Fellowship: The Benchmark of Health (Part One)
By Dr. Glenn Daman
The small church stands or falls, not by the number of programs or the strength of its financial base, but by the closeness of its fellowship and awareness of inward community. A small church can survive financial shortfalls, it can overcome meager resources, it can effectively minister to people even with limited programs, but it will not survive very long when the congregation becomes segmented, divided and unconnected. This inward connectedness between individual members of the congregation serves as the backbone for the small church. Understanding the role of fellowship with the small church begins by comprehending the meaning of community. Often, especially within the small church, fellowship can be confused with social interaction. While the two are not mutually exclusive, they are not synonymous. Becoming a community of God's people surely includes socially interacting, but it must not stop there. The fellowship includes a greater depth of significance and intensity. Genuine community comes when people move from the emotional to a spiritual level, where the relationship moves beyond mere friendship to a level of mutual companionship on the pilgrimage of spiritual maturity. As companions they are dependent upon one another, supporting and encouraging each other. They accept one another for their weaknesses and value each other for their differences, understanding that their dissimilarities brings mutual growth. They understand that each person is responsible for the spiritual health of the other, discovering that through service their own spiritual, emotional and physical needs are met. They perceive that by walking together in love their testimony becomes dynamic and powerful.
The Importance of Genuine Fellowship
Developing community within the small church is critical for its well-being and potency. The fellowship affects every aspect of its ministry and function.
Fellowship is the basis for outreach.
What attracts people to the small church is the family atmosphere and mutual care that embodies the love Christ has for his people. Jesus states the centrality of fellowship in evangelism when he affirms that people will attest our allegiance to him through the testimonial of our loving attitude and actions towards one another (John 13:35). Fellowship becomes the fragrance which attracts and keeps people who are disillusioned with society and alienated from meaningful relationships with others. They desire a place where they are accepted, their hurts tenderly cared for, their empty hopelessness fill with confidence and peace, their loneliness met by servitude. A small church that loves people becomes a radiant light in a dark and depersonalized culture.
Fellowship is at the core of its worship.
Whereas the large church worships through celebration and performance, the small church worships through fellowship and family (both physical and spiritual) relationships. They are led in worship by Aunt Mable's special, not because she has a wonderful voice, but because she is "family." When she sings, they sing with her because they are united with her in love. They know her inward desire to please God and affirm the supremacy of God because of it. When she sings the hymn "It is Well" they worship the benevolence of God because they have walked with her when her husband died of cancer. The song has meaning, not because of its meaning to the congregation, but because it is a reaffirmation of Mable's confidence in God. It is this personal relationship with Mable that gives heart to their praise of God. A small church which becomes depersonalizes loses the very heart and soul of its worship.
Fellowship is the foundation for teaching.
The church is a training academy designed to instill the life-changing message of God's revealed truth in the lives of people. The bulk of this training is not to be done in the sterile classroom, but in the daily interaction between individuals. The core of the teaching of the church is not done within the walls of the church, but in the thoroughfare, as one individual imprints his or her life upon another. It comes through daily interaction, where the mature challenge the weak and the stable exhort the wayward. Fellowship, which provides both the relational base as well as the ongoing opportunity of community involvement, becomes the means by which one "man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17). It builds the trust necessary for openness, honesty and accountability. Without genuine community, the most effective teaching of the church is lost.
Fellowship is expressed through care.
The difference between being involved on a social level and interacting on a spiritual level, is a difference between merely knowing about someone's physical, emotional, and spiritual problems, and actively assisting people in seeking answers and solutions. It is not enough merely to say, "be warmed and be filled," we are obligated to take an active role in assuring that each has their daily necessities supplied (James 2:15-16). We are required to enter into the crisis with the individual, not merely shouting encouragement from the sidelines (Romans 12:15). Being involved in community results in supporting one another by activity participating in the lives of each others. When a person faces a trial or difficult we become involved, doing what we can to help, wither that trial be spiritual (Galatians 6:2) for physical (Philippians 2:3-4). Without genuine fellowship, the care of the church is reduced to a program and people are easily overlooked (Acts 6:1).
