Cultivating Fellowship within the Church

In today’s modern church, true fellowship is often lacking. As group dynamics takes place, people naturally form into groups. This is plainly observed both in and out of the church. This point was driven home during a recent conference I attended. Three hundred and seventy-five Christian writers assembled together for five days, and I was amazed at how easy it was to get to know others. Everyone was eager to know each other, and within hours, we were sitting together and talking about our Christian walks and other interests. In a few days, I got to know more people, and had deeper fellowship, than I have experienced in church in the last three or four years.

 

This caused me to wonder. Why is it so hard to get to know people in church? When a visitor comes in, everyone rushes to greet them. They feel welcomed and often it results in a decision to join the local congregation. Each person looks at the church and asks one basic question: Will I find belonging here?

 

People have different reasons by which they evaluate church. Some are looking for benefits and look to church as a service provider. But every single person has a need for belonging. This is not a selfish attitude; it is something God has built within us. God never intended Christians to operate independent of each other. There are times when a Christian stands alone in the culture, but it is not God’s plan to make him or her stand alone in the church. God gives grace to endure isolation when it’s necessary, but the church is not something we should endure.

 

What I have observed in the group dynamics of almost every church I have been involved with is a series of closed circles – or cliques. Many people do not even realize they are cliquish, because they go out of their way to give a smile and a handshake. It is those who stand outside the circles that recognize the emptiness of standing alone. When people feel at home in their circle of friends, they have no need; therefore, they fail to recognize the needs of others. This is why many people come in, feel welcomed and join a church. Over time, they begin feeling isolated and discouraged as they work toward the back door of the church. Without being noticed, they are gone.

 

At first, they don’t feel rejected, because they are treated to friendly greetings, but hope fades as the loneliness of being outside the circle drags on. People join with the hope of belonging. The expectation is set by the welcoming atmosphere, but unless the church follows through, we have failed to live out the principles that scripture mandates. You see, it is human nature that divides us into groups, but the church is called to be intentional about showing love to the brethren. And love calls us deeper than a handshake.

 

Let me give an illustration from my past. I was eighteen and started attending a church where I met Charlie and Kathy. They were about ten years older, and were two of the most loving people I have ever met. They were outgoing, charismatic, and full of life. They and their two young sons attended every church event and involved themselves in every church function. This church even had a weekly meal after the service, and Charlie and Kathy were at every meal. They seemed happy and could talk to almost anyone.

 

One day at the end of the meal, Kathy stood up and announced their family was leaving the church. She gave a tearful explanation. They had been attending the church for more than two years and she said they had done everything possible to get to know people, but she was lonelier than ever. Kathy explained they had no meaningful relationships and didn’t feel close to anyone. After two years of trying, they had lost hope, had decided to leave to search for a church where they felt belonging.

 

I was shocked by her words and this incident never left my thoughts. How could a family so involved, and people so liked, feel lonely and excluded? Nearly thirty years later, I recognize the truth of her words, and the challenge of every church to be intentional about loving each other. Every human has a need to belong. Belonging doesn’t always equate to involvement. Like Kathy, everyone wants to have fellowship on a deeper level. It is the fellowship after the activities have passed that individuals long for. People long to have true, Christian fellowship. The kind of fellowship where I can be real with you, and I know you feel welcomed to be real with me.

 

This type of fellowship doesn’t just happen. It requires cultivation, commitment, and intentional effort. And it is all based on Christian love. I want to talk today about the three levels of fellowship among the believers, and how the Bible teaches us to live out these things. However, before we can have biblical fellowship, the love of God must be active among us.

 

Understanding Love

Every Christian must understand what it means to love. Even if you fully understand the concept of love, the Bible commands us to constantly put each other in remembrance of these things, lest at any time we should let them slip. Therefore, let’s do a quick examination of love and do so from the perspective of fellowship. Look at 1 Peter 1:22

Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love (Philia) of the brethren, love (Agape) one another fervently with a pure heart.

 

In this passage, Peter uses both philia and agape. Philia is friendship love, brotherly kindness, or warm affection. Agape is the love of God. It is self-sacrificing, outward focused, giving love. In this passage, Peter is addressing the church – those who have purified their souls by obedience to the truth of God’s word. The natural result of a church in the Spirit is the love of the brethren. Even though love (philia) is already active in this church, the Bible commands the church to pursue love (agape) among one another, and to do so fervently. To be fervent means to be intense. It is to intentionally give agape to each other in the church and to do so with great effort.

