Chip Brogden - Ekklesia, Fellowship & Church
If everyone is looking for fellowship, why is fellowship so hard to find? And once we have found it, why is it so hard to maintain it?
When God begins to bring you out of church and into a deeper relationship with Himself, there is a lot of unlearning that has to take place – particularly in the area of fellowship.
It has been said that every lost person has a Christ-shaped void in their heart that only Christ can fill. A similar thing can be said of believers who come out of the religious system. When God calls us to be with Him “outside the camp,” there is a church-shaped void in our heart where church used to be. This void makes us feel restless and insecure and empty. We remember the fellowship we used to enjoy, and we begin to long for it. Pretty soon, we begin to look for things to fill the church-shaped void in our heart.
This explains the seemingly endless pursuit of fellowship. Some look for it in the house church movement. Some look for it in a small-group setting, or in a living room, or at a coffee shop. People typically gravitate towards the opposite extreme of what they were hurt or disillusioned by. Problem with the pastor? We will look for (or create) a group without any spiritual leadership. Problem with doctrine? We will look for (or create) a group that agrees with us in belief, doctrine, or teaching.
Often it is nothing more complicated than trying to take all the “good stuff” we remember from our church days and attempting to re-create it outside of church – without all the “bad stuff” that made us leave in the first place. We will simply look for (or create) an environment that delivers the best of both worlds: all the things we love about church, without all the things we hate.
Once I was in a home meeting and someone was sharing a deep hurt. I sensed the spirit of God was about to minister a word of wisdom and comfort to this person. Suddenly, a brother who had been flipping through an old hymn book, oblivious to the surroundings, announced, “Let’s all sing Number 423!” Besides being rude to the other person and insensitive to how the Spirit of God was moving, what was the brother’s problem? He was trying to recreate a certain “atmosphere” that he once enjoyed in church. In his quest to make things happen on his terms, he completely misread the situation. It was left up to me to tell him to hush, and why singing a hymn wasn’t appropriate at this exact moment. He (predictably) was offended, accusing me of being “anti-worship” . But his behavior illustrates a longing to go back and enjoy something he used to enjoy in church, without actually going back to church.
Here’s a radical thought: what if the church-shaped void in our heart isn’t meant to be filled with anything? What if God intends for us to get rid of that church-shaped void and stop trying to fill it? Isn’t the church-shaped void in our heart really just an idol? And that idol not only hinders our spiritual growth and maturity in a Christ-centered faith, it also hinders our relationships with one another and prevents us from entering into real Spirit-and-Truth fellowship with one another.
Why is fellowship so elusive to us? Everyone says they seek it, yet everyone says it is difficult to find. Those who find it cannot maintain it for long. Those that do manage to maintain it often end up looking more like an institutional church than a real Body of Christ.
I submit the following five reasons…
1. Indulging in “Fellowship Fantasies.” We often create unrealistic, unbiblical expectations of what fellowship is, and then we try to fulfill those “fellowship fantasies” in the real world. We imagine what the perfect meeting or group looks like, sounds like, and acts like – we may even experience a temporary rush at finding what we describe as the “perfect” church, house church, or group to fellowship with – but then we are surprised and disappointed to find that no one can live up to our idealistic notions. Some will end up going back to church, and others will just go from one group to the next in the endless pursuit of “like-mindedness.”
To overcome this, get real clear on one thing: there are no perfect churches, perfect groups, or perfect meetings. Get over your fellowship fantasy so you can interact with imperfect, immature people in the real world.
2. Chronic “Meetingitus.” This condition is contracted through years of attending church. Those who suffer from Chronic Meetingitus can only fathom fellowship in the context of a meeting – because that is the only context in which they have ever experienced it.
I first diagnosed this in a brother who met me for lunch many years ago. I thought we were having good fellowship, but soon he turned the conversation around to his real purpose: where do I meet, and who do I meet with? When I answered that I didn’t meet with anyone at the moment, his face literally fell and with a sad, whiney voice he said, “Oh, I was SO hoping to find some fellowship around here!” And he began to regale me with all the other meetings he had attended elsewhere. It occurred to me that if the brother really wanted fellowship, he could have had it right then and there with me sitting at the table; instead, what he really wanted was a “Meeting.” He couldn’t conceive of any important spiritual interaction taking place outside of an official meeting or gathering.
