God’s Glorious Church
Woodlawn Baptist Church
June 12, 2005
On Sunday nights for a while now I’ve been dealing with things that really matter concerning the health of a church. So far we’ve dealt with why discipleship matters, why worship matters, why doctrine matters, why first impressions matter, and tonight I want you to consider the fact that fellowship matters. If Woodlawn Baptist Church is going to be a healthy church, then we must be a church that is strong in fellowship. Of course, if our church has a strength that really stands out, it is our fellowship with one another.
In Acts 2, I have read from the last few verses now several times. Peter has preached the gospel to the multitude, and verse 41 says,
“Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers…”
What exactly is fellowship? Why does it matter for healthy body life in a church, and what elements are necessary for good fellowship? I want to deal with these questions tonight as we consider this subject. First of all…
What is Fellowship?
Fellowship can be a difficult word to define, as it brings to mind so many different things to different people. We most often think about getting together and eating. We think of the social aspect of it and reduce fellowship to getting together for our senior’s outings, or youth trips or things like the Father’s Day picnic coming up next Saturday. Regardless of the event, fellowship most often means coming together in some social church setting, but it really means much more than that.
The word fellowship as you find it in the King James Version of your Bibles comes from the Greek word koinonia. The word has several meanings, each of which give us varying angles from which to consider its meaning. Before I give them to you I want to remind you of what a church is and why we exist. Remember that a church is a group of scripturally baptized believers who have covenanted together to serve the Lord’s purposes. God has brought our church together to reach the lost, to lead them to Christ, to baptize them, teach and train them so that they in turn develop lasting and meaningful relationships with Jesus Christ and express their love for Him through a lifetime of service in church ministry.
With that in mind, the word fellowship first of all means partnership, or participation. You see, in God’s economy there’s no room for Lone Ranger Christianity. We’re partners in this together. Jesus didn’t call on me to fulfill the Great Commission. He has called us to the task. This idea of fellowship runs through everything we do, whether it be Sunday morning worship, Vacation Bible School, evangelism or simply getting together for a work day, be done through the active participation of our church body, not the labors of a select few.
Participation and partnership don’t just involve the work we do. It also has to do with daily living before Christ. Without you, my walk with Jesus Christ wouldn’t be the same. I know that not only as a pastor, but simply as a child of God you are praying for me, encouraging me, challenging me, and supporting me. We’re partners in this together.
The word fellowship also carries the meaning of intercourse. When you think about intercourse, you ought to have in mind the most intimate expression of love for one another in the marriage relationship. I love the way the Bible uses the phrase, “and he knew his wife.” That was the phrase for intercourse. He knew her. Apply that to fellowship. Our bond ought to be so close in Christ that we enjoy spiritual and social intimacy with one another.
Fellowship lastly has the meaning of communion, or community. It means to have something in common. I want you to follow along with me as I read the following passages of Scripture.
“Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honor preferring one another; not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality. Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another…”
“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.”
Each of these passages has to do with the fact that fellowship means loving one another enough to consider each other’s needs as more important than our very own. We are to be kindly affectioned one to another in brotherly love. That is, our fellowship is more than a handshake and talking about work over fried chicken. It means that we share a common love for one another that is deep and meaningful. One of the most well known passages that really teaches what it means for a church to have real community is in Acts 4:32ff.
“And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”
I realize that when we think about fellowship we usually think about fun times, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, we need those times, but nowhere in the New Testament do any of the Greek words translated fellowship imply fun times. In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul talked about how the churches of Macedonia,
“in a great trial of affliction, out of the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality. For to their power, I bear record, yea, and beyond their power they were willing of themselves; praying us with much intreaty that we would receive the gift, and take upon us the fellowship of the ministering to the saints.”
These people were in deep poverty, but they gave to Paul and his companions – not because they had to, but because they loved them, considered themselves to be partners in his ministry, were in communion with them. There are plenty of other examples of this same thing. Paul was thankful for the Philippian believers who were partakers (the same word for fellowship), of his grace. Fellowship in the Bible meant being persecuted. It demanded humility and personal sacrifice, was always the result of a desire to identify with Jesus Christ, and always came about as the result of building solid relationships with others around our common purposes in Christ.
Now, all of this leads me to our second question…
Is Fellowship Really Necessary?
This may seem like a silly question to you, but there is more here than I think we realize. You see, most of you come to church because you have become accustomed to doing so. If you were to move to a new town, you would find a church. For you, fellowship, or relationships would probably not be as great a factor as it would for the unchurched that we’re trying to reach for Christ.
Listen, relationships are the most effective means of reaching and retaining the unchurched, but all too often the unchurched find it very difficult to break in to the relationships that we’ve already built. You see, many of you enjoy great fellowship with one another. You have grown to know one another; you are partners together in life and in ministry. You enjoy a certain level of communion with one another. But put yourselves in the shoes of someone who is new, or someone who is searching. For them it is not so easy, but it is absolutely necessary if we are to reach them with any level of success.
I read somewhere that if guests of our church or new members in our church do not build strong fellowship or good relationships with about half a dozen people in the church within six months, the odds are that we’ll lose them. Why? Because we are by nature a people who long for deep and meaningful relationships. But it goes beyond that.