 

But to give agape, one must receive agape from the Lord. Romans 5:5 tells us:

Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

 

You cannot produce agape. It is a spiritual gift of God, but is one that every believer receives when he is born into the Spirit through Christ. It is not only a one-time gift, but a continuous filling, for the Spirit spreads it abundantly in our heart. Yet there is more to love than receiving it from God. The love resides within us, but we cannot allow it to stagnate in our hearts. We are commanded to make an intense effort to love our fellow believers.

 

We must realize that agape is not just something God gives, it is also agapao – a noun – something God uses in our life to call us to action. God does not allow his love to stagnate. Agape is the love of God that flows from the Holy Spirit and into the life of every believer. Yet, as we can see, many in the church are dead spiritually, and struggle to love others in the church. In fact, anyone who has been in church for a long time has likely met people from whose mouth flows bitterness, resentment, and discouragement. How can God pour life into someone, and no life comes out? Of course, the Bible instructs us to examine ourselves to see if we are indeed in the faith, but often times the issue is not one of salvation, but stagnation. Let me give an illustration of this.

 

The largest river in Israel is the Jordan River. It is filled with life, and it gives life to many. It is a primary source of life-giving water to much of Israel. Yet an interesting thing happens when it reaches its final destination. It becomes the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea takes, and takes, and takes, but gives nothing. It is filled with minerals, water, and other resources that normally benefit life, but this stagnate body kills every living organism that flows into it from the Jordan River.

 

The Christian life is very much like this. Those who take what God gives them and distribute to others find life, fulfillment, and the promises of God. However, those who receive, but neglect to distribute, what was meant for life stagnates, and becomes foul in the heart. Look at Proverbs 11:

 24 There is one who scatters, yet increases more; And there is one who withholds more than is right, But it leads to poverty.
25 The generous soul will be made rich, And he who waters will also be watered himself.

 

It is a fact of life; those who do not give are never satisfied, but those who give are filled with abundance. The more self-focused and self-centered we become, the less content and satisfied we are. Agape is the life-giving love God has poured into our hearts, and agapao is our action to share that with those around us.

 

Once we understand what it means to love, we are equipped for the fellowship of the saints. Let’s now look at church fellowship.

 

Welcoming Fellowship

Greeting one another in Christian fellowship is a basic function of the church. It is interesting how often this is mentioned in the Bible. Here are two examples.

 

3 John 1:14 but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face. Peace to you. Our friends greet you. Greet the friends by name.

 

Titus 3:15 All who are with me greet you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all. Amen.

 

Greeting is an acknowledgement of the brethren, and a gesture of appreciation. In fact, the Bible actually commands us to greet each other Five times in the New Testament the church is instructed to greet each other with a holy kiss. Of course, in our culture we express greeting with a handshake, but in the Middle East, a kiss on each cheek was the custom of greeting friends, and is still in practice in that region today. The point is that as the church, part of our responsibility is to make all our fellow believers feel welcomed.

 

Take time out to look up the number of times the word ‘greet’ is used in the New Testament. Before ending a letter to the church, the apostles went to great pains to greet their fellows by name. Romans 16 ends with an interesting series of greetings. The Apostle Paul greets his acquaintances, and then Tertius attaches his own greeting with the letter.

 

To welcome each other in the fellowship of worship with a friendly greeting is a basic first step in the communion of the saints. It’s an important part of worship for it welcomes each other and acknowledges our appreciation for their part in the body of Christ. Every church should provide an opportunity for the saints to greet one another, and each member should be intentional about greeting and acknowledge the value of each member.

 

Friendship among believers.

As important as greeting one another with holy fellowship is to the assembly, fellowship does not end here. Greeting reminds each person that they are valued in the congregation, but friendship is where relationships are cultivated among the saints.

