This is a statement that as church leaders should ring in our ears. It should give us those fond and joyful memories. It should be something that brings us and pulls us together. If you are familiar with Rick Warren’s 5 Purposes of the church you will know that fellowship is one of those 5 purposes.
What is fellowship? For so many in my baptist tradition, fellowship is synonymous with food. While I know this will disappoint, fellowship does not simply equal food. So what is fellowship? Fellowship is sharing life together. It is laughing together, crying together, praying together, and yes it is sitting around a table together. While fellowship does happen within the walls of the church, fellowship in its purest form happens more often outside the walls of the church. It happens in people’s homes, at restaurants, at ball games, at the lake, in the coffee shop, at the hospital, and even at the funeral home. Fellowship happens in places where life happens.
You see we were created to be in relationship. We are to be in relationship with the Lord and relationship with one another. We were never created to do life in isolation. We were created to be in person and face to face.
In a future post, we will deal with the current issue that COVID has created to fellowship. For now, I want us to examine the cause of a fellowship breakdown within a church. A fellowship breakdown is seen when after the time of celebration has concluded, everyone rushes out. It is seen when there is a ‘fellowship meal’ when people eat and disappear just as quickly. It is seen when the ‘people do church together but not life together’. In the reverse fellowship that is healthy is seen when the time of celebration concluded 30 minutes ago and the person locking up the doors turns out all the lights as a sign to wrap things up. Healthy fellowship is seen when people linger at the ‘fellowship meal’. Healthy fellowship is seen when groups or couples go to lunch together after the time of celebration. Healthy fellowship is seen when fellow church members write that card of celebration or encouragement. Healthy fellowship is exemplified by the ‘crying shoulder’. What is fascinating is when I sit down with church leaders to diagnose and discover current status, I oftentimes get them to realistically grade themselves using Warren’s 5 Purpose of the Church. For obvious reasons, this internal grading process is far from scientific or perfect, but what I find is fellowship is one of the last things to break down.
These fellowship breakdowns occur in churches for multiple reasons such as:
- Lack of forgiveness
Forgiveness to a relationship is like breathing is to life. Without forgiveness, there can be no relationship. We live in a world where lies are told, promises are broken, hearts are broken, people are unkind, material possessions are broken and lost, gossip is told, and some people are just straight-up mean. We live in a world where we all get hurt at different times in our life. This is even true, even at church.
Using Nelson New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, forgiveness is “the act of excusing or pardoning others in spite of their slights, shortcomings, and errors.” None of us are perfect, we all err, and we all unwisely speak at times. We need to receive and give forgiveness. Colossians 3:13 tells us, “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive (ESV).”
When a lack of forgiveness embeds itself in a church, animosity spills over into the congregation, this animosity creates an ‘us and them’ mentality with divisions. These divisions get wider and wider until the local church splinters.
Lack of forgiveness sabotages health fellowship.
- Backbiting and gossip
We all know that person or that group that stirs things within the church through phone calls, text, blogs, and social media. We have all been in that situation where you walk into a room and the conversation instantly ceases.
This backbiting and gossip can be directed at individuals, a leader, or the church in general with one intention: to inflict harm and hurt. This is passive-aggressive behavior that is incredibly destructive and because it is passive it is oftentimes difficult to tie back to a particular individual with 100% confidence. It is like tossing a hand grenade from the shadows.
Many years ago, I received a ‘note’ that was filled with half and twisted truths that fit ‘their’ narrative of me personally and my ministry. This note wasn’t signed with the exception of ‘In Christian love’. There was nothing, I repeat nothing in this note that had a hint of Christian love. Sadly I wasn’t the only one to receive such notes at this church. I would like to say that this note didn’t sting, but it did. Not only did it sting me but it stung everyone who received such notes. While this anonymous note writer sabotaged the fellowship potential of this church.
Galatians 5:14-15 tells us, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”
- Trust issues
Trust is the bedrock of a relationship. If fellowship is sharing life together, then fellowship is a relationship. True, healthy, and biblical fellowship requires trust. If I don’t trust the person that sits two rows in front of me then that fellowship is broken. Not what makes this an exponentially bigger problem is when this group doesn’t trust that group.
Sometimes a lack of trust comes from a prior issue that broke trust, yet this lack of trust can also be attributed to the next reason for the breakdown of trust: power struggles.
- Power struggles
I wish this issue was a rare issue but sadly it is not. Sometimes the struggle is with two or more ‘official’ leadership groups in a church and sometimes the struggle is with two or more ‘unofficial’ and/or a mix of ‘official and unofficial groups rivaling for power. The reason for these power struggles is many, but the end result is the same: poor church health and a fractured fellowship.
As a side note, not only do these power struggles fracture the fellowship, these power struggles put us as a church in the wrong battle as we fight among ourselves.
I find apathy to be a second-level cause that escalates unhealthy fellowship. Apathy doesn’t just happen out of the blue. Apathy is the result of something that has been occurring for a period of time. Further, what I find is apathy is a result and an escalator of one of the reasons above. Simply apathy occurs when we get tired of gossip or the infighting or the lack of trust. We get tired and don’t care.
All of these reasons above, I am convinced that it is where we give Satan a foothold in our personal lives and in the church. Don’t give him a foothold.
- Lack of teaching on fellowship
The last cause of the breakdown of fellowship is when we don’t teach on fellowship. As leaders we never give people the ‘why’, the ‘what’, and the ‘how’.
If we never teach on it, encourage it, challenge people toward it, and model it, why are we surprised when it doesn’t happen?
Fellowship is vital for a healthy church.
Next month we are going to take a look at how to fix a breakdown of fellowship.
What are your thoughts?
In the next post, we will discuss how do we fix a breakdown of fellowship?