In the last twenty years or so, the term fellowship has become a buzz word both inside and outside the church. Countless new churches have included the word in the name of their church. In the secular world, the term has become much used, particularly in modern psychology. The word has also been given fresh meaning in popular culture, to some extent owing to the success of the film version in 2001 of J. R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and in particular, the first book entitled The Fellowship of the Ring, which some have depicted (rather unconvincingly to my mind) as an illustration of Christian fellowship. Business communities have also appropriated the terminology to describe new partnerships.
One of the major difficulties is to discover what the term ‘fellowship’ means in the context of the Christian church. I asked a visiting preacher to tell me how he would define ‘Christian fellowship’. His immediate reply, ‘two fellows in a ship!’, which, I hasten to add, he said with heavy irony, revealed his difficulty and the notice he would require for such a question. Yet the common request in most churches these days (and, from what folk say to me, Sandyford is no exception) is for more fellowship.
The real problem is that the word ‘fellowship’ has lost so much of its original significance and force. In 2007, John Stott denounced the devaluation of a term which once throbbed with life:
In common usage it [fellowship] means little more than a genial friendliness, a superficial mateyness, what Australian Methodists call a PSA (Pleasant Sunday Afternoon) or a good gossipy get together over a nice cup of tea. (The Living Church)
Not, I might quickly interject, that a cup of tea in any way undermines Christian fellowship! It may promote it. In fact, we are hoping (if we can recruit a team of volunteers who are not involved in the evening tea bar) to have refreshments after the morning service as well as, as at present, after evening worship.
Koinonia, the word which is translated as ‘fellowship’ in the New Testament, occurs 17 times. There are also some 20 related words which convey the same notion, and it would take a specialist in Greek to tease out the correlation between the various terms denoting ‘fellowship’. The word koinonia itself has, at its root, the adjective koinos, which means ‘common’. The word expresses what Christians have in common and evokes ‘partnership’, ‘communion’, ‘sharing’. It suggests special relationships which Christians are encouraged to cultivate.
The Vertical Relationship
In the New Testament the foundation of Christian fellowship is first and foremost a vertical one. As John Stott comments, ‘the authentic fellowship is Trinitarian fellowship. It bears witness to our common share in the grace of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. The New Testament writers emphasise that the relationship between believers derives from the union between believers and the triune God (e.g. ‘that you may have fellowship with us, and our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:3); ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ (2 Corinthians, 13:14)). This concept elevates fellowship to a much higher ground than the one on which we would often situate it.
We can sometimes equate fellowship with the exclusively subjective, with how we feel in our meetings with people. However, fellowship is based primarily on objective fact. Central to fellowship is the Word of God through which this vertical relationship is established. It is significant that the first time the word ‘fellowship’ is used in the New Testament it is closely linked to doctrine:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
(Acts 2: 42)
We cannot separate ‘fellowship’ from the three other essential hallmarks of the practice of the early church.
We might ask whether we can enjoy fellowship with those who do not claim to have this particular union with Christ. Friendship yes, but not fellowship, as understood in the New Testament. However, far from being exclusive, this fellowship, which derives from our vertical relationship with God, brings us into an inclusive relationship with others throughout the world who share this common basis of faith. So many of our friends in Sandyford who have come from overseas (we must have more than 10 nationalities represented in any Sunday service) have been delighted to find this unity which has transcended national frontiers.
The Horizontal Relationship
Those who are in Christ are called not merely to have communion with God but also with one another. This partnership is the active outworking of our fellowship with God. It involves working together and caring for one another as a company of God’s people. The extent of this partnership is awesome.
In the redesign of Sandyford in 2005 space was created at the back of the church not just to facilitate friendship evangelism and an appropriate welcome but also to encourage fellowship. In fact, in the architects‘ plans the space was designated as the ’Fellowship Area'. Such fellowship entails communicating with people, sharing burdens, concerns, joys; encouraging one another through words of comfort, challenge or exhortation, through sharing the Word, or through whatever help we can provide according to needs and ability.
This fellowship is also grounded in prayer. Now many have small prayer cells, meet in small groups or in houses. However, you would be disappointed if I did not advertise our Wednesday prayer meeting, which, we are glad to say, is continuing to develop both numerically and in commitment. So many for whom we have prayed have written to say how grateful they are for our intercession for them. So many attending have found this to be one of the most rewarding means of fellowship, during which there is an opportunity to engage both with our partners in the gospel in the UK and beyond and also with the personal needs of the particular small group to which we belong.
Sometimes we can relegate fellowship to particular sharing meetings However, fellowship also includes our worship. Another reason for the redesign of the sanctuary in Sandyford from a rectangular shape to a semi-circle was to enable us to encourage one another in our praise of God.
Now some these days go in for what has been called ‘electronic religion’. Admittedly, the many sermons and services available on the web or on television or radio may provide an invaluable Christian resource, particularly for those who are shut in. But how do we cope with the fellowship vacuum? Do we, as Joel S. McCraw exhorts, ‘Give your TV a great big hug’?
How easy it is for us to opt out of the means of fellowship. The early church were constantly reminded of the need to take full advantage of all the means of grace. As J. L. Packer urges us:
We should […] not think of our fellowship with other Christians as a spiritual luxury, an optional addition to the exercises of private devotion. We should recognise that such fellowship is a spiritual necessity; for God has made us in such a way that our fellowship with himself is fed by our fellowship with fellow-Christians, and requires to be so fed constantly for its own deepening and enrichment. (God’s Words, 1981)
Fellowship is also therapeutic. It delivers us from the self-centredness and from the excessive individualism which have blighted contemporary society and which have led to so much isolationism, loneliness and despair. It delivers us also from gossiping, bitterness, back-biting and that grumbling, complaining spirit which undermined the Christian church in past ages and which has drained the life out of many congregations since. And on a positive note, fellowship with one another promotes that compassionate, forbearing, mutually submissive society which exemplifies another kingdom whose chief characteristic, as set out by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, is love.
Given the alternatives, the choice should be easy. Yet the early Christians, full of the Holy Spirit, had to work at it: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ doctrine, to the fellowship […]'. That’s the attitude and the commitment Sandyford needs in the days to come.
With very best wishes