What is fellowship, and when do members of a local church engage in fellowship? Are Christians guaranteed to enjoy fellowship every time they eat a meal together? If a group of men from the church get together to watch football, are they engaging in fellowship? Should we assume that creating a women’s knitting group is a sure-fire path to fellowship? Though fellowship may take place in any of these contexts, gatherings like these are not the essence of fellowship. Many churches are lacking in authentic fellowship because they do not have a clear understanding of what fellowship is. Once a church has a clear vision of what biblical fellowship is, they can consider which elements promote true fellowship and which hinder it.
So then, what is fellowship? Fellowship centers on the common bond that Christians share with one another in the gospel, and fellowship embraces that common bond through relationship with one another. Fellowship is a personal relationship between Christians that centers on their common identity in Christ and spurs one another on in following Him (Hebrews 10:24-25). In this regard, fellowship is a unique relationship between believers that cannot be enjoyed by unbelievers; it only exists between those who have been united to Christ through faith.
That leads us to consider how a church can promote fellowship among its members. Because fellowship requires relationships, churches commonly host various types of gatherings (i.e., meals, intramural sports, etc.) in order to promote fellowship. These efforts provide a space for fellowship to be expressed, but they do not necessarily create fellowship. The first and most important way to promote fellowship in a local church is by preaching the gospel because the gospel is the root of fellowship.
Though numerous New Testament passages reveal this truth, consider Ephesians 2:11-22. It begins by reminding Gentile Christians that they were at one time separated from Christ and alienated from His people (verses 11-12). Verses 13-14 proclaim that, “…now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…” (ESV) What is the effect of this? Verse 19 says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” (ESV) Verses 19-22 go on to explain that the church is a spiritual house that has Christ as the cornerstone. The unity and relationship that Christians enjoy is solely based on Christ and His work to unite us to right standing with Him and into fellowship with one another. This is the only basis for Christian fellowship.
Why do we begin here? Because Christians will only have a proper excitement for fellowship with one another when they understand that it is a blood-bought fellowship. When believers rejoice in the reality of their reconciliation with Christ that brings them into the household of God with other saints for whom Christ died, they will understand the true value of fellowship and pursue it. In this way, proclaiming the gospel is the most essential means of promoting Christian fellowship.
With this basis established, we can explore two practical steps that leaders of a church can take to promote fellowship. First, elders can model fellowship to their people. Many Christians are excited to gather together for fellowship events, but few are comfortable initiating spiritual conversations. Elders can model fellowship by engaging members on a level that only Christians can engage in. They can ask others how their walk with the Lord has been, share passages of Scripture that they are meditating on, ask how they can pray for another member, or ask another member to pray for them. Though awkward at times, these types of intentional conversations can demonstrate to church members that deep fellowship ought to be the norm among Christians. Furthermore, it is no accident that hospitality is an essential qualification for elders (1 Timothy 3:2). Elders can invite families to their homes for dinner, ask men to meet them for coffee, and look for other opportunities to engage with Christians at on a spiritual level outside of the Sunday gathering. Modeling by example is a powerful way to promote true fellowship among members of a local church.
Second, elders can intentionally encourage members to pursue deep fellowship with one another. This will be far more effective if the elders are already modeling fellowship. In a Sunday gathering, a pastor could explain what the essence of fellowship is and specifically challenge members to pursue fellowship with other members that goes beyond surface-level conversation. An elder could meet with a small group of men to study a series of Scripture passages that explain what fellowship is. Then, he could encourage those men to pursue deep levels of fellowship with each other and with other church members. Whatever the method looks like, elders and church leaders can intentionally challenge members to pursue fellowship.
With these ideas in mind, we can consider elements that hinder fellowship in a local church. First, churches sabotage fellowship when they cater to the personal preferences of their members. Though it is wise to consider the preferences of members when making choices about music style, building décor, meeting times, and the like, it is dangerous to cater to these preferences. Why? Because it gives members the impression that their unity is rooted in common preferences. For example, it is common for churches to hold a “traditional” church service earlier in the morning and a “modern” service later in the morning. This practice may seem benign, but it poses a great threat to unity and fellowship. It says, “The content of the songs we sing is not enough to unite us with one another; we need to have our stylistic preferences satisfied in order to meet as a unified group.” In contrast, the glory of Christ is displayed when college students who prefer modern music and older saints who love hymns can set aside their preferences to worship Christ in any style of song – as long as those songs center on the gospel that unites them.
Second, churches can hinder fellowship by segregating their members based on common characteristics like age, grade, marriage status, and the like. To be sure, there is value in sometimes leading mens’ breakfasts, childrens’ ministries, and marriage seminars; these allow members who may be struggling in similar areas to encourage one another. However, if a church constantly segregates members based on these factors, the unique fellowship that the gospel creates is suppressed. Unbelievers can understand why a 10th-grade girl wants to attend youth group with other high-schoolers; they scratch their heads when the same 10th-grader wakes up early on a Saturday morning to meet with a 67-year-old widow to read the Bible and pray together. The same principle applies with activities that a church promotes. Mixing members of varying ages, genders, and marital status reminds all members that their fellowship with one another is rooted in Christ alone.
Finally, churches can foil fellowship by hosting too many programs and formal activities. As stated earlier, churches often create programs and “fellowship events” when they want to promote fellowship in their church. Paradoxically, these gatherings can hinder fellowship. How? They can make members feel as if they have engaged in fellowship when, in fact, they haven’t. Men can feel as if they enjoyed fellowship when they really only played football and talked about sports – activities that a group of unbelievers could also enjoy. Furthermore, if church members are running programs every night of the week, they may be so busy sustaining those programs that they do not have time to invite other members into their homes or find contexts that promote deeper fellowship. Church leaders must use wisdom to discern which programs are promoting true fellowship and which may be hindering it.
At the end of the day, each church must discern which practices are promoting true fellowship and which are hindering it. The goal is not to create hard-and-fast rules about which activities should be promoted and which should be banned; rather, my encouragement is for church leaders to carefully consider what true fellowship is and whether their current practices are promoting fellowship among members. For all of us, may we always treasure Christ’s work at the cross to save us into His family and bring us into fellowship with one another. May we pursue fellowship with one another for the glory of Christ and our joy with one another.