What’s the glue that holds us together as the church? What keeps us coming back week after week, year after year? What brings us back when we’ve been wounded, “hit by friendly fire” as one author puts it? If our Christian, church family relationships are messy and difficult, why bother trying to love each other as Christ has loved us? Why not pull back, protect ourselves, maybe even find someplace else to worship or use our gifts? Why should I pursue community here?
Maybe these questions resonate with you but you’ve never said them out loud, they just rattle around in your head getting louder and louder. Maybe you’ve talked about it within the privacy of your own home, or perhaps given a sympathetic ear to a friend over the telephone, but you certainly wouldn’t share these thoughts with just anyone! Does even asking bring a sense of discomfort or guiltiness?
Some may never have asked the question, never questioned coming to church, or asked upon what is our fellowship founded. For many of us going to church was never in question, it was expected and we did it without question (although perhaps with a bit of grumbling at times). We dealt with whatever difficulties arose in different ways, but we were baptized in the church and we expected to be buried there too.
I hope I haven’t lost anyone yet, that you keep reading and that we can find the answer together and grow stronger as a congregation!
What is the foundation of our fellowship? In other words, upon what is our life together centered? And what gives the boundaries or guidelines for what our congregational life looks like? That’s the dual purpose of a foundation, to provide something solid and stable to build upon as well as to provide the outline or shape of what is built.
Our life together, in this particular congregation at this particular time, must be centered on our union with Jesus Christ, our fellowship with Him that enables and guides our fellowship with one another. By sharing life together as His Church we are to be proclaiming and picturing Christ to the world around us as we worship and work together for God’s glory.
I’d like to flesh out this answer by asking you to think of several reasons why folks might attend and even join a church apart from being united to Jesus Christ by saving faith. (Please keep in mind that all of us do things for a complex multitude of reasons and that none of us are yet perfectly sanctified!) Let me suggest three things that may seem to satisfy as a substitute for true Christian fellowship: Programs, Power, People who are like me, or who I like.
If our idea of church fellowship is centered on programs, we’ve missed what the Bible teaches about Christian Fellowship. God’s Word gives us a different picture, as one writer wanted to communicate to his congregation, “a particular vision of spiritual fellowship centered not on external activities and programs but on our shared life of spiritual union with Jesus the Son of God.” And yet many have imbibed the cultural Kool-Aid and think of themselves primarily as consumers whose desires are paramount in any decision. So the temptation (for all of us) is to look around at what the church offers in terms of programs that I like or activities that I want to get involved in. We feel like we are fellowshipping when all we’re really doing is participating in a common activity. But we can choose to do almost the same thing anywhere; does doing it (whatever “it” happens to be – softball or eating for instance) with other Christians make it fellowship? If we understand Fellowship only as an external activity that we’re involved in, then there’s really nothing distinctively Christian about it, is there? Additionally, we then must admit that we won’t build Christian Fellowship merely by doing things together or by offering more programs.
Just as we have said over and over, and will continue to say again and again that we are not looking at a building project to grow our church (as if the Field of Dreams mantra was true – “If you build it they will come” – it’s NOT TRUE!), just so we cannot say that if we offered more programs or the ‘right’ activities then our church fellowship will be better. Our fellowship with one another is based on our being united to Jesus by faith just like every other believer. And our fellowship one with another is centered on growing up together in Christ, becoming mature, more like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Programs may provide the opportunity to get together, but they are not the glue that holds us together. They give us a chance to serve one another and work alongside brothers and sisters in Christ, but the activity itself can’t truly unite us. But Christ can and does! And He unites unique individuals with different likes and dislikes, pasts and personalities, gifts and opportunities. So programs come and go, activities are for a season, but because the foundation of our fellowship is union with Christ we continue to enthusiastically embrace one another and build each other up. We encourage new ideas and celebrate God’s blessing of past endeavors. God is glorified and His people depend on Him for the growth.
I won’t take as much time with the next two substitutes for spiritual fellowship. The second suggestion was power; how is that a substitute? Well, again, our culture is individualistic to the extreme. We are taught (or like to think) that we don’t need anybody, and that it’s a sign of weakness to need someone else. So we come into the church and dismiss the vital importance of Christian fellowship. “Other people (weaker Christians) may need a small group” we might think, “but not me.” So instead of mutually dependent, mutually submissive relationships that are built on the common foundation of being a weak sinner absolutely needing God’s grace in Christ, we think of ourselves as “Strong Christians” and find it hard to submit.
Instead of fellowship centered on our spiritual union with Jesus we treat our relationships to others in the church as a way to get done what we think is best. When we negate the necessity of Christian Fellowship we see others as either tools (if they’re on our side then we can use them to our advantage) or obstacles (if someone is against us, then they need to be removed). With our union in Christ as the foundation, our fellowship looks very different. We will be able to point to concrete examples of times when one member suffered and all of us suffered with that brother or sister; or when one member was honored and all rejoiced (1 Cor. 12:26)!
Lastly, if our fellowship is only with people like me, or people I like, then we are not enjoying and participating in the fullness of the fellowship that God offers when the basis and boundaries of our fellowship is union with Jesus our Savior. If we limit our deep Christian Fellowship to exclusively to folks to look, sound, act like us then we are missing the deep joy of seeing God’s grace and glory manifested in believer’s lives who are different! I love cherry pie, maybe you love chocolate chip cookies, but if we never ate any other kind of dessert our taste buds would be much the worse off! We give thanks and enjoy the great variety in God’s good creation (think of all the different kinds of songbirds and how each sunset is unique), why wouldn’t we want more of that in our fellowship?
Fellowship that is rooted and growing up in union with Jesus Christ is much richer. We delight (have you ever been “tickled pink”?) in getting to know brothers and sisters in Christ who are not like us! And it is a noticeable contrast to the world when we love other Christians that normally we might not even like! Our fellowship is much deeper and richer than it ever could be naturally because of what Christ has done for every one of us and in each of us.
The world has lots of small homogeneous groups and can gather different people to do something together. The world also can give more than enough examples of people who lord it over others, the Church is called to something very different. The foundation of our fellowship is our union with Jesus Christ and so we love and serve every member deeply, equally, perseveringly, and with forgiveness quick to be granted. So let’s not be satisfied with shallow fellowship or church life that’s merely busy, or bossy, or solely based on who’s my buddy.
There is a joy in this spiritual fellowship that we have tasted, but there is more to enjoy! We can always grow, our fellowship can always be deeper, and our love for one another can continue to be more evident by God’s grace and to His glory.
May God bless us all with this joy,