Why Small Groups?/Fellowship Rediscovered
From Gospel Translations
In the heart of Charleston, South Carolina stands an old church building. Bright stained glass offsets the solemnity of heavy red brick. Inside, pictures of Jesus and other biblical figures etched in glass filter the light of the worship place. A handcarved altar piece reaches to the vaulted ceiling. Someone gave great attention to detail in designing and building this house of worship. Above the entrance, inlaid in the brick, is a cross—the symbol and heart of Christendom for 2,000 years.
But times have changed, and the need for a house of worship has been replaced in Charleston’s tourist district by the need for prime restaurant space. So today the former Church of the Redeemer has been transformed into the Mesa Grill. The church’s name, carved in a marble placard at the sidewalk entrance, looks as if someone has tried to sand-blast it away. In the glass case that once announced activities and the weekly sermon, there now hangs today’s menu. Where hardwood pews once filled the worship space, upholstered booths sit among potted plants. Rock music pulsates through the atmosphere; Sting has replaced Handel as nachos have replaced communion bread. None of the patrons seem particularly aware of the incongruity of the place.
Rediscovering Biblical Fellowship
As the title of this chapter announces, this is an essay about fellowship, and the Mesa Grill is an apt metaphor for what has happened to the practice of Christian relationship in the church today. We’ve kept the term and turned it into something that doesn’t even vaguely represent what it means to the one who defined it.
What fellowship is not. In its neglect, Christians have redefined fellowship to mean any warm human interchange— especially when we make connection with someone and discover that we have common interests, experiences, or viewpoints. I enjoy the outdoors. Hiking, canoeing, and fishing are among my favorite leisure activities. When I meet someone who knows the joys of the Rose River Trail in Shenandoah National Park, or has canoed the rapids of the lower Youghegheny River, or thrills at the first yank of the line signaling the strike of a smallmouth bass, our conversation is inevitably animated and friendly. But it is not fellowship.
If I spend time with a brother in Christ playing volleyball, talking about shared political views, or following the ups and downs of an NFL franchise, we may have a wonderful time and deepen a friendship. But in none of those things will we have had fellowship.
Let me press the point further. Fellowship is not (at least not necessarily) going to a Bible study with someone, or sharing doctrinal commitments, or attending a Christian men’s rally where emotions run deep and passions are high. Fellowship is not found in a “group therapy” session where participants reveal their darkest thoughts—even if everyone in the group is a Christian and brings a Bible. In fact, two Christians can be married to one another and still not experience fellowship.I have heard Christians complain that their relationships seem superficial and they don’t know why. What they often fail to see is that, while all Christians have relationships, not all relationships include fellowship. In fellowship, God offers us a precious but neglected gift—a type of human relationship created exclusively for his children. If God thinks it’s that important, we had better find out what it is.
What fellowship is. Fellowship is a uniquely Christian relational experience. No one but those born of the Spirit of God can have fellowship—which makes its neglect all the more tragic.The word “fellowship,” as it is found in the English Bible, is a translation of the Greek word koinonia. Saying the word aloud brings to mind our word “community,” and so it should, for koinonia is its root. But sadly, politicians and sociologists have effectively redefined “community” to mean “special-interest group,” so we need additional words to get at its meaning. Here the Revised Standard Version of the Scriptures can help. It translates koinonia as “fellowship,” but also as “participation,” and “sharing” (in the following verses, these words are italicized for emphasis).
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Ac 2:42).
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy... (Php 2:1).
...and I pray that the sharing of your faith may promote the knowledge of all the good that is ours in Christ (Phm 1:6).
Participating together... life and truth...sharing in common...human relationship...experience of God—these phrases capture the essence of the unique Christian experience of fellowship. Opportunities to fall in love, get married, procreate, pursue a career, go bungee jumping, play baseball, or go to school are all open to humanity in general. But only Christians can experience fellowship. For this reason alone, this unique quality of Christian existence should be exceedingly precious to us. We should eagerly explore its meaning so that we can fully mine its treasure. My sincere hope is that this chapter will compel you to seek a deeper experience of fellowship.