If you are afflicted with this condition, you are severely limiting your opportunities for fellowship. Expand your thinking to include any kind of interaction with other brothers and sisters as an opportunity for “fellowship.” Stop trying to capture “fellowship” and stuff it into a certain time and place. Eliminate the need for regularly scheduled meetings and open your eyes to the opportunities right in front of you.
3. The “Done For Me” Fellowship Model. This is a variant of the typical Fellowship Fantasy but sounds more spiritual. It’s an idealistic notion of how things “should be.” Scriptures are produced to support an idea of how meetings and fellowship should be conducted, and this (along with a little help from our favorite house church leaders) is used as a template to critique whatever group we’re attending. Invariably, the group falls short of the “New Testament model” and disappointment ensues. “You’re doing it all wrong!” the critic cries, and either causes a commotion or leaves in consternation.
But what is the underlying expectation? We want to walk into a “done for me” fellowship that requires nothing from us. We want all the people to be fully grown with a mature model of church government in place and everything running smoothly according to the “New Testament pattern” we envision – but we aren’t willing to invest ourselves into making it happen. We want a ready-made fellowship that we can just show up and benefit from without having to do any of the hard work of making it work. I doubt any such fellowship exists, or would survive for very long.
4. Self-Destructive Self-Centeredness. Fellowship is based on relationship. Relationship is based on loving God and loving others. Since love is based on putting others first, Self-Centeredness is not compatible with fellowship. This, in a nutshell, gets to the heart of the matter. We spent years going to church to get our needs met – the service was for us, the sermon was for us, the music was for us, the pastor was for us, the fellowship was for us. Now we are looking for fellowship, and the motivation still revolves around getting our needs met. We “need” fellowship, we “need” social interaction, we “need” other people, we “need” encouragement from like-minded believers. And so, we really haven’t changed at all. We’re still consumed, absorbed, obsessed, and infatuated with what we need and frustrated by what we don’t have.
So it’s no wonder that fellowship eludes the Self-Centered. In the world of banking, if everyone shows up to make a withdrawal, and no one makes a deposit, the whole system goes bankrupt. Many fellowships and groups are spiritually bankrupt for the very same reason – everyone is taking but no one is giving. They suck each other dry with their problems, their needs, their issues. Many would argue that the gathering of Believers is the place where people SHOULD come to get their problems solved, their needs met, and their issues resolved. I would suggest, however, that the gathering of Believers is the place where people should come to be problem solvers, to meet the needs of others, and to help others work through their issues. It sounds similar, but the difference is like night and day. The end result will be that everyone’s needs are met because everyone is giving without expecting to receive – and in the giving and helping and ministering to one another, our personal needs are met. Ironically, if we focus on “getting” instead of “giving” we end up bankrupting ourselves and everyone else. This is the death sentence for many groups that drags you down instead of building you up.
5. Dysfunctional Relationships. The biggest reason why fellowship eludes us has to do with our own inability to understand what healthy relationships look like. As I watch these Christian dating commercials I see women who are head over heels “in love” with the man of their dreams, gushing about what he does for them, and how he makes them feel. I’m a little bit concerned about the future of any relationship that is based on how the other person makes them “feel.” Why? Because there is a misconception that love is based on what the other person does for me, and how they make me feel. This is not true love at all; it is too Self-Centered to be genuine love.
A relationship is not about what I can take from the relationship, but what I can give to the relationship. A dysfunctional relationship is based on what I’m getting out of it. If I’m getting what I want, I’m happy and I feel loved and satisfied; if not, I am unhappy and I feel unloved, and I start wondering about the relationship. This is 100% backwards!
But when this attitude creeps into all our relationships, the result is disaster. When that happens, my relationship with God hinges on what God does for me – I am happy and feel loved as long as I am healthy, wealthy, blessed, and feeling good. But if God lets me down too many times, I start to question the relationship, and I feel unhappy. Well, that’s not love, that’s a dysfunctional relationship you have with God.
What does this have to do with fellowship? Everything. Because fellowship is based on relationships with others. And if your idea of a relationship is “what can I get out of it” instead of “what can I put into it” then the relationship will fail. It doesn’t matter if the relationship is a marriage, a friendship, a business partnership, an employer-employee relationship, or the fellowship that exists between brothers and sisters. To make relationships work, we have to give more than we get. A dysfunctional, one-sided relationship ruins the whole thing, and that makes fellowship impossible.
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