Fellowship: The Benchmark of Health (Part Two)
By Dr. Glenn Daman
While fellowship remains at the core of the small church ministry, the church can easily confuse social interaction and personal friendship with in-depth spiritual community and involvement. When a church substitutes social and personal relationships for genuine spiritual fellowship it becomes a closed community where the people are looking only for their own needs to be met rather than a dynamic force for the kingdom of God. Genuine fellowship occurs when we move beyond the superficial emotional and social level and move towards in-depth spiritual communion, where people challenge and exhort one another to spiritual maturity. Fellowship that is merely social and relational finds commonality in social norms and cultural values rather than spiritual unity. Genuine spiritual community, on the other hand, continually challenges independency. It strives to breakdown the walls of self-absorption. It confronts those who desire to remain unconnected. When we experience the regeneration of the Holy Spirit we are called out of the world and into the community of believers. Our baptismal confession is more than just a testimony of Christ's death and resurrection applied to our life, it is a testimony that we have joined to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). As we gather together we experience greater spiritual growth, more dynamic testimony, and a more potent spiritual power than we would have experienced if we remained isolated from the rest of the Christian community. When we come together in fellowship we not only experience the full presence of Christ (Matthew 18:20), but we are doing what pleases God (Malachi 3:16). This fellowship involves mutual acceptance and a desire to benefit the other individual.
Five Threats to Fellowship
1. Consumerism (What's in it for me).
Because consumerism is the product of our materialistic culture, people often come to church with the same attitude they have regarding a department store, "This place is here to serve me, if they fail to do so, I will take my business somewhere else." The result is people church hopping because the present church "doesn't minister to my needs." This contradicts the biblical mandate that we are to come to church to serve rather than be served. Paul challenges the church at Corinth, "But just as you excel in everything-in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us-see that you excel in this grace of giving" (2 Corinthians 8:7). While the focus is upon financial giving, the implications relate to one's whole attitude towards others. This is further explained in Philippians 2:4, "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." We are called to serve rather than be served.
2. Divisions (I want it done my way).
Often congregations are torn apart by people who are unwilling to set aside their own personal agendas and submit to the wishes of others. In their mind there is only one way to do things (whether that way be based on past traditions or their own opinions) and they will not compromise. Sadly, most church conflicts are not over doctrinal issues, but differences of opinions. Yet, some of the strongest words in scripture are directed towards those who cause internal conflicts. Anyone who destroys the intrinsic unity and love within the church through dissension is not only to be avoid (Romans 16:17-18), but is in danger of coming under the direct judgment of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Instead people are to be encouraged to resolve their differences and to be united in Christ (Philippians 4:2).
3. Individualism (I don't need others).
Often people who attend small churches (especially those in rural areas) are fiercely independent, who do not want or see the need for the assistance of others. When they come into the church they regard themselves to be spiritually self-sufficient people who not only will not admit to any weakness, but also refuse the input of others even when those weaknesses are apparent. The New Testament paints a different picture. We not only need one another (1 Corinthians 12:21-22), but only when the congregation is united in mutual support are people's needs truly met (Acts 4:32-35).
4. Pretense (I will put up a front).
It is always difficult for people to be transparent. By nature we want to hide our problems, struggles and weaknesses. Yet genuine fellowship is based upon the openness and honesty that is to characterize the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:25). For the congregation to develop the intimate bonds that Christ desires there needs to be the openness to admit our failures, temptations and problems. Only then can there be true support and encouragement.
5. Judgementalism (I will judge others by my standard).
The small church often develops an external code of conduct that corresponds to the homogeneous nature of the group. The result is that spirituality is measured by this external standard rather than the inward reality that results in character development. Conduct is evaluated, not by the standards of Scripture, but by the standards of the particular sub-culture. Paul warns against this when he writes, "Let us stop passing judgment on one another" (Romans 14:13). Genuine love looks beyond the differences or even the failures (1 Corinthians 13:5-7) and sees the progress that each person is making.
The Foundation for Fellowship
For the church to develop into a spiritual community, it must understand what is the foundation of that community. The basis for fellowship is not the commonality of our cultural norms and practices, but the spiritual bond that transcends these norms.
