a churchy word that suggests basements and red punch and awkward conversation. But it is really a word for the flow of rivers of living water between one person and another, and we cannot live without it.” (Jodie Berndt, Praying the Scriptures for your Adult Children.)
Fellowship is what is hinted at when a person joins Central Schwenkfelder Church. They are asked the following:
“Will you be ever mindful of the welfare of your fellow members? Do you promise to walk with us in faithfulness and Christian love? And do you promise that, so far as you are able, to attend the services of this church, observe its sacraments, share in its work, and support its benevolences and missions, and endeavor to make it a fruitful body of Christians?”
In other words, we’re asking: “Would you participate in our fellowship?”
And the congregation responds with these words:
“We then, as members of this church, gladly welcome you to be a part with us in the hopes, the labors, and the joys of (our congregation). We promise to walk with you in Christian love and sympathy, and to promote, as far as in us lies, your growth in the Christian faith and life.”
In other words, we are extending a formal welcome and inclusion into our fellowship. Sometimes it is labeled “life on life.”
I see three things that are critical to fellowship. They are the following:
Critical to fellowship is openness.
If you are a person that struggles with interaction with others, fellowship will be hard for you. We are all different. Some have social anxiety. Others just don’t want to be bothered. But we must be careful. We cannot use others only when it is convenient for us. We must be open to others and willing to minister as the Lord leads.
Another critical element of fellowship is intentionality.
Good fellowship does not just drop out of the sky, but it must be intentional. It was inspiring to hear testimony about the late Mary Jane Kriebel. Both Holly and Carl Sensenig, as well as Bill and Portia Potts credit the intentional efforts of Mary Jane and Everett Kriebel as reason that they joined Central Schwenkfelder Church. Bill Potts wrote:
“When we moved to this area in 1988, Mary Jane and Everett, as well as Steven and Jennifer, were among the first to welcome us to the church and help us become acquainted and feel comfortable in our new community. It was largely because of Mary Jane and Everett that we joined Central. They were our Shepherds when we joined the church. No one could have done a better job! Many of our fondest memories are of celebrations and parties including good food and laughter with the Kriebel family. Dinners at their house were legendary! To say that Mary Jane will be missed is an understatement.”
Finally, a third critical part of fellowship is unity.
Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
Why the reference to oil? Because it contains nuances of healing, the presence of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of God. In fact, we are told that where there is unity, God commands His blessing.
Unity does not necessarily mean that individuality is done away with. But it does imply that we are are the same page and working for the same goal.
Sometimes though, fellowship can and must be broken. Take for instance the situation of the man in 1 Corinthians that was living an immoral relationship. There, Paul instructs the church to break fellowship with the man.
1 Corinthians 5:1-2 reads:
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”
And he further states in verses four and five: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
In other words, his fellowship is cut off, it will show him that his life of “anything goes,” is not acceptable. It is actually a safeguard against hypocrisy and a bad witness. And so this so-called brother, was to be dealt with, so that he might recognize his mistakes and turn and be reconciled to God.
You may be saying to yourself: “Aren’t we all sinners?” Yes, but some sin is more public than others. And the church cannot be guilty of endorsing sinful behavior. In fact the church has done too much of this and that is why we are losing our credibility in the public eye.
Charles Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship, wrote these words:
“Fellowship is more than unconditional love that wraps its arms around someone who is hurting. It is also tough love that holds one fast to the truth and the pursuit of righteousness.” (Charles Colson, The Body, 130).
And finally, fellowship is training ground for ministry.
So critical was fellowship to the early church, that they implored the Christians in
Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us:
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
It is critical to your growth as a Christian to make time for others in the faith; to encourage and be encouraged; to be corrected and to serve alongside of. If the Hebrew Christians were to neglect coming together, there would be no stirring up each other for love and good works; there would be no encouragement and no pushing ahead as we anticipate the coming of Christ.
What I see today is that people often use Facebook and other social media outlets to function as their platform of fellowship. But the computer screen was never meant to take the place of a living, breathing individual.
A friend of mine led me to this piece this week by Michael Carl:
“As church attendance numbers fade across the nation and online services become very convenient it’s important to remember why church attendance for you and your family matters so much.
You can’t serve from your sofa. You can’t have community of faith on your sofa. You can’t experience the power of a room full of believers worshipping together on your sofa.
Christians aren’t consumers. We are contributors. We don’t watch. We engage. We give. We sacrifice. We encourage. We pray by laying hands on the hurting. We do life together. The church needs you and you need the church.”
If it’s gonna be, it’s up to me!
Someone once wrote: “This is my church. It is composed of people just like me. It will be friendly if I am. It will do a great work if I work. It will make generous gifts to many causes if I am generous. It will bring others into its fellowship if I bring them. Its seats will be filled if I fill them. It will be a church of loyalty and love, of faith and service. If I who make it what it is, am filled with these, Therefore, with God’s help, I dedicate myself to the task of being all these things I want my church to be.” May God help us as we minister in and among His church.