Fellowship provides the motivation for ministry.
In a family, people serve the needs of the whole family because it is their family responsibility. When the church operates as a family rather than an organization, people become involved because it is their "family responsibility," binding them to the community. Motivation stems from their sense of belonging and need to "pull their weight." This is one reason why the small church has a higher percentage of involvement than the larger counterpart, not because there are more responsibilities, but because of the family atmosphere. They desire to serve because it expresses their mutual love for others within the congregation. When a church disintegrates into factions because of internal divisions, people drop out of serving within the church. When a small church struggles to get people involved, the problem may not lie in a deficient understanding of spiritual giftedness, but a breakdown in the congregational fellowship.
Characteristics of a Church in Community.
As the church grows in fellowship, the following characteristics will become evident within the congregation.
Mutual acceptance. Within the people there is a willingness to accept others with their faults. They do not easily find fault with others. Rather than point the finger at others, they lovingly seek to encourage one another, recognizing that no one is perfect. Rather than seeing the differences as problems and sources of conflicts, they value the different perspectives and ideas that people bring to the congregation.
Involvement. Churches that demonstrate strong fellowship have a high percentage of involvement. The reason for this is twofold. First, because they desire everyone to be involved, they create opportunities for people to serve. Within the small church people are involved as a way of getting them to belong. Second, because of the vital sense of community, people readily realize their responsibility to contribute to the health of the congregation. They recognize that the people they care about need their involvement.
Conflicts are resolved. No family, no matter how close and loving, is free from conflicts. Conflicts are inevitable because each person is unique, having different ideas, values and perspectives. When these clash, conflicts arise. The difference between a loving church and a divided church is not found in the conflicts, but in the way they are handled. Loving churches have greater mutual trust. This provides a secure foundation for working through misunderstandings and disagreements. Rather than deny the existence of the conflict, they seek to resolve them quickly so that the relationships are not undermined.
Relationships are more important that programs. Healthy small churches place more value upon relationships than programs. Programs are judged, not by goals and objectives, but by the contribution they give to the relationships existing within the community. This should not mean that ineffective people are left in positions so that their feelings are not hurt. Rather, when someone is to be removed from a task because of ineffectiveness it is done in a way that protects the person's personal growth, identity and sense of belonging.
Social interaction. While social involvement is not to be equated with genuine fellowship, it is a by-product. People who truly love one another want to be together. They place a priority upon spending time with one another, not just is a formal setting, but informally as well. They learn to develop mutual interests which binds them together socially, emotionally, and spiritually.
Absences are noticed. When the church has an awareness of its community, people notice with others are absent. When someone is absent, others will call, not because they want to be nosey, but because they want to make sure everything is all right. If the absence continues they will find out why and seek to remedy the problem. They miss people when they are gone. When people move away and leave the church, the congregation grieves the loss and they are not forgotten.
Family atmosphere. A healthy small church exudes a sense of family, where everyone is viewed as part of the community. This serves to bind the congregation together. The negative side of this is that it makes it difficult for new people to get it. Positively, once people are in, it is difficult for them to exit out the back door. Each individual family is seen as part of the extended family. People are not allowed to "slip through the cracks" unnoticed.
Care provided. When a church maintains its fellowship, people provide physical, emotional and spiritual care for those going through a crisis. Whereas a larger church requires programs to meet needs, within the small church, it is often a natural expression of the community. When a mother is in the hospital, meals for the family just show up. Not because it was necessarily planned and organized through a committee, but because people see and need in the church family and seek to minister to that need. When an elderly couple needs a bathroom reconstructed to be wheelchair accessible, men quickly volunteer. When a teen becomes rebellious, people rally around the parents to encourage them and pray for and with them. When a crisis comes upon a family, the whole congregation identifies and rallies around the person, giving their time, energy, and resources to help.
Mutual accountability. Churches that have strong fellowship maintain high accountability. They watch out for one another and they hold one another accountable. If a church genuinely cares about others they will take the risks and make the sacrifices to hold one another accountable. This cannot be forced, but must be fostered through trust and long-term relationships.