1. A personal relationship with Christ.
As people come into the church, they come from a variety of backgrounds, cultural perspectives, ethnic diversity and sociological differences. All these differences are erased in Christ so that we become one body, reflecting the unity that exists within the Godhead. Paul writes, "For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility" (Ephesians 2:14). Paul challenges the exclusivism of our sub-cultures and the homogeneity of the church that places barriers between the church and new comers (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). Because of Christ we have unity and fellowship with others, while at the same time we cannot have genuine fellowship with those outside the faith (2 Corinthians 6:14).
2. A common confession of faith.
Fellowship can only happen when we have agreement on the fundaments of biblical doctrine. Those who teach doctrine contrary to the scriptures are to be identified and avoided (2 John 10). This is not to say that we must have complete agreement in every detail of theology. Such a standard is not only idealistic but unrealistic as well. This attitude marks of doctrinal pride that fails to consider how our minds are affected by our fallen nature. While the fundamentals of our faith are clearly taught in Scripture, there is much that we still do not fully understand. Nevertheless, we must maintain our integrity to the gospel message and the basic doctrines and beliefs that have been upheld throughout church history.
3. Common presence of the Holy Spirit.
Because each person has the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit we have a basis for unity and fellowship. When the Spirit indwelt us at conversion, he not only did so to strengthen us in our pilgrimage, but to unite us with other believers (1 Corinthians 12:13).
4. Self-sacrificing love and concern.
The call to fellowship is a challenge to set aside our personal ambitions, interests, needs, and desires and to selflessly seek the benefit and spiritual prosperity of the other members of the Christian community. The standard for this self-sacrificing love is none other than that which Christ established in his substitutionary death on our behalf (Philippians 2:1-11).
The Responsibilities of Fellowship
Being a part of the church fellowship brings inherent responsibilities that equally apply to every individual. The obligations of these responsibilities do not come because we are members of a community organization. Rather, we are under certain obligations because of our membership in the kingdom of God.
Assimilation is the process of including new people into the life and ministry of the church. The problem of excluding new people from the congregation is not new, but plagued the early church as well. After Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus he encountered difficulty in gaining acceptance of the church. Because of his background people viewed him with suspicion and fear. However, Barnabas took the initiative to assimilate him into the church (Acts 9:26-27). The church dominated by one family may find it difficult to include new people. Even after they have attended for a number of years, they may still be regarded as the "new-comers". It is the responsibly of the leadership and congregation to set the example by intentionally seeing that new people are given opportunities to serve within the church. If the person demonstrates godly maturity, they should be given opportunities to serve in leadership positions.
Everyone is given a spiritual gift (or gifts) they are to use within the ministry of the church. "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms" (1 Peter 4:10). To be a part of a community is to be committed to the exercise of one's spiritual gift for the glory of God and the benefit of others. Service is inherent in our responsibility as part of the community. The leadership needs to seek to recruit and motivate people to service by providing them the support, opportunities and resources needed.
3. Mutual submission.
Submission is a major theme throughout the New Testament. Wives are commanded to submit to their husbands. Children are to submit tot heir parents. Everyone is responsible to submit to Christ and to governmental authorities. The writer of Hebrews places submission central to the church when he commands the congregation to submit tot he church leaders (Hebrews 13:17). The apostle Paul takes this a step further when he commands that we are to "submit to one another out of reverence" (Ephesians 5:21). This mutual submission involves the willingness to place the needs and interests of others above ourselves so that we are conciliatory in relationships. Submission stems from our willingness to be the least rather than desiring to be the greatest (Matthew 18:1-4; 20:28). We are ready to go with the plans of others while not demanding our own suggestions and ideas (Romans 12:10).
As the church gathers together there is to be the mutual prayer support for one another. The greatest privilege granted to the church fellowship is the blessing that comes through the joy of interceding on behalf of others. Prayer is to be the mark of the church so that it is known as a house of prayer. Whenever the early church gathered together, they exercised the responsibility of corporate prayer (Acts 2:42-47). Prayer expresses the unity of the congregation and the concern that it has for other people.
