of the most impressive creative works of God in the world today is
the community of Christian believers. Distributed across the face of
the globe, in some places free and highly visible, in others
persecuted and completely out of sight, the universal church gives
witness to the power of God and the reality of Jesus in the world
after 2000 years of turbulent history. Jesus said, “I will
build my church” (Matthew 16: 18).
has been my joy over many years to meet Christians from all walks of
life, in different parts of the world, and to celebrate the diversity
and vibrancy of what the Bible refers to as the “Body of
Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:22-24). We are His
presence in the world. There is no human organisation that even
comes near to approximating the mystical, supernatural corpus we know
as the Christian community. I never cease to be amazed how easy it
is to connect with genuine Christians on first meeting them, not
because we necessarily share ethnic identity, social status, physical
characteristics or even a structured organisational “unity”.
Nor because the people I encounter have social skills others do not
possess. The unique relationship experienced between Christians is
generated by the Holy Spirit. The church of which He is the CEO is
bigger than any of us imagines.
New Testament church was born a little over seventy days after the
ascension of the risen Christ to the right hand of God, when
thousands of men and women from all over the then Jewish Diaspora
were converted on the Jewish Day of Pentecost (read the account in
Acts Chapter 2). Starting its life as a sect of Judaism, the
Christian community quickly spread out and embraced people of many
different cultures. As it did so, communities of interest coalesced
around shared identities, languages and backgrounds. The ministry of
the apostles was not unduly affected by this development. For the
sake of operational convenience, Peter and their co-workers and Paul
agreed to function as apostles to the Jews and Gentiles respectively
(Galatians 2:9). At the end of the day, neither side ceased to be
part of “one body” in Christ, simply because they had
elected (or been led by the Holy Spirit) to operate on different
“playing fields”. The same Lord was at work in each of
have changed. Today, there are thousands of denominations in
Christendom. Many of them are only different in terms of name or
governmental structure. Others are mortal foes and their “testimony”
has been to sin and selfishness rather than to Jesus Christ. In the
midst of all this man-made diversity stand genuine Christians who
recognise one another when they meet and know the value of
word “fellowship” (my father used to say it meant
“fellows on the one ship, a word picture that made sense) is
widely used in the secular community.
was once asked to be guest of honour at a major anniversary of Rotary
International chapter overseas. I am not a Rotarian, but
circumstances created the opportunity and I celebrated the event with
my new friends. The focus of the evening was the great work
undertaken by the chapter in improving the circumstances of people in
the community. These people had something in common. They shared
goals and identities and spoke repeatedly about their “fellowship”.
If they met Rotarians in other parts of the world, they celebrated
the organisation and its universal goals.
a billion Muslims celebrate the “Umma”, the international
community of believers that prays around the clock, like a global
“Mexican wave” of prayer calls and responses continually
moving around the world. Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and
feasting, is a unique event that commemorates key events in the
history of Islam, drawing together Muslim men and women in a sense of
purpose and commitment.
is a natural response to man as a social being. If you watch Jews
praying at the “Wailing Wall” in Jerusalem there is an
aura of community at prayer. (The Wailing Wall
is a retaining wall of the Second Temple compound, destroyed by the
Romans in AD70. Today it is also part of the disputed hilltop that
Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Haram al-Sharif.)
“Community” is implicit in celebrations of Passover,
Yom Kippur, Hannukah and other Jewish feasts around the world. Many
cultures and religions celebrate global community. Communism
attempts to force unity and uniformity by fostering notions of an
internal utopia and external enemies.
what’s the difference?
Christian circles the celebration of “fellowship” can be
confused with sitting in a church building looking at the back of
someone else’s head, having a casual drink and conversation or
a meal together, or listening to a Christian message. Curiously, we
often say we have “fellowship” when we are in a church
program situation, but don’t use the term when we meet with
some of the same people socially.
operative New Testament word is “koinonia”, which implies
“having in common”. It appears seventeen times in the
New Testament. The first Christians shared their material
possessions and often lived together or in close community (Acts
4:34-35). Becoming a Christian was described as being “added
to the church” (Acts 2:47). They worshipped together. On one
level, it made sense for them to support one another, because they
were opposed and vilified by non-Christians. But this was not the
reason they operated in a spirit of “koinonia”.
Christians who travelled could be accepted by communities hundreds or
thousands of kilometres away on the strength of a letter of
recommendation from their home church. What made them one was the
work of Christ in their hearts. Even when their leaders differed on
points of structure, they still considered themselves one. Poor
Christians in Jerusalem found Christian groups in Greek communities
taking up offerings and sending them financial assistance. What they
had was trans-cultural, bigger than religious expression or the
forced political and legal unity of Pax Romans (the Roman
Peace), which held the known world under a common framework.
unity was an expression of Christ. Jesus prayed they would be one,
as he and the Father were one (John 17:21. Their leaders stressed
the importance of unity, of understating the fact that they were all
different, had diverse backgrounds and skills, but were still part of
“one” body. They complemented one another. Whether or
not they were aware of one another, or had even met, they sensed
oneness with Christian believers in other parts of the empire.
