Over the next few weeks I’d like to consider the various aspects of what makes a church a church. Today, we will consider the idea of fellowship. If you walk by the stairs in our church you’ll see a sign that says “Fellowship Hall”. Making sure there is time for “fellowship” is something that occupies many small group leaders when they think about the group that they lead. But what is it? Is it coffee and bagels or lunch together after service?
The Greek word translated as fellowship is the word koinonia. It’s a fascinating word with deep meaning behind it. It means, “sharing in common”. When thinking about a group of people, it is referring to the thing that the group has in common. There is something that brings the people together- a shared experience, interest, or affection. This could be true of anything: a sport, a hobby, an interest. In the New Testament the words is used many times to describe the life of the early church. What was it that they shared? It was something they had in common went beyond ethnicity, citizenship, class, language and gender. The thing they shared in common was the Gospel of Jesus.
They had all heard about the announcement that God was reconciling the world to Himself. God had done this through the work of Jesus. God’s Spirit was working in people’s hearts to put their faith in Jesus and trust in Christ. They were turning away from idols and from their own ways of becoming right before God. They were finding true life and hope in Jesus. But this wasn’t just a new philosophy or a new ideology. It was a new identity. Their faith shaped who they were and in turn shaped what they did.
The fellowship of the believers shaped the activities they did. The people of the church spent time learning from the Apostles. They reminded each other what Jesus did. They learned about how they should live their lives in response. But it wasn’t just limited to the activities of the group. It affected all aspects of life. It affected their family life. It affected their relationship with the government. And it affected how they treated each other and even their money.
This sharing of Jesus shapes the church today. It is what makes the church a church. When there is love for God, a remembrance of what He has done, and what He continues to do that is what makes the church a true church. When Jesus is the center of the church it shows. But if people in the church make something else the focus of what we do, we cease to be a church of Christ. We can become many other things, but it easily ceases to become a church.
The truth of the matter churches can slip out of this very easily. And the tricky part is that it can look so similar. Churches can center themselves around a cause. They can center themselves around a charismatic leader. They can center themselves around food or fellowship.
How does this change happen? Every church faces this problem. Ours is no exception. There are two reasons why I see this happen in our church. The first reason is a misunderstanding of the gospel. To be sure, the Gospel of Christ has a great deal to do with love. God is love (1 John 4:8) and he demonstrated his love for us at the cross. But we must make sure that we do not mistake love for God. Love is not God. The gospel is more than the idea that God loves you. It is more than the idea that God accepts me and that I am God’s child. Christ did not die for people who just have a few problems in their lives. Christ did not just die for people who have insecurities and low self-esteem. To be clear, if you are suffering and going through difficulty, make no mistake- God loves you. But the overwhelming emphasis of the New Testament is that Christ died for sinners. He did not die and rise again to help people become more moral. He died to make sinners righteous. He loves you in spite of the fact that you are a sinner.
The second issue is there is a misunderstanding of love. First what is it? 1 Corinthians 13 describes what love is. Love is a verb. It’s not a feeling. Love is the actions we do. We love people through kindness. We treat people with dignity. But love and care and grace must always be grounded in Biblical truth. If it is not, it simply becomes flattery and helping people feel better about themselves. The truth of the Gospel reminds us that sin is real. There is a real darkness. We are often blinded to our sin by pride or fear or addictions. We need a Savior.
My concern is that if we have a wrong understanding of fellowship, we may be giving people a wrong understanding of what it means to be a Christian, and in doing so we are actually not loving people. We want everyone to come to know Jesus and experience God. But because we love you we don’t want you to simply feel warmth by the comfort of our friendship, we want you to know the true security of a relationship with Christ.
How can we be a church that truly loves people? We welcome people to the church. We have conversations with them. We be vulnerable with them. But we lovingly remind them that the warmth and comfort that you feel from us is only a way that you can see how Christ has loved us by dying for our sins on the cross. True love and true Christian fellowship must be based on the truth of the gospel- not just on our friendliness.