What “church fellowship” cannot do

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42)

I thought I knew something vital about church fellowship.

I’ve just realized something huge I was overlooking.

For years, I have preached that “fellowship”–the “body life” of your congregation, the way your people love and interact with one another, work and play together–is what attracts people to your church, it’s what newcomers are looking for when they visit, and what they are hungering/thirsting for.

It is all that. As far as it goes.

The sermon outline–pastors might be interested to know–went like this:

After looking at the text above from Acts 2, I introduce the sermon with a story from Dr. Bob Anderson that ends with this line: “I’ve come for fellowship!” When the laughter subsides–it’s a great story–I tell the church, “You could print that line out—I’ve come for fellowship–and pin it on 95% of the first-timers who enter your church. They are looking for a church with great fellowship. By that, we mean where everyone loves the Lord, enjoys being with one another, and welcomes the newcomer into the family.

Then, on the basis of that truth (that visitors are looking for fellowship), the four points of the sermon are:

1) They don’t necessarily know it. In fact, when you ask what they are looking for in a church, the visitor will name a hundred things before this. But when they join a church, it will be the one with the best fellowship.

2) The church doesn’t know it either. That explains why we keep doing the wrong things to get people in. Build a gymnasium, put carpet on the floor, bring in a jazz band, construct a bigger sanctuary, whatever. It doesn’t work.

3) The world knows it. The tavern down the street pulls people in for football games, even though everyone in the place could see it better in their own living room and could buy whatever it is they’re drinking cheaper somewhere else. They are there for the fellowship. Likewise for sporting events.

4) God made us this way. When He said it was not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18), that’s what He was saying. He made us gregarious. We need other people in our lives. When Jesus saves us, He adds us to His family, the church. No one was ever meant to live completely alone. No apostle of Jesus was ever intended to live for Him in isolation.

Then, we emphasize how to strengthen the fellowship in your church and how to maintain it.

That’s the gist of the sermon. I’ve preached it all over. I believe it with all my heart, and in fact, am the byproduct of a church that got the fellowship thing right. My college church welcomed me in and nurtured me and three years later sent me out as a preacher of the gospel.

But there is a limitation to what good fellowship can do. (It may be the beginning of good church membership, but it’s sure not the ending.)

The last couple of years I have noticed something odd among longtime friends who were brought up in church, whom I pastored in various congregations, but who no longer darken the doors of the Lord’s church. In every case, if you asked, they would tell you they still believe strongly in the Lord Jesus Christ and they still read the Bible. They’re Christians.

Then, they would add, “I just don’t need the church the way I used to.” Or maybe, “We got out of the habit of going and found that we didn’t miss it as much as we thought we would.”

I interviewed one family at length over what had happened, and pulled out every persuasive line I could come up with to encourage them to return to church. No crisis had precipitated their dropping out, nothing cataclysmic. They simply decided church was not meeting their needs the way it once had and a day of rest–real rest–would be more beneficial.

They listened to my spiel, then replied that nothing had changed. They were not budging. And they’re not angry at anyone.

They’re just through with church, at least for the time being.

I think I know what happened.

They never transitioned from “enjoying the fellowship” to finding their ministry. And, when the fellowship sours, they’re gone.

Sooner or later, even the best congregations find the fellowship fraying. Every relationship has its ups and downs, its stresses and its tests. No church can maintain a high level of nurturing fellowship all the time. The people who make up the congregation as well as the leadership are all flawed humans who don’t always “get it right.”

Unless people are locked in by other means than social relationships–a strong loyalty to that particular church, their own ministry, family ties, etc.–they’re in danger of slipping away into the night.

If you visited in their home and told them how much you treasure them and that the group misses them, they would assure you they love you also, but that their weekday lives are stressful enough and they don’t need more of the same when they come to the House of God.

Call them fair-weather members, if you like. The bottom line is they did not sign on for the duration, come-hell-or-high-water, if you will pardon the expression. They were there for the fellowship, for the wonderful relationships which meant so much. Then, when that began to come unraveled, they found no other reason to stay. If they want a good sermon, there are plenty available on television. If they want Bible study, they have one right there on the coffee table.

Their names are still on the church roles. They have not completely withdrawn. In fact, if you asked, they’d probably tell you they’ll come back to church some day.

Multiply that times many thousands and you end up with weak churches across the land and untold numbers of inactive church members who are of little to no use in Kingdom work.

There’s an oft-quoted line from Ecclesiastes 4 that goes “A cord of three strands is not easily broken.” Coming on the heels of a passage celebrating pairs–“two are better than one”–it’s intriguing the way it refers to “three” without a word of explanation. The result being that we preachers have a field day with it. (smiley-face goes here.)