 

Jesus made it clear that the evidence we are following him is our love for each other. As we draw closer to Christ, a natural common bond should develop. Yet, in the church, there is a tendency to envy those who truly seek to know God, and this creates a barrier to fellowship. In part, the problem is that I am intimidated by the faith of another if I have no desire to follow Christ. So, often the problem with fellowship is a spiritual problem. If love is lacking in our lives, it is time to examine our own walk and see if my spiritual walk is becoming a hindrance to fellowship. Fellowship is a byproduct of a faithful walk with Christ. Look at 1 John 1:7

  But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

 

The truth is, two people walking down the same path have something in common. Two cannot walk together unless they agree. There has to be a common interest, and for the Christian, our faith provides that commonality that creates true fellowship. When I was in the military, I was frequently uprooted, and sent to places where I didn’t know anyone. When I first arrived in Germany many years back, I ended up in a unit with no Christian companionship. I could be friendly with others in my unit, but my faith conflicted with the lifestyles of those around me.

 

One day when I was feeling isolated, I looked out the window and saw two soldiers carrying Bibles as they headed for a study. I joined myself to them, and there was an instant bond. For the next two years, our friendship grew and the fellowship was always refreshing.

 

Every place I ended up, I found instant camaraderie. When I found believers, I found fellowship. In Acts 21, Paul was traveling to Jerusalem and had to stop at Tyre for the ship to unload her cargo. The Bible says he found disciples there and decided to stay with them for seven days. As Christians, we have the amazing privilege of having an instant connection with other believers because of our common faith. Truly, if we walk in the light of Christ, we will have fellowship with others who are also walking in that light.

 

There must be a genuineness in our faith. We must be intentional, and welcoming of others. We must reach out, and not put on a pretentious mask. There must be fellowship, not mere words. Look now at Romans 12:9-13

  9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.
10 Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another;
11 not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord;
12 rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer;
13 distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.

 

This is a perfect picture of fellowship. Those who are fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, abiding in prayer, and living out their faith will have a heart of fellowship. This is where true fellowship begins to take root in the local church. Once again, we have a passage that uses both agape and philia love. Agape causes us to live without hypocrisy, abhor evil, and cling to good. From this love, rooted in obedience and fellowship with Christ, pure philia love emerges. Brotherly affection becomes a part of our relationship with each other, and causes us to prefer one another. In other words, we want to be together. But it begins with an intentional obedience to love. It becomes a service to the Lord where we are diligent and fervent in our spirit of fellowship.

 

Hospitality is an important part of fellowship. It is welcoming brothers and sisters in Christ into your home, breaking bread together, and becoming involved in each other’s lives. It is not merely staying within our circle, but reaching out to others in the body as well. Cliques are part of human nature, but God calls us out of that way of living and into a brotherhood of fellowship. The Bible says, “The rich and the poor meet together. The Lord is the maker of them all.”

 

Within the body of Christ, social classes must not be lines of division. Our commonality is not the things we possess or the status of our offices, but the fellowship of lives abiding in Christ. The church is not like the world. There are no meaningless lives or outcasts in the church. Consider 1 Corinthians 12:20-27

 20 But now indeed there are many members, yet one body.
21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
22 No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.
23 And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty,
24 but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it,
25 that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.
26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.

 

When this is lost, we have stepped outside of Christianity. Not only are we called to welcome those who are least in society, but we are called to give them greater honor. Those for whom honor comes naturally have no need. Those who lack are to be given greater honor. Intentional acknowledgement and intentional fellowship must thrive among the saints.

 

Those with charismatic personalities draw people to them. But what you will find is that those who are quiet and lacking in outward charisma have much to give. When we get beyond the outer shell, and past the reservations, you will find that most people are not much different than yourself.

 

In cliques, the circle is closed to outsiders. Even if we don’t realize it, we are excluding others by simply following our natural tendencies. It matters little if I feel that I would welcome anyone into my world if others don’t feel welcomed. Not everyone has the confidence or the personality to push there way into the circle. I must be intentional about reaching out to others, and lead them into the circle. And I must not only welcome those who can offer something I want. Fellowship for the purpose of fellowship alone is our calling – no, command. We are not called to make investments. If I extend myself only when I see something to gain in return, it’s an investment. Love is to give, looking for nothing in return.

 

The Bible says, he who loves another has fulfilled the law. The opposite is also true. If individuals are outside the love of the brethren, we have failed to fulfill the law.

