Recently, in the article “Why We Came Today,” I shared on the subject of Fellowship inside the congregation, suggesting it draws 90 percent of first-time visitors to your church. They’re looking to worship God, yes, and they want to learn the Bible and have a safe place for their children to grow, all of that. But if you stripped away all the other considerations, all the secondary concerns, what you would be left with is that most are looking for friends, people who are genuine and Christlike and loving, the kind of family they would choose for themselves.
They’re looking for fellowship.
1) They probably have never articulated it in so many words. They’re likely to say, “We’re looking for a church home.” And how will you know when you find it? “It’s something you just know in your heart. It’s like being in love. You can’t explain it, but you know it when it hits you.”
How many churches have you visited before ours? “This one is the fourth.” Or fifth or tenth.
And you’ve not found what you were looking for? “Some were unfriendly. In two, no one spoke to us. And not a single one has contacted us since. That shows they don’t want us, and if they don’t want us, we certainly don’t want them.”
Is that too harsh a judgement? “Maybe for you.”
They’re looking for fellowship.
2) The members of your church do not know that’s what the newcomers are looking for. Consequently, in our desire to woo them in, we provide all the wrong programs.
They want ministries and activities for their kids, so we hire a college boy to come in and get them going. They want children’s programs, so we provide them. They want a nursery for their little ones and a gymnasium for the family. They want a great music program and impressive sermons.
We buy robes and organs and drums and carpets and cushions. We do all these things and still they do not come. And we get angry at them. “The people today just aren’t spiritual like they used to be.”
One pastor told me, “If we could just get carpets on the floor, I know the community would come.” He did, but they didn’t.
The people in your neighborhood are not looking for carpets. They’re not even looking for a great location, beautifully landscaped lawns, and plentiful parking, as good as those things are. They do not come searching for a certain kind of music, a particular length of sermon, or even a church of their own denomination. They have come in search of fellowship.
Now, understand, that does not mean they want to adjourn to the parish hall after the benediction for cookies and punch. And this business of standing and shaking hands and greeting one another at some point during the worship services, that does not count as fellowship. In fact, harsh though this may sound, first-timer visitors to your church will not even count that as someone speaking to them. “The pastor made them do that.” I’ve actually heard that said.
3) The world knows people are looking for fellowship.
The bars and taverns and juke-joints are offering fellowship. The one down the street from my son Neil’s house announces upcoming televised ball games on its sign in the front. I can just about guarantee that every man–this is a man’s thing, although a few women will drag along–entering that place to “watch the game” has one or more televisions at home. But he watches the game down at the tavern because he wants company. Something inside him longs for someone to watch it with, people to feel with and holler with and hurt with. He wants fellowship.
“Cheers,” the sitcom, took place inside a bar of that name. Its musical opening lodged itself inside the mind and heart of many a church-goer, giving him/her a sharp reminder that the world is offering what we in the church ought to be exporting in spades:
“Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”
The cults know people are dying for fellowship and use that knowledge to prey on their victims.
Chris Elkins spent years as a member of a religious cult and later became a minister of the Gospel. He wrote a book about his experience, which was later made into a Christian movie. “Heavenly Deception,” the title of both, is the term they used to draw in the gullible and convert them into disciples. The proselyters agreed to say anything necessary, to promise anything they had to, in order to persuade the unthinking seeker that this religion and no other offered what he/she was looking for. When the individuals found out the truth, it was too late and they were hopelessly ensnared.
4) The Christian Church–the real one, the one for which Jesus Christ died–has the only true fellowship in the world today.
“Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love,
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.”
It’s heavenly, we might say.
Consider this benediction from II Corinthians 13:14. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all, now and forevermore. Amen.”
This relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit is the heart of and the key to authentic Christian fellowship. The shorthand we in the church use says simply: “It’s not about you; it’s about Jesus.”
Only as we are proper devoted to Him are we able to relate to each other in integrity, love, and authenticity. Let our love for Him go, neglect the spiritual activities that keep us close to Him (prayer, the Word, worship, obedience in our daily walk), and all our efforts at keeping close to one another fall flat. The heart goes out of our connection with each other.
It’s like flipping the wall switch. The lamp is still plugged up but there’s no power flowing. The room is plunged into darkness.
Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you….By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) Our love for one another finds its roots in our love for Him.
5) Someone comes into your church and you see quickly that they’re all about love, joy, and peace. You want them in your congregation. You think to yourself, we need more people like that—loving one another, happy inside themselves, an aura of peace and contentment about them. They will not be high maintenance members, but great additions to this fellowship.
Sounds good. But where to find such people?
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace.” (Galatians 5:22) That’s the source: the Holy Spirit at work inside the life of the believer. But that’s not all. Add to those three qualities six more:
–longsuffering (they are patient and do not overreact at every perceived slight)
–gentleness (there is a tenderness in their speech and behavior)
–goodness (no dirty mind, no innuendo, just a great spirit)
–faithfulness (they really do believe in Jesus Christ!)
–humility (they are not self-centered, and are grateful for everything you do for them)
–self-control (the absolute mark of a mature person!)
Yes, we want them in our church!! Send them this way.
Sorry. Doesn’t work that way.
The plan is for you to be that person. That’s your assignment.
But, understand, you are not being sent to go out and do anything “in the flesh.” Those qualities which the Holy Spirit is producing in you are the same ones people are looking for in a new friend, but they are not self-generated. They are the Holy Spirit’s fruit in you.
So, then, here’s how it works.
1) Focus your life on Christ. Live for Him. Worship Him, read the Word, pray to Him faithfully, serve Him in your daily walk.
2) Keep at it. Remember that growing fruit is not overnight work. It takes time.
3) Then, just be yourself. You will find yourself with a deep appreciation for the people for whom Christ died: a strong attraction for your fellow believers (whether they belong to your flock or not!) and a true caring for everyone regardless of their religious faith or lack thereof.
4) You will discover within yourself what I like to call “a Holy Spirit boldness.” You can walk up to strangers in your church–or anywhere else for that matter–and greet them and introduce yourself. You no longer hold back out of a hypocritical shyness that is more likely a lack of love and an unwillingness to risk your fragile ego in a venture to friendliness.
Fleshly boldness is harsh and offensive. Fleshly boldness is the used-car-salesman/overpowering-fake-sentimentality that drives people away. It plays a role, and is not one’s true self. It’s tiresome and gets old quick and achieves nothing of any importance.
Holy Spirit boldness is Christlike. It draws people in, assures them you are safe to talk with, that you are not trying to do a number on them. It gives and loves and serves, demanding nothing in return except the privilege of giving, loving, and serving.
In his autobiography, Ben Franklin tells how as a young man, he decided to work on building his character by focusing on some virtue for several weeks at a time. Then, hoping to retain that aspect of his character, he went on to another. In time, he found that, while it was a noble attempt, character-building does not work that way. Human nature is rebellious and naturally resistant to all our schemes at self-improvement.
One wishes Mr. Franklin could have seen the genius in Galatians 5:22-23. Live for the Lord and He will produce those great virtues in your life. They are the produce, the fruit, the result, of a life properly focused and solidly lived.
The bottom line on this for church leaders is that, while the fellowship of your congregation is so crucial in reaching people for Christ, you don’t achieve it by aiming for it. You aim for Jesus Christ, teach His word, keep yourself close to Him. Then, listen to the Spirit within you. He’s reaching out to others through you. Obey that impulse. Sit quietly with them. Make time and provide places at your church for people to sit casually and visit with one another. Then see what God does.