We’ve all attended a Christian fellowship meeting where boredom drives us to count the cracks in the tiles and we end up feeling feel guilty for wondering whether this was a waste of precious time. At other times we walk away from lively discussion with laughter or tears, yet feeling empty, wondering if Jesus was at this meeting. But we go back because we know it’s right, and because we remember and yearn for those powerful life-changing encounters with God in a loving community. How do we prepare for those meetings? What did the Christian fellowships look like to result in such life-giving communities?
The word “fellowship” is used very loosely in Christian circles these days for anything from formal Sunday worship services to conversation over coffee to prayer meetings at work. Interestingly enough, none of these references are improper when compared to the New Testament use. Hampton Keathley did a very helpful study of fellowship in the New Testament, showing how it the concepts of “having together” or “sharing” is used in reference to our relationship with God and one another, the various ways in which companionship takes place, or for the sharing of resources to meet one another’s needs, as well as partnership in ministry. Christian fellowship is a wide study, and perhaps that is one reason why at times “fellowship groups” fail in being productive and life-giving.
Before we get handles on what to focus on in Christian fellowship groups, let’s first consider our communication within the fellowship. It is widely considered (and helpful) to look at five levels in communication: Hallway Talk is that shallow conversations we do in showing courtesy – the “hello!” and “lovely day, isn’t it?” exchanges as we pass by. Then we have Reporter Talk where we relay facts or experiences; in a Christian group this is typically a teaching or an update. Next we move to Intellectual Talk as we add personal depth by sharing our thoughts, understanding or opinions on the subject at hand. Many Christian groups only progress to here, limiting the fellowship to intellectual debate or lecture – the reason for the lifeless feeling in fellowship. From here the talk should move to making it even more personal – Emotional Talk – where one’s feelings towards the subject is discussed: “How do you feel when you read ‘God so loved the world…’?” or “How does the statement ‘God will judge every work…’ move you?” But Christian fellowship should not climax with emotive response alone – the aim to evaluate yourself soberly in light of the Word and then present your shortcomings vulnerable for the Lord in the ministry of the fellowship (1 John 1: 7-9; James 5:16). Communication in Christian fellowship should be Loving, Genuine Truthful Talk. This level of communication is very honest and transparent and requires an environment of patient love and safe trust. But this is the environment where the Spirit of God works with great power and delicate precision. Here there is LIFE that shows in healthy growth and miraculous transformation.
The elements of true Christian fellowship
Now that we know the conversational environment wherein Christian fellowship should take place, what are the necessary elements for healthy Christian fellowship? With fellowship meaning “sharing” – what do we “share” when we come together?
Firstly, as Christians we come together to fellowship with God in Christ (1 John 1:3, Colossians 1:27). We share in God as we share in Christ – this is firstly an objective reality, since God lives in and we live in God through Christ. In a literal sense we “share” or “hold onto” God himself – this is true regardless of share activities. God has us together and we have God together.
But fellowship with God is also subjective experience and deliberate activity as we commune with him about anything and everything in prayer. We come together to meet with God and converse with God. This includes the giving of thanks for his goodness in our lives, praising him for who he is and surrendering ourselves to him in worship. Fellowship with God must always be the central focus of Christian fellowship, otherwise it becomes a human social interest club. We meet with God as God’s family around Our Father’s table.
Secondly, we fellowship is with one another (Acts 2:42; Hebrews 10:25; 1 John 1:3,7-9). It sounds silly to say it, but the second focus of coming together is to be with one another and “stir one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24-25). The focus of gathering is the well-being and growth of the others, placing the needs of others above their own (Philippians 2:3-4). An enlightening study is to search through the New Testament and take note of the many instructions to “one another” and “each other” as it gives a healthy perspective of the practice of early Christian fellowship that characterized by love for one another. The complete list of “one another” –instructions is long, but the essentials in my view for every meeting is to “encourage each other” one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18, 5:11) and “build each other up” (Hebrews 3:13) in our walk with Christ, to support and care for each other (Galatians 6:2; 2 Corinthians 13:11; 1 Corinthians 12:25-26) through struggles and hardships, to correct and warn one another of harmful attitudes and sinful behaviour (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16) as we hold one another accountable before Christ.
Thirdly, we fellowship in Word the Scriptures are the basis of our conversation and reflection whether in instruction (Romans 15:14; 2 Timothy 2:2) or edification and correction (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16) the Biblical Text is the basis of our communion. Too often our conversation centers on our opinions, resulting in worldly advice or cheap Hall-Mark card encouragement. In Christian fellowship the Bible is central. We gather around the word of God as we seek God and his will for our lives, remembering the words of Peter to our Lord: “Lord, you alone have the words of life” (John 6:68).
Fourthly, we fellowship in Spirit (Philippians 2:1). As mentioned above our fellowship is not mere intellectual engagement or emotional interchange, but spirit-to-spirit ministry. We already “share in the Spirit” since we all immersed in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:12), and therefore our interaction should be spiritual. This includes prayerful waiting on the direction of the Spirit for empowered ministry as we “serve one another with the gifts each one has received” (1 Peter 4:10; 1 Corinthians 12:6-11). We must remind ourselves to stop and listen to the promptings of the Spirit, and in faith obey. Our fellowship is in the Holy Spirit.
Lastly, we fellowship in Gospel (Philippians 1:5, 7 27). Objectively this means we have become “partakers of the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6) – those who have received and hold on to the promise of redemption in Christ’s substation and grace. When we come together this is evident as we testify of our experience of Christ’s continual saving work in us. But to “fellowship in the gospel” (Philippians 1:5) also means to partner with one another in the work of the gospel – the spreading of the good news of God’s reign and Christ’s saving work. We fellowship as we take hands, or “yoke together”, to work diligently and strategically in sharing the gospel and showing God’s love with those close and those far away.
Thus Christian fellowship is centered in our worship of God and overflows to our communion with one another. This fellowship is centered in the Word and directed by the Spirit and results in partnership in spreading the gospel of Christ. Christian fellowship fails when its aim is mere intellectual enlightenment or emotional support; the goal of Christian fellowship is the discovery of God and his truth followed by a conviction and transparent confession of who I am, so that God through his grace may do his transforming work in me, within and through this loving community.