Christians today can empathise with, and intercede for, Christians
they have never met in places they will probably never see, knowing
they are part of the same Body. “If one suffers, all suffer”
(1 Corinthians 12:26). The unity we have is solely because of
Christ; if we are in fellowship with Him, we are related to others
who share that relationship (1 John 1:3). This gives us the capacity
to rise above social, racial, political and cultural differences.
Koinonia is not about us, it is about Christ and the abundant life we
share in Him. The Bible says that where brethren dwell together in
unity God commands a blessing (Psalm 133).
called his first disciples to live with him. Biblical fellowship is
not ecumenism. It is not a structural entity. It is ironic but true
that many attempts at ecumenism end up contributing to division.
Fellowship is an expression of Christ, a community of God’s
people that engenders unity. Does this mean we should sell the
sanctuaries where we meet to worship, pray and grow in our Biblical
knowledge? Not necessarily, however it is worth considering how much
more effective we might be if our resources were able to be shared
and surpluses used to building the Kingdom of God.
are many valid reasons not to insist on slavishly adopting other
peoples’ models, even models adopted by the Jerusalem church.
There the believers had everything in common and there was no sense
of private ownership. There is no evidence this format was adopted
by churches established and operating elsewhere at the same time, so
we cannot be legalistic about precedents.
do Christians need to gather together anyway? Who needs more social
commitments eating into his or her valuable time? The answer lies in
a letter written to a group of Hebrew Christians in New Testament
days. The letter encouraged them to meet regularly, for mutual
edification (or building up). Responding to a growing trend to
neglect such meetings, the writer warned his readers not to neglect
gathering together but to use every opportunity they had to encourage
one another (Hebrews 10:25).
denomination is best? Few young people in the West remain tied to
the denominational franchise model of church. Denominations (some a
perhaps more akin to “demonations”) are simply the way we
organise ourselves to serve God. As human creations they are fraught
with human weaknesses, but we can usually tolerate them as places we
can gather to worship and serve God corporately. It is important
that the “place” me meet with other Christians be real
and that it be Bible-based and Jesus-centred, focusing on Christian
growth and witness, while not claiming to be exclusive.
house church “movement” is predicated on a healthy desire
for simple Christian living, unencumbered by structures, synods,
constitutions and offices. What often happens, in practice, is that
house churches simply become microcosms of denominations. Someone
has to take charge, to lead, to make decisions. (Otherwise autonomy
becomes anarchy.) A sense of exclusiveness often marks such
attempts; the successful small group usually does not remain small
and growth generates the need for organisation and direction.
need to recapture community, with shared purpose, shared equality
(but recognising different functions) and shared ultimate vision.
Community where Christians share spiritual gifts, character
development, healing, prayer, teaching, worship, characterised by
generosity, support, understanding in times of relationship
breakdown, bereavement or disappointment, career planning and the
discovery and use of abilities and gifts, If we force the
reconstruction of community to fit pre-designed models it can simply
be a result of the “flesh”.
formation and attendance patterns are changing. Discipleship courses
are available, however not all of them are in “church”.
In a bizarre twist, it is now possible to complete such courses by
distance participation. Founder of the Methodist Church English
clergyman John Wesley built a “class” system to skill new
converts. He believed it was necessary to bring people together
physically to teach them Christian truth and emphasised the value of
inclusive relationships with other believers. Home Groups (action
groups, growth cells, call them what you will) can be part of the
church’s backbone, but only if relevant, inclusive, functional,
flexible and attractive. Fellowship needs to promote personal growth
through learning, belonging and involvement. It must stand for
connectedness, participation, communication, comradeship and shared
experiences. It must have an active concern for those on the fringe
of church life and a meaningful regime care for Christian young
people and the unique problems they face.
continue to search for meaningful community, to which they can
belong, where they can find identity and security, makes sense
intellectually and speaks to them holistically. For many people the
church provides an important sense of community, purpose and
importance of fellowship in integrating new people into a meaningful
church community needs to be recognised. Programs cannot replace
personal contact and connections.
impact of individualism
culture today is increasingly characterised by “rugged
individualism”. Individualistic pursuit is prized in sport,
the arts, career, education, politics and wealth. This expression is
endemic throughout the Christian community as well. When people make
decisions to follow Christ, they usually do so as individuals (other
cultures would do so at family or even community level). As a
result, church attendance has become a form. We know very little
about Christians attending our own churches. Think of Christians you
know. You may talk about unity, perhaps even hang out in a home
group or Bible study. But how well do you know them? Who are the
key people in their lives? What is the nature of their work? What
is their family history? What are their passions, their likes,
dislikes, their greatest joys and aches. What is their world view or
philosophy? What are they going through right now? Do you know? Do
you care? Or do you shrug your shoulders and sigh, “God, I’m
not responsible for him”. That’s what Cain said about
his brother Abel (after he murdered him and hid his body in the
ground). Someone has said that every person is linked to the rest of
the world through a chain of only six people. However, our rugged
individualism has isolated us from people we attend church with each
rediscover community and fellowship, without borders and without
denominational demarcation. Let’s make a decision to grow
together and support other parts of the Body of Christ. As our
secular communities become fragmented, let’s offer a Christian
faith that is relevant and powerful because it is built on
relationship rooted in Jesus Christ.