The rallying cry of the Christian small group philosophy is this: “Let’s do life together!”
It’s meant to be a callback to and a restoration of the New Testament church, to small groups of believers who worshiped, prayed, ate, and served together. Acts 2:42-46 describes this church in brief:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…
Unfortunately, I suspect that much of our current definition of fellowship – and, if I dare say it, of “doing life together” – coincides little with the concept of fellowship (koinonia) that the ancient church shared.
Modern church fellowship, inasmuch as I have experienced, consists largely of what I can only describe as “Christians doing things together.” The thing varies – might be a dinner, might be a cornhole tournament, might be a golfing or a white-water rafting outing, might be a camping trip or a movie – but the principle remains the same. Believers get together to have a good time. Sometimes they open with a prayer or share a Bible study or devotional while having a good time.
And it’s not that it’s bad to have a good time. Nor is it wrong for believers to get together for the express purpose of having a good time. But it’s inaccurate, I think to always call that “fellowship.” It’s not. And in fact, calling it fellowship reduces what fellowship really is. The Babylon Bee, a Christian satirical website, skewers this pretty accurately with the following observation:
…the applications of ‘doing life together’ are essentially limitless.
“Basically, whatever you want to do becomes a church-endorsed evangelical activity – write-offs and all – as long as you use those magic words” (Source).
“Believers doing fun things together” or “believers having a good time together” isn’t what the ancient church considered fellowship to be – even though I am sure that they did have fun together quite frequently. Rather, the Greek word that translates to our “fellowship” is koinonia. Koinonia can imply, in various contexts, quite a lot of things: joint and intimate sharing in a community or venture, common partnership or interest, and the sort of unity and empowerment that comes of being part of a group. It’s even used in some cases to refer to marriage!
Regardless, the key concepts of koinonia are always intimacy, active contribution and participation, and a shared sense of goals and purpose in Christ. It’s not a passive concept. Koinonia does not just happen when you go and sit in a room with other believers, or go golfing or kayaking with them. Koinonia comes of working and serving together, of spending enough time together to know each other like family, and of sharing in abundance and in sacrifice.
In that light, how does your recent small fellowship outing stack up?
Again – there’s nothing wrong with believers wanting to get together and to have some fun. But calling that “fellowship” reduces what is actually expected of us as a community of believers. We’re called to a life of service together far beyond a shared meal or a once-a-week study. We’re called to serve alongside each other in the work of Christ, to be generous with and to sacrifice for each other, and to know and love each other in the way Christ knows and loves us.
Do you have an intimate knowledge of and love for the people you fellowship with, or are they church acquaintances whom you don’t really spend time with outside of the house of God? In your acts of fellowship, are you serving with intentional hearts and minds and keeping the purposes of God in mind, or is the act more indulgent and self-gratifying? Does your generosity and your sacrifice extend to those you fellowship with, all and equally, or is it something you retain for only a select and favored few? Do you serve others who fellowship with you? Are you there when they are hurting or in need?
All of these are questions worth considering. And from here on out, I intend to ask them of myself before I determine whether what I’m doing really falls under the umbrella of “fellowship” or “doing life together.” If not, I’m perfectly content to call the next book-club group or crafting social what it really is: a bunch of believers getting together to have a good time.