Start with God
Fellowship with God is the prerequisite to fellowship with others. This is the explicit message of John in his first biblical letter:
We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ....If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin (1Jn 1:3, 6-7).The flow of John’s argument may not be as straightforward as modern readers prefer, but his logic is clear. John and his fellow teachers ( the “we” of the passage) have come to know truth through the life and teaching of Jesus. This has allowed them to have fellowship with God the Father and with the ascended Christ. This fellowship exists not only with God but between and among those who “live by the truth.” Sin (“walking in darkness”) not only pollutes our fellowship with God but hinders our fellowship with one another. “Walking in the light”—obeying God’s word and confessing our sins when we disobey—should result in fellowship.
In short, fellowship with others begins with an honest, open, obedient relationship with God rooted in the truth of his Word. How we share that relationship with others—how we wrestle with understanding truth and struggle to apply it to our lives—is the essence of fellowship.
Thus, fellowship has one source and two channels. The one source is God. The two channels—both to be understood in the light of Scripture—are the work of the Spirit directly in our hearts, and the work of the Spirit through other believers.
Some, upon hearing this, might be tempted to get off the bus that takes them to fellowship. Relationships, even between believers, come packaged with problems. To pursue relationships is to open ourselves to hurt, misunderstanding, and inconvenience, for our relationships are inevitably influenced by our sin.
We’re like the Israelites trudging through the wilderness, like the disciples huddled in the upper room after Jesus’ ascension, like the pilgrims on the Mayflower. The negative view is that we’re stuck with one another—confined by a desert, a hostile Jerusalem, or a stormy sea. But “stuck” is not the biblical attitude. Rather, we belong to one another. We are pilgrims on our way to the promised land, called to help one another along on the journey. God has chosen fellowship to be a primary channel of life in his body.
The Means of FellowshipEver heard the phrase “a means of grace”? In theology, it refers to things we can do—such as pray or meditate on Scripture—to put ourselves in a position to receive something from God. Fellowship is a means of grace, too. It’s a way of getting to a place where God will meet us. So the next question is: what are the means of fellowship
Worship God together. Worship is a means of experiencing fellowship with God through meditating upon and declaring truth about him, giving thanks to him, and receiving a sense of his presence. As we noted earlier from Scripture, fellowship with God—including worship— opens us to fellowship with one another.
Pray for one another, especially regarding the things that burden us and how God is at work in our lives. Praying together is about as close as we can get to experiencing someone else’s fellowship with God and knowing the qualities of his relationship with his Lord.
Utilize our spiritual gifts to help others grow in God. If fellowship is participating together in the Spirit, what more obvious participation can there be than to serve one
another through those grace-gifts empowered by the Spirit?
Carry each other’s burdens. Paul puts it this way: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:1-2). We all have burdens and—as I once heard my pastor, C.J. Mahaney, say—we have a responsibility to communicate those burdens without requiring anyone to receive divine revelation in order to know what they are. But this process does not have to be difficult.
Less than a month earlier we had buried an eight-yearold boy who had died of cancer. Matt had been more than a church member; he was a friend to me and my family. I had been feeling a heaviness—a sadness—since then, and I wasn’t sure its source was pure, or that I was handling it correctly. Though it seems obvious now, I couldn’t tell what was going on in my heart.
My friends listened quietly as I groped to explain myself. But they didn’t just comfort me. They asked probing questions surrounding issues of self-pity, worry, and a prideful sense of responsibility. It took courage to ask such questions of someone struggling with the sadness I faced, but those questions needed asking, and I didn’t know enough at the time to ask them of myself.
When my friends were done, I knew someone understood me—and not just in an emotional sense. They had helped me explore my soul. Their counsel? Watch out for certain temptations, but mainly, you’re grieving, John. The sadness y o u feel is a normal part of the painful losses we experience in life.
Did my sadness leave on that day? Did I walk out of that office on clouds of joy? No. But three other men were now carrying my burden, and I left with a much lighter load.