Although that verse clearly was not intended to be used this way, it’s an ideal illustration of how to lock a believer into a church.  This tie-down rope is made up of three strands–

–The Pulpit. The individual relates well to the ministers and appreciates the teaching/preaching they receive.

–Peers. They have great friends in the congregation.

–Purpose. They have found their ministry, their calling, the work to make a difference for the Lord in this world.

Try to hold a church member who is “tied” by only one strand (she likes the preacher, or she’s there because her friends are there, etc) and you quickly see how tenuous it is. Sever that strand and she’s gone.

A staff member of a large church in Texas told about a crisis her church had undergone resulting in several hundred members jumping ship. “But,” she said, “not a single person involved in our ministry to apartment dwellers”–her particular area of service–“left the church. Everyone kept right on serving.”

Why does this surprise us? It’s been this way from the beginning.

Scripture teaches that when the Lord saves us, the Holy Spirit gives each of us certain spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 12:7-11 and Romans 12:6). A spiritual gift is a calling or a propensity or a “fit” for a certain kind of ministry.

Now, we believe that when the Spirit equips us with a certain ability (even in embryonic form; it will require recognizing, developing and training), He has a place of ministry for us.

This is basic stuff: 1) He raises up workers; 2) He gives each one an aptitude for a particular kind of ministry; 3) He has places (slots, callings) for each person to use those gifts.

But there is a “Fourth” point we often overlook, if we ever knew it: We are never locked in and are always in danger of dropping out until we find our calling and get in our place of service..

Every Christian receives a calling?

You bet. Maybe not like Saul of Tarsus on the Damascan Road. Maybe not even like the preacher or missionary who can take you to the spot and tell you the moment. But maybe so.

“Our God is in the Heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3). God can call however and whomever He pleases.

For most laypeople in the congregation, I would assume, the “call” is more of an awareness of a “fit,” that “I know I’m in my place.” As my wife once said while caring for our two-year-old grandson, “I was born to be this child’s grandmother.”

What were you born to do? If you know that, you are blessed indeed.

Now, do one thing more. Help the believers coming along behind you to find their ministries. In so doing, you will help to lock them in so that whatever turbulence the congregation endures in the future, they will remain in place serving God.

Now, would everyone check your seat belts? Make sure it’s snug and firmly locked. After all, we could run into turbulence at any time.



4 thoughts on “What “church fellowship” cannot do

  1. Joe, you make a lot of good points, but one of the subtexts here is that going to church is the point of something or other. This lends itself to the self-serving aspects of any institution, church included, rather than focusing on the Gospel. I know you didn’t mean that, but I have yet to know a professional minister who works for a church who doesn’t fall victim to promoting church more than Jesus. We “have” to feed the monster or we won’t be able to feed our families. That is, in my opinion, one of the biggest problems and challenges ministers face. It is also a major reason many stop going to church – some of whom actually become the church for real at that point!

    • Excellent point. I would stay active in a church because God was calling me to that place to spread His gospel in that community. I have a commission and it’s my heart’s desire to fullfill it. His Church is the method He set up to make His family grow. Do I always get pats on the back, make amazing friends and think my church is ablaze with the Holy Spirit- No.
      But Jesus has yet to tell me those were prerequsites for my service. If Jesus sends missionaries to witness to people who may kill them, maybe he calls us to churches that might not meet our fantasies.
      Also there is the simple matter of “Do not forsake the gathering together”- commands are just as valid as commissions. If your Saturday is so busy that you feel like you need Sunday to crash, then clear up your Saturday or some other day of the week. If you cannot sacrifice to worship with fellow believers then you truly don’t trust God or give him Lordship in your life. We obey commands not because they are easy but because we know God is always right.

  2. Kellie: If I took your response personally (which I don’t) I would say I feel judged. “If you cannot sacrifice to worship with fellow believers then you truly don’t trust God or give him Lordship in your life. ” That sentence smacks of Pharasaism (doubt I spelled that right – whoops! “Correctly”) and implies that church is the only place people can gather to worship God. Last time I checked God was on my back porch with my wife and me on Sunday morning. I suspect God was on a creek bank, too – AND in many churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. (BTW, this is not in a smart-alec tone.) Whenever we say, “If so-and-so does or doesn’t do thus-and-so they must not be a REAL Christian,” then we’re on really dangerous ground. Paul said we must all work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. It’s serious stuff. I’ve got enough to deal with without telling another spiritual being how to walk their path.

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