To be bonded in one spirit there must be a willingness to be transparent before one another. This involves moving beyond the self-pride that seeks to protect us from being vulnerable with one another. In involves the willingness to develop the trust and honesty that under-girds accountability, mutual support, and ongoing edification. James writes that we are to "confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed" (James 5:16). This depth of relationships is not easily attained, but requires effort and work. It builds upon the open trust that comes as people protect and accept one another (1 Corinthians 13:7). For this to happen within the church, it must begin with the leadership as they set the standard by being open with the people they serve.
No relationship is without hurt. Because of humanness and propensity towards selfishness we do incredibly foolish and insensitive things that hurt others. Likewise, because no one is yet perfect, people will sin. They will unintentionally (and, at times, intentionally) wrong us. While scripture sets the procedure for dealing with these problems (Matthew 18:15-20), the foundation for restoring the relationship is a forgiving attitude. To maintain unity people must be willing to forgive the inevitable misunderstanding and disagreements that occur.
Building Fellowship within the Church.
The task of leadership is to develop an atmosphere where a spiritual community is established. Genuine and mutual spiritual support requires intentional effort.
1. Build a theology of community.
In the individualistic and independent culture in which we live, people isolate themselves from others. This results in a deficient and distorted understanding of the body of Christ and what it means to be within community. People are being taught to love themselves, but not to love the church. Establishing a genuinely loving community requires that we develop a biblically sound theology of the church, that we begin to see the congregation from the perspective of Christ.
2. Provide opportunities for people to develop relationships.
People need to spend time together to build relationships that move beyond the superficial. Trust provides the cornerstone for mutual accountability, transparent honesty and loving confrontation. This is not established by gathering for one hour on Sunday to sing hymns and hear the spoken message. It can only come through time, as people learn to accept one another and value each other. To build this trust the church needs to provide opportunities for people to interact with one another informally, to share with one another their joys and sorrows, to help one another through assistance and care, to pray for the trials and difficulties that each face. Potlucks, dinners, and other fun events are more than just a social event; they are opportunities for people to gain a better understanding of one another. They provide people with avenues to build trust as they learn to appreciate each other.
3. Strengthen corporate prayer.
People who pray together stay together. Prayer enhances unity, it transforms attitudes, it encourages mutual concern, it builds trust and it moves God. Often conflicts arise in the church, not because people disagree (even people in very close relationships disagree), but because people have not learned to trust and care for one another. Corporate prayer binds people and becomes an expression of people's love for others. When people love one another they pray for one another and when they pray for one another they learn to love one another more deeply. While this might appear to be a paradox, it remains true. If a church desires to become marked by love and instill love within the congregation, it needs to focus upon corporate prayer.
4. Provide care for people in crisis.
Eliphaz best described the daily reality of life when he lamented, "Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upwards" (Job 4:7). No matter who a person is, where he might live, the social status and economic prosperity he might enjoy, he is not immune to suffering. It strikes unpredictably, showing no favoritism to any, and comes unexpectedly. However, while the trials we face are part and parcel to living in a fallen world, they are not arbitrary and purposeless. God not only brings suffering and trials to work in the lives of individuals, he also allows them in order to build love and unity within the body of Christ (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). Loving churches take care of people not only within the congregation but the community as well. They manifest their love not only in their verbal response to one another, but through their actions. They sacrifice their own pleasure and comfort to minister to people in need, whether that involves helping them move to a new house, providing means for people in crisis, or just lending a neighborly hand to someone who needs some assistance. Part of the responsibility of the leadership of the church is to evaluate and implement strategies for organizing people to care for others (Acts 6:1-7).
5. Develop accountability and mentoring programs.
There is a vast difference between accountability and judgementalism. Accountability seeks to hold the person responsible for his or her thoughts, actions and attitudes in order to encourage and foster spiritual growth within the individual. Judgementalism desires to condemn the person to lower their standing in order to elevate oneself. Accountability focuses upon the issues and needs of others. Judgementalism focuses only upon one's own issues, desires and attitudes. Accountability builds upon humility and the awareness of one's own personal vulnerability (Galatians 6:1). Judgementalism flows from one's arrogance and pious self-righteousness. Acceptability is motivated by love; judgementalism is motivated by selfishness. A church that genuinely loves one another will develop mentoring relationships between people in order to hold one another accountable.