Share about our spiritual experiences. Since she was in high school my wife Nancy has kept a journal of her times alone seeking God. It’s not unusual for her to read to me from it, and I share the same sorts of things with her. It often just takes five minutes, but it’s rich fellowship just the same.
Confess our sins to one another—before someone comes to confront us. This obvious source of help in conquering sin is often neglected because of our foolish pride. “Therefore confess your sins to one another,” James writes, “and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (Jas 5:16).
Correct one another when we see someone has failed to recognize and take responsibility for his sins. Paul writes that when we see a brother caught in a sin, we should point it out to him to help promote his restoration (Gal 6:1). As uncomfortable as this is, it is fellowship. And if we are at first unsuccessful in winning the errant brother, Jesus teaches us to widen the circle of fellowship to ensure the correction is accurate and the brother receives every chance to be won (Mt 18:15ff).
Correction (see Chapter Five) is one of the more challenging aspects of fellowship because it often entails disagreement and conflict. Moreover, the one bringing correction may end up having his own motives evaluated— and found wanting. Yet without this dynamic of fellowship, we wall up portions of our lives, blocking us from other opportunities for fellowship.
Serve one another in practical ways. Effective serving requires knowing another’s needs. Discovering these needs is often the product of fellowship. Imagine that a couple in your group reveals that they are experiencing unusual conflict due to neglect of their marriage. Fellowship may mean taking their children for a weekend so the parents can get away and work on righting the wrongs of their relationship.
Hindrances to Fellowship
In an essay on fellowship J.I. Packer identifies four hindrances to enjoying this particular dynamic of life in the Spirit: self-sufficiency, formality, bitterness, and elitism.
Self-sufficiency. This sin announces to God and others that we are adequate in ourselves. It reveals itself in a lack of prayer (demonstrating our delusion that we don’t need God) and a lack of fellowship (demonstrating our delusion that we don’t need each other).
In our self-sufficiency we tend to ignore fellowship— only to discover our need for it when we hit a crisis. Then we scramble to build relationships just when we have the least time for them, and when people—for good reason, given our history—have concluded we have no interest in fellowship.
Formality. The word can conjure images of debutante balls and trying to remember which fork to use. But here all it means is those rules and standards we unconsciously employ when we’re in social settings. Sometimes these rules are neutral, but sometimes they inhibit fellowship. Consider the unwritten code of some families: “You don’t talk about your ‘private’ life with other people.” You won’t produce much fellowship taking that belief into the church!
We can also fall into formality with- in our small groups—the very place where fellowship demands spontaneity and openness. In fact, I’ve found the meetings of many small groups to be as predictable as any liturgy (and I say this without any intent to denigrate congregations that employ a liturgy). The leader follows a standard pattern. The same people pray, read Scripture, talk about their problems. Every time.
But fellowship is spiritual—“of the Spirit”—and so should our meetings be. The needs and issues of our lives change, and so should the content and topics of our meetings, for the Spirit is constantly at work in our lives to conform us to Christ’s image in specific ways. We must adapt to his work, and invite others to help us. I’m not advocating there be no plan or format to meetings, but rather, that the plans include opportunities for everyone to share the work of the Spirit in his or her life.
- Unfulfilled expectations: “I’ve invited him to lunch, and he didn’t accept; I’ve opened my life to him and he didn’t follow up; I thought we would become close friends, but instead he spends all his time with someone else.”
- Offended pride: “Your correction was inaccurate, and I’m insulted that you’d even think I could do such a thing. I’ll never open my life to you again.”
- Jealousy: “Why is he the group leader? Can’t the pastors see that I’m far more talented?”
- Gossip and slander. Telling someone privileged, negative information about another when the recipient is neither part of the problem nor part of the solution—this is gossip. Slander, which is the spreading of false information about someone with an intent to harm him or her, tempts those slandered to grow bitter. Left unconfronted, gossip and slander create mistrust and bitterness, building a wall of hostility fellowship cannot scale. Worse yet, these sins tend to create factions within the group, which only separatebelievers further from one another.
