By: Lara Stafford
Lately I have been struggling to understand the concept of fellowship. Our church leaders have put together Koinonia groups. In practice, these look a lot like the small groups most churches have. We meet together once a week to discuss the Word. We share meals together.
We pray for each other. We talk and laugh and have fun. They are set up to facilitate Christian fellowship. And I always thought they had been doing exactly that. The fact that these groups, up until a few months ago, were called “Small Groups” and have now been renamed “Koinonia Groups”, has got me wondering if the small groups weren’t achieving their purpose. Don’t fix what ain’t broken, right?
Koinonia is the Greek word for fellowship. It carries with it the ideas of community, participation and intimacy with others. In the letter of 1 John, the apostle John makes it clear that this kind of fellowship, participation, community and intimacy are important for believers to have with God, Jesus, the Spirit and each other. He says this is where true joy is found. “…that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship (koinonia) with us; and indeed, our fellowship (koinonia) is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:3-4).
So, if complete (abounding, flourishing, full) joy comes from true fellowship (participation, community, intimacy) with God and with other believers, then I think I want to be involved in some koinonia! That sounds like a great thing. I want to experience as much joy as possible in this life and the next. Not the world’s version of joy that is fleeting, but Biblical joy that is lasting because it finds complete satisfaction in God. John seems to be telling us that fellowship with other believers is, at least, a key to finding that kind of joy. I’m in…or am I?
In the past, I have had a sort of love/hate relationship with, well, relationships. They can be difficult and messy. Sometimes it is just plain easier to not get involved. Or to barely get involved. It is pretty easy to have the appearance of fellowship. To attend church, small groups, book clubs, have people over for dinner, all those great things that we call “fellowship”.
Don’t get me wrong, those things are great, and they can be a part of true fellowship, but I am beginning to realize that those activities are just a shadow of the real thing. You can talk to people after church about the weather and camping and how much you like their blouse. You can have a small group meeting in which you focus on prepping for emergencies or making a list of all the things you don’t like about the new pastor (true story). You can have people over for dinner and never get to the heart of what is really going on in your lives.
My husband and I were once invited over for dinner by a very nice Christian couple. It happened that, the day we were scheduled to go to their house, we found out I had had a miscarriage. We thought about cancelling but decided to go anyway. The subject of the baby never came up. I’m not blaming them, we would have had to tell them about it, but that dinner obviously wasn’t the kind of fellowship that John talks about that brings joy. Something is missing in our idea of fellowship.
True fellowship must be something more…something greater….something supernatural, even. J.R.R Tolkien, in his allegory, Lord of the Rings, gives a clear picture of what fellowship really is. Most of us have seen the movies, and some of us have even tackled the massive novel. Take note of the relationships the next time you watch or read it. Tolkien meant it to be helpful in understanding the idea of fellowship. Consider these parallels as you come to terms with relationships inside the church…
- In the story, the group taking the ring to Mordor have a common goal that will benefit the whole world. Their task is to destroy the ring that was made to enslave them. They are working together for the freedom of everyone. The ultimate goal of any Christian church is to share with a lost and dying world the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is what truly frees us.
- In the story, the group that takes the ring is made up of very diverse characters. They don’t share much in common, don’t have the same customs or beliefs. They argue passionately over opinions and decisions. Yet they are always able to put themselves aside for the good of the overall goal. The church should look like that…a group of very diverse people who disagree on issues but still find a way to stay unified around the gospel.
- In the book (or movie), those in the fellowship willing to sacrifice for each other if it means advancing their cause. They are even, at points, willing to die for each other. They face discomfort, danger and hunger together. If I’m honest, when I look at the church, I see that we are rarely willing to face the mess and expense that inevitably comes from having people over for dinner, let alone putting our safety, comfort or lives on the line for those we call our brothers and sisters.
- In the allegory, the characters are willing to be vulnerable around each other. They ask for and receive help. We, in the American church, have a hard time with that. We want to appear as if we don’t need anything from anyone. We put on a happy face and try to keep people from knowing that we are struggling. We smile through dinner all the while pushing away thoughts about the baby we won’t ever hold.
So, you see why I am struggling with this idea? On the one hand, I want the joy that comes with really knowing people. I want to have all the benefits of the relationships that develop over a shared noble goal or hard-won victory. I want people in my life during my darkest hours who will lift some of the gloom and take away the lonely. I want the fun times and I want the laughter. On the other hand, I spend my days trying to stay away from discomfort (don’t ask me how long it has been since I’ve seen a dentist).
I fear suffering, I want a clean house and there are things about me that I would rather not share. I like skimming the surface with people because the deeps can be complicated and I don’t always know how to respond.
The question is, then, can you have the joys of fellowship without the hard stuff? Is it possible to just take the good and leave the bad? I am coming to the realization that they go hand in hand. My closest relationships are those that have been through the hard stuff. I would guess the same is true for you.
In junior high, my best friend and I had a falling out because I told her that her feet smelled bad. We have not spoken since. I have no idea what she is doing now or how her life has gone since 7th grade. What a silly reason to lose fellowship, right? A true friendship would have been able to weather that kind of hurricane-like storm (it was junior high, after all). But isn’t that too much like what we do in the church? We walk away from true fellowship (or at least the potential for true fellowship) over disagreements, forgetting that we are supposed to be united around a much, much bigger goal.
With my 7th grade bff, the goal of our relationship was probably something like not feeling lonely in the cafeteria. The goal was selfish and small, so the relationship crumbled easily at the first sign of trouble. In the church, our goal is so glorious and the prize of true fellowship is so sweet that we should be willing to work through our differences, whatever that takes.
For those of you who have already been living in the trenches of koinonia….I see you, I admire you, and I want to be like you when I grow up. Please be patient with those of us who are a bit slow on the uptake. Encourage us with all the good that comes from true fellowship. We will watch you for clues on how to live this out. We can tell who you are because of all your joy!
For the rest of us… consider this one last thing…what are we missing out on when we stick in the realm of shallow, shadowy “fellowship”? What is on the other side of the arduous journey it takes to arrive at the true joy of koinonia? I’m thinking it might be worth finding out. The process will be difficult and messy. There will be highs and lows, joys and sorrows, victories and defeats. But I think I’m ready for the challenge. Anyone want to come with me?