Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Abuse of Biblical Words (or Why Don't Churches Do Ministry?)

Acts 2:42 says, "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." Phil. 1:5 says that the Philippians had partnership (Gk. koinonia, translated "fellowship" in Acts 2:42) with Paul in the gospel. 1 Jn. 1:3 links the church's fellowship in the gospel with the believer's fellowship in the Trinity.

That doesn't mean that we have coffee and donuts with the Trinity, does it?

"Fellowship" is one of those biblical words that we've castrated. What the Bible connects to the Trinity, prayer, biblical teaching, and the sufferings of Christ, we use to describe what happens when believers get together to watch The Princess Bride.

This is one of the clearest symptoms of church-as-social-club that I know. Only Christians use the term (I've never heard believers talk about getting together for some fellowship over pot, liquor, and casual sex...), yet with little resemblance to its uniquely Christian meaning.

And "fellowship" is far from the only Christian term we do this with. Is it really outreach, or is it just believers drinking tea together? Is it really worship, or is it just believers having a sing-a-long? Is it really preaching, or is it a guy firing off semi-Christianized moralisms?

So fellowship is the word that got this little diatribe going (thanks to some insightful comments on Phil. 1:5 from the youth group summer camp speaker this week). And it is worth noting that I experienced what seems to be the real intent of that term when a bunch of us youth pastors who didn't know each other got together and prayed fervently for God to work in the lives of our students. That was fellowship.

But that isn't even really the big issue. The big issue is that a whole lot of what we call "ministry" isn't ministry at all. It is just believers who go to the same church doing stuff together. And that doesn't qualify as ministry.

What we've got to do is what a lot of quasi-Emerg*** types have been saying for awhile now: stop wasting our precious time ("the days are evil" after all) on stuff that doesn't meaningfully contribute to the church's mission.

Oh right, there's another: by mission, I don't mean spending thousands of dollars to fly across the world to somewhere more exotic and paint a church for two weeks. Just so we're clear.


Michael Newheart said...


I usually love your posts, but this one just seemed angry. I felt like you were attacking me and my friends. From what I know of you from your other posts, I wouldn't say that is true of you, but that is what it felt like.

Andrew Faris said...


Probably a fair critique, because I am a little angry.

I hope that I'm not "just" angry though. The problem with this sort of thing is how subtle it is. We use Christian terms, but are we really doing uniquely Christian things?

Still, I thought as I wrote, "Andrew, should you be offering not only critiques of problems, but also viable solutions? Are you just ripping on the church here?"

And I'm really not trying to just rip on the church. I love the church- or at least I try to. So if you and your friends are doing faux-ministry, well, I suppose I am attacking you. But it's not personal.

I'm just tired of participating in the wrong things. Literally, tired. I can't handle it. I only have one life, and I want to live it for God's glory. So do you and your friends.

Here's hoping we live it in biblical ways.

And by the way, thanks for the compliment. I really do appreciate it.


bret m said...

preach it brother.. it does seem like we've cut the gonads out of the biblical meaning of fellowship & that's sad

i would love to see us get back to a more authentic and original form of fellowship.

& yes- that counselor prayer meeting was special.. we were of one mind, partnering with God & each other while pleading for God's mission & work to be accomplished in us, around us, & through us.

let's live in the fellowship/partnership we were saved to!

Jerry Brown said...

Here's something about *real* fellowship from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the book "The Cost of Discipleship":

"There is no way from one person to the other. However loving and sympathetic we try to be, however sound our psychology, however frank and open our behavior, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other man, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul. Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbours through him. That is why intercession is the most promising way to reach our neighbours, and corporate prayer, offered in the name of Christ, the purest form of fellowship."

Fellowship has nothing to do with Starbucks. It has nothing to do with game night with the guys in your small group. It is all, and only, about Christ. Anything else is just play.

ZooMuse said...

In order to fully comprehend the beauty and power of fellowship, we must first understand what God has done to make it possible.

As believers in Jesus Christ, we have a shared life (a deep, spiritual reality we share in common). Not that I share your life or that you share mine or even that, together, we share some new, vague spiritual experience.

We can have fellowship because each of us has been placed into, shares in, participates in the very life of Jesus Christ. His is the life we share, providing the basis for fellowship.

We can have fellowship with each other because we have fellowship with God. We can have fellowship with each other because we are in Christ. We can have fellowship with each other because Christ is in us. We can have fellowship with each other because we are members of one another.

We can have fellowship because, truly and supernaturally, we have deeply connected with the Father who has placed us into Christ, has placed Christ into us, and has made us, each one, members of one another. It is on this basis that we are able to have fellowship with one another.

What does this fellowship then look like? Authentic fellowship, I believe, is demonstrated only as we live out the radical demands of Jesus' command to love one another.

And what does "love one another' look and live like? List all the various "one another" passages in the Scripture, from "greet one another" to "bear one another's burdens" to "stir one another up to love and good deeds."

Only as we live out ALL the "one anothers" with intentionality can we say we are having fellowship. Anything else and anything less is not worth the effort!

Bill Faris said...

Someone I know once described fellowship as the kind of interactions soldiers have after they have just come through a fire fight or a battle. Think about how the connections they would have felt and the conversations they would have!

I always thought that it was an image more akin to the biblical idea of fellowship than chatting over donuts and coffee. By the way: I like custard-filled best. how 'bout you?

ZooMuse said...

I appreciate Bill's comment regarding soldiers' interactions, sort of like a after-battle debriefing, re-forming, re-orienting, re-arming, R & R context.

Jared Totten said...

I think we would benefit from a definition and a distinction. While Andrew did give a biblical definition of Christian fellowship by citing three verses in his opening, without a good definition and distinction of "fellowship" biblically defined for Christians this discussion may veer off on pointless bunny trails. After all, "fellowship" is not just a biblical word, it has meaning outside the church too. If an unbeliever reads that "only Christians can have true fellowship" and we don't define what we mean, they may write us all off as plain nutty.

So thank you, Andrew, for bringing this to bear. If we spent a little time in the Bible defining what fellowship and ministry should look like FOR CHRISTIANS, the church would be better for it. It's when the Bible becomes secondary that our fellowship starts looking like a club, and ministry starts looking like Amway.