Help me out here, please. This is only the beginning of this message, sort of “off the top of my head.” I’d love to have your stories and insights at the end.

I’ve told here of the wonderful West End Baptist Church in Birmingham that in 1959 befriended this 19 year old sophomore from the local Methodist college (Birmingham-Southern). The youth of that large church, most of whom had known one another since infancy, welcomed me as though I’d always been a member of the group. The adult leaders of the church learned my name and spoke to me like I was somebody. I blossomed like a potted plant moved from the closet into the sunlight.

And you may recall my telling how three or four years later, I watched that same church try to implode. The lay leadership, well, some of them, were in an argument with the pastor over cancelling the Sunday evening radio broadcast. Money was the problem–the lack of it, of course–and the church needed to either give more or cut expenses. Why in the world someone did not go to the congregation and preach a rousing message on “laying up treasure in Heaven” I’ll never know. Instead, they took out their pruning shears and began whacking. The question was whether in cancelling the radio broadcast, they were cutting essential services. The pastor said “yes” and the chief laymen seem to have said “no.”

So, in the time-honored way of Baptists through the ages, they held a business meeting, which I attended. It was well-attended (a fight will always bring out Baptists) and the tension was hot. The issue had long since grown beyond whether to cancel the one-hour broadcast and had morphed into personalities and methodologies and even theologies.

The tragedy for this kid preacher was watching people I dearly loved and to whom I owed so much verbally abuse and accuse one another for a solid hour. Regardless how the vote turned out (they canceled the program), you knew there would be no winners of this prize-fight except the enemies of all that is good and holy.

Something died in that church that day: the fellowship. That incredible church was never the same thereafter.

Which leads me to blame as a culprit for murdering the fellowship bull-headedness (on everyone’s part) and out-of-control egos. Or, to put it another way, when God’s people forget how to submit themselves to one another and to work to preserve the peace of Christ in the fellowship, all bets are off.

If it is true that the three essential components of New Testament fellowship are love for the Lord, love for one another, and love for the newcomer, then someone introduced a deadly virus which contaminated the process and began the slow erosion of the inner life of West End Baptist Church. (Rereading this, I hope I’m not being overly dramatic here; don’t mean to. Some of our readers were in WEBC at that time, and are invited to leave their analyses below.)

What kills the fellowship of a church?

Leo Tolstoy once said something to the effect that all happy families are happy alike, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways. Perhaps we can apply that to fellowship within a church and put it like this….

Churches with great fellowship are alike in many ways, but poor-fellowship-churches are as different from one another as they can be.

How are great-fellowship-churches alike?

1) They are unified but it’s a living unity . The cemetery has unity, but not the kind we are looking for; a living unity is like your body when it’s healthy.

2) They have leaders who work hard to protect the inner life of the church.

3) They are a busy people, they laugh a lot, they are quick to respond to the need of a family in the church, and they treat the newcomer like he/she was one of them.

This kind of church is the best advertisement for the Christian faith and the strongest witness to the outsider.

What kills the fellowship?

Anything that interrupts that. Mostly (remembering that fellowship is love for the Lord, love for one another, and love for the newcomer), the chief culprit is people getting out of fellowship with the Lord Himself. In a word: disobedience. Sin.

“If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another….” (I John 1:7)

When I am in fellowship with my Lord — i.e., when I am obeying Him and walking close to Him — He fills me with His Spirit, and the Spirit does things inside me which make me an amiable member of the church family. And what are those things?

Two verses come to mind….

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control.” That’s Galatians 5:22-234. Take a close look at those nine qualities. Such a person would be a delight to be around, whether he/she was a member or a leader of the Lord’s congregation.

“The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is given to us.” Romans 5:5. Having trouble getting enough love for God, for believers, and for newcomers? It’s a relationship problem between you and the Lord.

Funny how it always comes down to that, isn’t it?

Now, the question before us, class, is this:

What have you seen kill the fellowship in churches you have known? Please share your answer with the rest of us.

9 thoughts on “Fellowship-Killers

  1. Here’s the kicker: Are there any conditions on “putting others before yourself”? I have really thought about this and I have a hard time coming up with any.