Getting from Here to There
Ask. Once we are committed to the value of fellowship, creating opportunities for it is quite simple. Ask people questions that go beyond the superficial. Get past “How’re ya’ doing?” to “How is God working in your life right now?” “How did that event affect you?” “What do you think you can learn from this?”
Volunteer. Fellowship flows when we volunteer information about our internal state to others not simply to relieve the problem of loneliness, but to gain their honest evaluation of how we are dealing with the issue and how we can change. Correction is rarely given unless we invite it. Recently a friend asked to speak to me privately. He was struggling with temptation toward a besetting sin, and his appeal was memorable: “I appreciate your support when I confess my trial and sinful reaction, but I need more than your understanding and support. I need you to rebuke me instrong terms. Please get my attention by correcting me in strength.” This man enjoys deep fellow- ship, and his growth in God has been consistent partly because he recognizes his need for help, and he knows the Spirit uses others to provide insight.
Take advantage of ready-made opportunities. I prepare for my small group with two things in mind: first, what issue in my life is God bringing to my attention—a sin or temptation, a trial, an opportunity or decision, confusion over some issue. I come ready and willing to open my life and receive input on this issue. As a practical matter, we can’t always get to everyone, so we may not cover my issue that evening, but I’m ready if we do. (And if we don’t, I look for other opportunities.) Second, I approach the meeting recalling past issues others have brought up so I can express my care andencourage fellowship by following up.
Be creative. Other opportunities for fellowship abound. Hospitality is a biblical practice that fosters fellowship. Conversation tends to flow freely during a meal, whether it’s in someone’s kitchen or at a restaurant. Parties can also help create fellowship—if we make room for it.
Go camping together. Room near each other at the church retreat. Any contact between Christians—especially those in your own church, and most especially those in your small groups—should be seen as an opportunity for fellowship.
All in the Family
One of the metaphors by which Scripture describes the church is the family. There is much concern today about the family. Society as a whole has been alarmed to discover that individual families, and even the institution of the family, grow weak if they are not nurtured (the trendy term is “dysfunctional”). With all the discussion of such families, one might conclude they are the only kind left.
But that’s far from true. There are lots of healthy, “functional” families. Of these, I’m convinced the best ones are found in biblically based Christian homes that have their roots planted deep in the soil of the local church.The Biblical word for family is usually translated “household,” and when we become Christians, we become members of God’s household, his family. Look at three passages from Paul:
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (Gal 6:10).
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household (Eph 2:19).
If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth (1Ti 3:15).
Each of us has family responsibilities in the church. Fellowship encompasses a major responsibility to care for another’s soul and to get help for our own so that together we can be all that God intends us to be.
A good local church—and a good small group—is like the best of families. Good families take responsibility for each other. Good families are honest with each other.Good families take care of each other. Good families deal with their problems. Good families love each other—no one is lonely. Good families love and respect the head of the household—in our case the one we call Father and Lord.
Fellowship makes family life possible in the church. But fellowship doesn’t happen of itself. We must define it, we must pursue it, we must love it. If we do, we will pre- vent someone from turning our spiritual household into a restaurant.
1. Read the definition of fellowship you wrote in answer to Question 1 on page 17. Do you still think that’s the best definition? Why or why not?
2. Can you name an activity you once believed to be fellowship, but which actually is not?
3. Which spiritual gifts do you think you may possess? (see Romans 12) How might these promote fellowship in your small group?
4. Do the members of your small group know about any of the spiritual experiences that have made the greatest impact in your life?
5. Self-sufficiency, formality, bitterness, elitism: Do these categories suggest any areas of sin you may need to confess? Invite the evaluation of others.
6. Take a poll. Do most people in your small group find it easier to answer a question about their spiritual life than to ask such a question of someone else?
7. If the answer to Question 6 is yes, then go ahead and ask someone about his or her spiritual life—because most people won’t mind answering!
8. Pray that God would help you have the humility and passion to seize future opportunities for fellowship.
The Crisis of Caring by Jerry Bridges (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985)