Without fellowship we will not work together. Without fellowship we will not pray together. Without a certain level of fellowship my teaching and preaching will fall of deaf ears. Think about who attends our workdays – it is people who enjoy fellowship with one another. Who attends Sunday School? Those who have or are building relationships with one another. Those who don’t attend, or those who have never opened up – they are not people who don’t want to. To a large degree they are simply people who have not built the relationships they feel are necessary to take part, and rather than us going out of our way to initiate those relationships, we find it easier to dismiss them as unspiritual or uninterested. Perhaps they are, but we have a responsibility to reach out before making that assumption.
What Elements Are Necessary?
Now, if we know what fellowship is: partnership, participation, intercourse, communion or community, and we know that it is necessary for the health of our church, then what elements are necessary for building strong fellowship? In my opinion, there are three elements necessary. You may think of others, but I believe these three are fundamental.
We Must Be Together
This one is so obvious we might overlook it. If we’re going to develop strong fellowship with one another then we have to spend time together. Now, don’t get the idea that we can simply program time together and we’ll enjoy fellowship. Fellowship cannot be programmed; it is the natural result of members getting to know one another as we provide opportunities to gather people together.
Now, there are two primary avenues that we need to explore in order to promote strong relationships: small groups and ministry involvement. There are all sorts of small groups, such as Sunday School, the ladies auxiliary, our church athletic teams and many more. If people ever feel lost in a church, no matter what the size, it is most often because they never became part of some small group in the church.
Small groups are key, but so is ministry involvement. It is when we labor together that we are provided some of the greatest opportunities to get to know one another. It is when I work side by side with you that I learn your heart, hear your struggles, discover your passions, and grow to love you. Ministry involvement gathers us around a singular purpose and teaches us how to work together. It helps us to understand that we truly are part of a team that God has put together.
We Must Demonstrate Sincerity
Now, if small groups and ministry involvement are the avenues through which people may get involved, our sincerity is an element that is going to help keep people involved. There aren’t many things that turn me off like knowing that I’m just a number. Listen to me. Every Sunday I hear people say that we need more people in Sunday School. We need to get more people. We need more people in our class.
My question for you is this: Why? Why do we want more people? So we can say we had 100? If that’s our motivation, then it’s no wonder we’re not reaching them. But what if you were sincere in wanting people in your small group because you were genuinely concerned for their spiritual growth and well-being?
As we relate to one another, do people sense that we are really concerned for them? When we talk with them, are we really listening? As we labor together, are we really in it for the glory of God? Without sincerity, we’ll never build the kind of fellowship that will sustain a church through difficult times.
We Must Be Willing To Be Vulnerable
Here is where I believe real fellowship is separated from what the vast majority of church attenders settle for when they think of fellowship. We can spend a lot of time together, and we can be sincere with one another, but our fellowship can remain for years and years a very shallow and superficial kind of communion, but in my opinion what God wants from us is something even greater. Even in the area of fellowship God wants to take us deeper, but most of us draw imaginary lines with one another, and without saying the words, we communicate by our unwillingness to be vulnerable that there is only so far we will go.
The best way I know of to have you think about being vulnerable is to remind you of Adam and Eve in the Garden. The Bible says that they were naked before God, vulnerable in every way. Of course, at that time they had no reason not to be, but after they sinned, they realized their nakedness and tried to cover it up. In other words, they weren’t so willing to be vulnerable before God and one another.
Now, no one is asking you to take off all your clothes and go around naked, but being willing to be vulnerable with one another means that you’re willing to reveal yourselves to one another in such a way that leaves you exposed, which is exactly why most people don’t do it. You see, when you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you allow yourself to be exposed and open to be hurt and attacked or misunderstood. To be vulnerable is to take great risk with one another, but it is the only way to the level of fellowship that you and God really desire for your life.
Is Woodlawn a church that enjoys great fellowship? I believe that to a certain degree we do, but I also believe that it can be taken to a deeper level that we’ve ever dreamed, and as we are tested and tried it certainly will be. Ministry and church work are not always the bubble gum and pop-corn that churches try to make it out to be, but it’s not just ministry or church work. Life in general is messy. Our days can be difficult, and the challenges we face can get us down. I look around and see a people who without exception carry unique burdens every day. It may be a family problem with an aging parent or a defiant kid. It may be on your job or in your home, and I wonder why it is that when God has given us the greatest place on earth to come together and share our burdens that we keep them locked away so tightly?
None of us wants to get hurt. I like to think that when I dress up I look pretty good, but I can imagine that if I were to stand here naked tonight I would open myself up to some ridicule and shame. My private life is no different, and neither is yours. But think about this. The Bible teaches us that God is building our church just like He wants. Every member of our church was placed here by God’s design and according to His perfect wisdom. I also know that if you are filled with the Spirit of God, that we love one another and have a genuine desire to demonstrate God’s love for one another. If these things are true, then it stands to reason that we should be able to expose ourselves and know that even though hurts may come, our desires for deep and lasting intimacy with one another are greater than any of those hurts.
When our fellowship is strong, then everything else we do will only grow stronger. We can worship together more meaningfully. We are better able to disciple one another. Our efforts at evangelism are intensified when we become honest with one another and with ourselves. Our ministry involvement is going to be strengthened because of the bonds we build with one another.
Does fellowship matter? Like you can’t imagine. Before we close tonight, I want to talk to you about being in fellowship with God through a personal relationship with His Son Jesus Christ.