    Unfortunatley we often make all kinds of conditions to that commandment. I really think that’s the key.


  3. People not knowing each other kills fellowship. Even in small churches I’ve pastored, older folks don’t know the younger. In larger churches you have to fight the tendency to hang out in groups. I don’t know how many times I’ve mentioned to a group, say a nominating committee, the name of someone who has been coming several yrs and is very active. No one in the group knows them. It’s inexcusable. Now semi-retired, I’m a member of a church with 700 on Sunday. Again from conversation I already know more people in various groups than most church people. I make it a point to sit in various places, especially at Wed nite suppers, and get acquainted with people, who mostly sit in the same groups each week.

  4. I was in a church that was trying to decide whether or not to get out of the “private school” business or not. The pastor asked everyone to pray about what God would have us do, before we voted the next week. Amazingly, God told half of the people to vote to keep the school, the other half to sell it. We kept it for a few more years, the pastor was called elsewhere, and we sold the school. Your right. Our relationship with God was not right. On either side.

  5. Fellowship killers? When people think that they ‘own’ the church. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “This is MY church and I have to protect it from…”. There is this sense of ownership that puts up walls to newcomers, or seekers.

    Small groups that on the surface appear welcoming and friendly, until you actually try to participate or make suggestions that are in opposition to the ‘way we’ve always done it’.

    Some of our churches are ‘run’ by families that have had control over decisions on buildings, what is allowed to be preached from the pulpit, even down to what’s allowed as appropriate Sunday School materials. I’ve seen pastors that are preaching God’s Holy Word asked to leave because they made a decision to follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit and preach on a topic that is considered ‘off limits’. But then we are warned about ‘itching ears’…

    Fellowship in churches like this is reserved for those that are born into or have married into those families that hold ‘control’.

    They forget or have never learned that ‘church’ is not a brick building – it’s the body of Christ here on earth.

    But these same churches are not much on evangelism either… they talk about it, offer the occassional class on witnessing, etc. But they never actually put it into practice, because they might actually be successful. If they’re too successful, then they might become the ‘minority’ and lose control of ‘their’ church.

    Bottom line, this type of church suffers from a deadly heart condition… it’s a lack of true love.

    But Praise God, though we do have some churches like this, they are not the norm.

  6. An interesting book with a win-win solution to the fellowship problem is entitled, “Who Stole My Church?: What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century” by Gordon MacDonald. It was published in January 2008 by Thomas Nelson. We have multiple copies circulating compliments of our church library ministry and there is a growing waiting list. We have scheduled a book discussion of this title in January featuring book reviews from two perspecitves. The first will be from our Director of Missions offering a view that takes into account what he has witnessed in dozens of churches and also as a spokesperson representing the senior segment of our membership. The second review will come from a young woman in her twenties who will speak from a more recent generation’s perspective of church. We are praying the reading of this book, the book reviews, and open discussion regarding its solutions will head off any problems and, in fact, help grow our fellowship.

  7. I’ve found that conflict resolution is really really hard when matters of principle are at stake. I’ve been in a fellowship group of good, decent people who would have had no trouble compromising and then moving on with life regarding logistical matters — but when a divisive issue of principle came up we shattered because people on both sides felt that they could not bend without compromising Christ. The group still existed as an organization but the spirit was gone.

  8. Some good comments have been made here. I would summarize much of what has been mentioned already under three headings:

    1) lack of authentic spirituality (see 1 Cor. 3:1-9)

    2) ego problems (see #1 again)

    3) poor people- or leadership skills on the part of the pastor

    To this I would also add:

    3) an unwillingness to confront conflict head-on. In too many cases I have seen churches ignore the elephant in the room, or kick the can down the road hoping it will resolve itself on its own. Instead, what happens is that a problem is allowed to fester and metasticizes until it becomes a threat to the church’s continued existence. As a former (and highly effective) pastor on mine was fond of saying, “Lance that boil!” I’ve also been amazed at how quickly simmering conflicts die down when word gets around that gossips and backbiters will be called out on the floor during business meetings and held accountable.

Comments are closed.