A common remark I’ve heard from Christians including myself is, 'I just can’t believe that folks in the church would do that!' If the 'church' is our own, the outrage hits us harder.
We don’t need deep anthropological research to realise that people problems go beyond the church. People problems don’t even need a crowd to emerge. It can arise even in the most intimate of relationships. Francis Chan once said that one of his best compliments to his wife was that of all the people on earth she annoyed him the least. (A compliment that my husband has been quick to adopt.)
I don’t mean to make light of the suffering and hurt people have suffered from within the church. It can range from somebody who has betrayed our trust to loneliness or shame we’ve suffered by the very ones we had put childlike faith in. Probably, we’d joined a church because we thought that was the one place that wouldn’t disappoint us but it did, destroying whatever little faith we had left in it.
As Jesus said though, friends, take heart! For every thing that is wrong with the church, being in the church is the right thing for us. In fact, it’s not just the right thing for us, it’s the best thing for us and all its brokenness is being restored just as we are.
As I take an honest look at my life, I’m filled with gratitude for the love of Jesus that I’ve experienced. I would however know nothing of the fullness of that love if it wasn’t for having experienced such a large measure of it through his community.
When my father passed away in the fall of 2007, my life was tossed upside down. Pain, confusion, loneliness, and an aching sense of loss engulfed me. Grief made me want to crawl into a shell and shut the world out. God in His kindness wrapped an invisible safety net around me. He surrounded me with a community that took turns to seek me out even when I tried to shrug them off, forgave me when I was sharp and ungracious, silently sat by my side for hours and at other times gently and firmly spoke words of God’s truth, hope and life to my heart. I learned that Christian fellowship is a commitment to pour our whole heart into His community without counting the cost. It does not insist on being applauded or approved by others. Genuine godly fellowship creates a safe place where hearts can rest without being judged or requiring a mask. Instead it enables us to get down into the trenches of life with our fellow brothers and sisters, build each other up, and share in the sorrows and joys of this earthly life.
True fellowship within the family of God always points us to the Gospel. I came to faith in Christ through my Christian upbringing. But my understanding of this Good News grew deeper when He placed me in a community that taught me what a Gospel centered life meant. Christian jargon that hitherto were empty words, came alive. I learned that God had made me righteous (justified) through the Cross but He also continues to transform me (sanctify) daily by His Spirit through intentional relationships in His community. My instinct is often to flock towards and invest in people with whom I have a common and natural affinity. It is easy to disconnect from or be disinterested in those who are different from me. God has been using His community to teach me that Christ-glorifying fellowship is based on covenantal relationships. That requires being willing to be intentional, vulnerable with, and accountable to people in His community who are different from me. It is a very disconcerting place to be but I have also been realising how liberating it is to know that the grace of Christ through repentance and faith forges a strong bond of deep friendship between us that will last through eternity.
A couple of years ago, our family moved to another country. Bags in tow, we stepped out of the airport filled with a nervous excitement about setting up our new home. To our utter astonishment, the church family (who had never really met us but only knew of our arrival) went all out to welcome us into their midst. They’d cleaned and spruced up our new house, stocked the pantry, made the beds and set the table. We walked into a ready-to-live in house! To this day, I tear up at that memory. Over the course of our stay there, God sent more people from His family who lavished their love and generosity in a million ways. From driving me to the grocery stores, explaining the new culture, celebrating major milestones in life, bringing meals before and after I had a baby, watching our daughter while my husband and I slipped out on a date, praying with us, and to just being available at all times – we learned that the fellowship of God’s family transcends place, race, and culture. It is loving, generous, welcoming and inclusive.
In our day and age of social media, it’s so easy to have superficial fellowships, even within the body of Christ. It’s almost instinctive to want to slip in and out of church, and limit our interaction with folks to whatever point our conscience tells us our Christian social obligations stand complete. This instinct is fuelled by an innate desire to guard our hearts from being exposed to hurt, disappointment, or being found out. In fact, that would seem like a perfectly sensible and acceptable position. That’s largely because our view of fellowship and community is shaped by self-interest and cultural commonalities. Covenantal commitments send us running for cover.
Gospel fellowship however is fuelled by the ever-giving love of Christ, that comes with vulnerability yet brings a joy that is unmatchable in its profundity. The heart of Gospel community is so beautifully reflected in Paul’s exhortation in these verses in Philippians 2:3-4:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
The passage goes on to talk about the Christian arming himself with the same mindset as Christ in our relationships with one another. A mindset that values a love with the deepest sense of the other, wrapped in humility.
Christian fellowship is more than the Sunday church meetings and the mid-week bible studies. It is a lifestyle of receiving and giving, repenting and forgiving, celebrating and comforting, laying down and lifting up, exhorting and encouraging our fellow brothers and sisters. Being in fellowship is not just a spiritual discipline. It’s entering into the full experience of God’s transforming love that culminates in the expression of His glory.