April 2007 Issue
by Kenneth S. Hemphill
like loneliness, isolation, and alienation describe how many people
feel about their existence. We have become such a transient people
that few people live near their nuclear family. We move so often
that we find it challenging to make friends; as a result, many
people simply don't try. The people around us are little more
than faceless and anonymous acquaintances.
Sounds depressing doesn't it? Yet the apparent loneliness and
the need for fellowship provide one of the greatest opportunities
for the church to advance the Kingdom. If people need and desire
fellowship and the church is the only place where authentic fellowship
can occur, then why are we failing to make the connection? Tragically,
many people who have attended our churches indicate that they
have not experienced fellowship. Exit interviews with those who
have dropped out of church indicate that many left the church
because they sensed that they didn't belong and that no one cared
I am a guest in a different church nearly every week, and I
know that most believers do care. How then do we express our concern
in such a manner that those attending our church will experience
genuine fellowship? I think our largest barrier is that we often
attend church so focused on our own needs that we fail to minister
to others. What we need is a Kingdom refocusing and an intentional
strategy for expressing fellowship.
Five Undeniable Truths
Fellowship is not optional to biblical Christianity.
Man was created for fellowship. From the very beginning, God declared
that it was not good for man to be alone. While this statement
was the prelude to the declaration on marriage, it nonetheless
indicates man's need for community. In His final instructions
to His disciples, Jesus repeated a single command three times:
I give you a new commandment: love one another. Just as I have
loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people
will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one
another (John 13:34; 15:12, 17). It is an inescapable truth
we cannot belong to Christ without belonging to a community
Fellowship with other believers is essential to personal
spiritual growth. One of the most powerful prayers for the
church is found in Ephesians 3:14-21. Paul prays that believers
would know the love of Christ which "surpasses knowledge."
How can we know something that surpasses our understanding? The
key is found in the critical phrase, "with all the saints."
None of us know all there is to know about God's love, but together
we have a larger picture of His love. To think that we can individually
grow in our love of Christ while we neglect other believers is
Fellowship is essential to ministry since the unified body
is the platform for the proper functioning of the spiritual gifts.
In every passage where spiritual gifts are mentioned the issue
of unity of the body and the common good are always preeminent.
The imagery of the properly functioning body in 1 Corinthians
12 establishes the need for fellowship among body members.
Authentic fellowship can only be found in Christ. One
of the key Greek terms that is translated "fellowship"
in our English Bibles is koinonia. In secular Greek, a
public park might be referred to as koinos because it belonged
to everyone. When applied to people, koinonia could indicate
a business or marriage partnership. For the early church koinonia
was a group of believers who were bound together by their common
loyalty to Christ. Our fellowship crosses racial, cultural, gender,
and other artificial boundaries to find its basis in Christ alone.
Fellowship is essential to Kingdom expansion. Since
people are created with a need for fellowship, the church that
practices biblical fellowship will function like a magnet to the
fellowship-hungry world. This truth is articulated by John in
his first letter. In the first two verses of the first chapter,
John speaks of believers declaring what they had experienced concerning
the Word of Life. Why? What we have seen and heard we also
declare to you, so that you may have fellowship along with us;
and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son
Jesus Christ (1 John. 1:3). Notice that fellowship by definition
could never be diluted by numerical growth.
The Acts Model
You can't read Acts without developing a profound appreciation
for the deep level of fellowship enjoyed by the early Christians.
These early believers, Jew and Gentile alike, were thrust together
by their common conviction that Jesus was the Messiah. No doubt,
many of those radical enough to declare their loyalty to Christ
were cut off by former family members and friends. After all,
they had identified themselves with a group of persons who many
deemed to be a dangerous and heretical splinter group from historic
Judaism. Thus fellowship was not an option but a necessity. The
new community of believers had literally become family.
In Acts 1:14 we have our first hint of the depth of first century
fellowship. We are told that they were continually united in
prayer. The word "continually" indicates that these
early believers spent a large amount of time together. Luke uses
the word "devoted" to indicate the depth of the commitment
of the early believers to their fellowship (2:42). Fellowship
was not an occasional pot luck meal with people one barely knows
by name, it was an intimate family connection that created a passionate
desire for daily communion. Listen to this description of the
early church: And every day they devoted themselves to meeting
together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to
house. They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart
The fellowship of the church had practical implications. Now
all the believers were together and had everything in common.
So they sold their possessions and property and distributed the
proceeds to all, as anyone had a need (2:44-45). This does
not suggest that they established a commune they did not
dispose of all earthly possessions and retreat to an outpost in
the Palestinian desert. While they maintained personal property
rights, they willingly sold excess property and possessions as
the needs of others dictated. Simply put, they responded to one
another's needs as family members would spontaneously and
Breaking Down Barriers and
Building a Foundation for Fellowship
The Pauline letters are filled with imagery that speaks of
the intimate nature and necessity of fellowship in the church.
He often illustrates the work of the church by comparing it to
a physical body which must be unified to function properly. He
declares that God has placed the parts, each one of them, in
the body just as He wanted (1 Corinthians 12:18). He indicates
that the body members are so interrelated that the suffering of
one member impacts the entire body (1 Corinthians 12:26).
But let's be honest. The church today is made up of such a
widely diverse population that unity and fellowship are challenging
at best. We are diverse in terms of gender, age, race, financial
strength, musical tastes, leadership styles, giftedness
and the list goes on. This diversity could become a barrier to
fellowship. In Ephesians 2, Paul explains how such barriers can
be broken down. Paul speaks of the most formidable barrier of
his day the barrier between Jew and Gentile. In his description
he uses words like "excluded," "foreigners,"
"far away," and "with no hope." What could
overcome this isolation? But now in Christ Jesus, you who were
far away have been brought near by the blood of the Messiah. For
He is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing
wall of hostility (13-14).
In Ephesians 4 Paul entreats believers to walk in a manner
worthy of their calling. One aspect of that worthy walk requires
believers to accept one another in love, diligently keeping
the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us (2b-3).
Paul follows this with the sevenfold unity that believers have
in Christ. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were
called to one hope at your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and
in all (4-6).
The Attitude Necessary to
In Philippians 2 Paul speaks of the attitude necessary for
building fellowship. Paul begins with several statements which
anticipate a positive response. If then there is any encouragement
in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with
the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by thinking
the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings,
focusing on one goal. Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but
in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.
Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also
for the interests of others (1-4).
What would happen in your church and in the broader Christian
community if we began to embody the truths of these verses? Do
you think such a level of fellowship is possible? Before you answer,
remember it is the work of the Spirit to create this fellowship.
Perhaps you noticed that our unity is based not only on our common
relationship to Christ but on our sharing of a common goal
God's Kingdom and His glory.
What would happen if everyone in your church shared this common
goal? That is what the Kingdom-centered church is about. I continually
tell people that the longer I live, the simpler I become. I don't
believe that anything or anyone will change the hearts and minds
of our people except the Holy Spirit as He applies Scripture to
the hearts and minds of our people.
Kenneth S. Hemphill is the SBC national
Editor's note: Watch for Ken's forty-day study
that focuses on the Holy Spirit's working through the Word to
transform our churches into Kingdom-centered communities.
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