 

Intimacy

Intimacy in our relationships is the highest form of love in the brethren – and the hardest to achieve. Intimacy is not something that comes naturally, but has to be cultivated by spending time with others. Usually, it is one on one time. Among men, this is a difficult task. I will not readily share my deepest needs with another man until trust has been established and I know this person will not reject me, slander me, or scoff at my weaknesses.

 

We’ve all heard about accountability partners, but this is rarely effective until a trusting relationship has developed. I have to get beyond friendliness, into friendship, and then true Christian intimacy can develop. It is difficult to obtain, but this level of love among friends creates a bond where two friends become stronger than two individuals. Christian intimacy makes personal discipleship thrive greater than one alone could ever be. Plus it provides a level of protection each person needs. Look at Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

  9 Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labor.
10 For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, For he has no one to help him up.
11 Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; But how can one be warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

 

I would love to be someone who will never stumble or fall, but would be a rock solid Christian for my entire life. This, of course, is not possible. We all fall. We all stumble. We all have times in our life when we lose our way and don’t feel very spiritually minded. Yet, according to the Bible, intimacy is given by God for this very purpose. When I fall, and I am a lone Christian, I am left to flounder around with no one to pick me up. I may eventually get to my feet, but if my friend is with me, his hand is there to pull me up, and I am there for him. The warmth of friendship removes the chill of loneliness. Two friends standing up for one another is a powerful virtue. When three friends establish that level of intimacy, it is like a rope folded three times. It’s almost impossible to break.

 

Consider the ministry of the apostles. Paul didn’t travel alone. He always served with a companion, and he invested his life in that person. When Jesus sent the disciples out for ministry, he sent them by twos. God is not impressed with our rugged individualism; his plan is for each person to have deep fellowship and gain partners in both the ministry, and our walk of faith. When we serve as God has called, we will see God move as he has promised. The fruit of our lives, personal ministries, and church ministries will prove whether we have true fellowship.

 

The Fruit of Love

When I was a soldier, I often felt alone in the world around me. Surrounded by worldliness taxed my spirit, and because I had to live with a room full of men who opposed my lifestyle, the isolation was often hard to bear. Add to this, I was overseas and far from the securities of home.

 

An air force chaplain and his wife opened up their home to the soldiers as a part of his personal ministry. They created an atmosphere for Christian fellowship. Each Friday evening, there would be a meal where single soldiers and married couples would gather. After the meal, he gave a Bible study. Then his wife played the piano and we sang songs of praise. When all was done, I would sit for hours talking with fellow soldiers, or the chaplain, and we spent time learning what it meant to have true fellowship. This time became an anchor for my soul.

 

In our group of twenty or so people, I know of eight who went on to become missionaries and full time pastors. What pastor would not want 40% of their congregations to graduate into full time ministry? Could there be a better mark of success in one’s ministry?

 

Though the chaplain’s doctrine was solid, he wasn’t a dynamic speaker. He never built a church, or assembled thousands to hear him speak. To my knowledge, the groups he led never exceeded thirty people. But consider the impact this man had, and is having on the lives of those he touches. Every few years, soldiers are transferred and a new group slowly filtered into his fellowship. I can’t imagine how many ministers emerged from this small ministry.

 

It has been twenty years since I sat among those believers, and to be honest, I remember very little of the doctrine, but I hold the fellowship we had in my heart as a treasure. Although doctrine is important, doctrine without fellowship carries little weight. If love is absent, the hearts of the people will be hard as stone.

 

Fellowship was the power of his influence. His love for us, and our love for each other created an eagerness to grow in the faith. Because I had a heart full of desire, I carried myself to the scriptures and studied. His influence was not to teach me doctrine, but to teach me how to walk in fellowship with Christ and other believers so I was drawn to the doctrine. A desire to know the word came out of the communion with like minded believers. Fellowship without truth is a social club. Truth without fellowship is like seeding a barren ground. But when both are present, we will have given every person the opportunity to grow into the fullness of Christ.

 

To obtain these things, there must be intentional communion among the saints. It doesn’t just happen. It happens because you extend your soul to those around you. It only happens when we are not forgetful hearers, but doers of the word. Jesus said, “By this shall all men know you are my disciples, because of your love for one another.” You cannot expect God to add to the church if we are not investing our lives in cultivating love among the brethren – all brethren.

 

Eddie Snipes
06/2010

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *