Title: Looking at Fellowship Afresh
Looking at Fellowship Afresh
Part 2: Practice & Practical Outworkings
How real unity can come and what it brings
5. A Way it Worked: A Testimony
a) Past Experience of House Groups
Now I have to say I have led and been part of house groups which, when I look back, although they had good elements to them, I now find extremely sad. It may be that you enjoy a group that meets, talks, prays, has Bible study, shares testimonies etc. and all those things are good, but they are not at the heart of ‘fellowship' for, as I've suggested earlier, you can do all those things but actually fellowship never occurs. When I sit in a group where the focus is on ‘the study' or ‘the praying time' or whatever, I often see people who don't participate and who go away with an inner hunger (which they may or may not be aware of) and I am not surprised when people absent themselves from the group.
b) A Different Group, a Secure Group
This experience involved a particular ‘house group' I was involved with. I have led many house groups over many years but this one was unique and set the standard for any thoughts about ‘fellowship'. Whenever I try to analyze the experience of this particular group (about 8 people) the one word that comes to me again and again is ‘security' and that security came about by applying a variety of principles which I will explain below.
c) The Mechanics of Security
Our mission statement as a church started out by speaking of us creating a church that was “loving, caring and accepting”. We sometimes get in a bind trying to define ‘loving' but caring and accepting seem, by most people, to be much more understandable. I would suggest that caring and accepting are two vital aspects of loving.
Within this group we sought to convey that each and every person was important and whatever they were, and whatever they were going through, would not be responded to negatively. Now that is the negative way of saying we would accept every person in that group as they were.
I have often preached that “God loves each of us exactly as we are now this minute, but He also loves us so much that He has something better for us than we are this moment.” The starting point has to be, for real fellowship to flow, that God loves you and me exactly as we are at this moment and that means me accepting you just like you are and you accepting me just as I am (but we won't know what we are until we open up).
When we genuinely convey that, then people feel secure and in security they can be their real selves and share their real problems and real worries. It is at that point that accepting and caring really kicks in again. If I have a close friend (for that is what we become, knowing all about one another) and they confess to particular struggles, then in my caring for them I will want them to know that I am there for them.
d) Being there for One Another
Now please be careful at this point. When I say that “I am there for them” that does not mean that I am there to change them! God will do that in His time and in His way. If He uses me that is great, but otherwise I am just to ‘be there' with them, standing alongside them, understanding them, feeling with them. That's what they need first of all.
Job's comforters started out that way – if only they could have stayed like it!
Job 2:11-13 “When Job's three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
When they heard of his troubles, note their responses and actions:
Tragically they couldn't keep their mouths shut and, if I am honest, I have been on the giving end of this [to my shame] and on the receiving end of it [to my pain], but note that their silent (perhaps weeping) presence allowed Job to open his mouth and be honest and pour out his anguish. (That follows in the next chapter).
How many of us suffer with our problems and worries and put on a good face because that is what church expects of you? Dishonesty may be the greatest bane of the modern church!
A secure environment enables a hurting person to express it. Yes, the group will probably pray for the Lord to help their wounded friend, but actually prayers of understanding and acceptance help our friend more than anything else. When we pray like this, it is because we realise we are all the same, and next week it may be me sharing in tears, because that's what life is like.
This is not to convey a picture of a group that is constantly navel gazing and pouring out their woes, but if there are woes there, they need to be openly acknowledged and accepted and the person loved and cared for. Dishonesty or lack of truth is so prevalent in the church today (and perhaps always) that it must grieve the Lord's heart. In fact, so common is it, that we probably don't even recognize it most of the time!
6. Putting this Sort of Love Up Front
a) Is Honesty Scary?
‘Fellowship' is all about being honest and open and secure and loving and being loved and receiving healing and blessing through one another. If you have never genuinely experienced this, then it may sound scary – the thought of others knowing you as you really are, but on the other hand it may bring a ray of hope to you, that there is something better than we so often experience. With tongue in cheek somewhat, I may suggest that others knowing what you are really like and what you are really struggling with, is possibly THE best motivator for their prayer life!
Now as much as this may horrify some from the ‘evangelical or charismatic fold', if we catch something of what I am trying to convey here, then we will make worship, prayer, bible study etc., etc., of secondary importance in our group. THE most important thing will be getting to know each other in such a way that we become secure with each other in our love for one another, and then start being real. Only when we start being real do we give the Lord room to change us, which is of course what He wants to do, because He loves us too much to leave us like we are!
b) Changed by Love
When I look back on my life, I have heard brilliant preaching and received excellent teaching but actually, at the end of the day, the thing that has changed me most, was being loved. Including my wife, there are probably four people (the rest being outside our local church) who have loved and accepted and cared for me and this changed me. They are the reason I am what I am today – not the prayers, not the worship, not the incredible Bible intake, even though all those things have been vital and played such an important part in my life. Being loved was THE thing that made the most fundamental of changes in me.
Put all those things together and they comprise the love of God to me over the years. I am not in any shape or form advocating giving up any of those other things only, in order to remedy a serious fault in the church, am I suggesting that we place a major emphasis on this thing we have called ‘fellowship'. Once it has had its effect, then we work on and build up those other things, but then we will be different people!
c) Encouraged & Provoked by the Body
If we simply focus on ourselves, we will miss the purpose of God. When we come to a place of realizing that we are genuinely loved by God as we are now, AND loved so much that He has more and better for us, we may be able to gain a confidence that God can take us and use us to become a blessing to one another.
This doesn't mean leaping out with our own bright ideas, but it does mean learning to listen to God to catch what is on His heart for us – what He wants us to become, what gifts He has imparted to us to bless the church and to bless others outside it, and how He wants us to serve Him in this way.
Now we aren't designed to operate in isolation but as part of Christ's body, relating to one other in the ways we have been considering so far. In the New Testament teaching we find a whole variety of exhortations that only apply to corporate life, for example:
In other words we are to both encourage and provoke one another into better things. The writer to the Hebrews wrote, "let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds." (Heb 10:24) There's a whole big area to be thought about there, perhaps later.
d) Faith & Failure
However, saying that can be scary without that secure environment that we have been speaking about. Creating that environment where true ‘fellowship' flows, means creating an environment where people can RISK stepping out in new faith and not doing it perfectly. Growth in use of gifts etc., comes with practice and practice, as they say, makes perfect. What this implies is that we will not be perfect to start with (even if you might believe you might get it this side of heaven!)
So when we step out in any spiritual gifting, whether it be praying for healing, prophesying, etc., all that we have been saying in this paper says we can practice within a secure and safe environment where it is not the end of the world if we achieve less than 100%. But this will take time.
7. A Church-wide Approach?
We did say in the opening Introduction, that we would briefly consider a church-wide application of this. ‘Church' here I take to mean the local church and so the sake of ease of discussion, one local congregation. Let's try to address the problem that came in the earlier cry, “ Well, as soon as you have a church of any real size, it is impossible to know everyone who is part of the church.”
Supposing we are just grasping this concept of ‘fellowship' and its potential, how do we go about introducing it to the church? Well if we are a church that has house groups, we have to decide that this experience is what we want to eventually bring into each one of those groups.
Now, unless all the house group leaders buy into this teaching and experience, it will never happen. For it to happen, they first need to see it modelled, I would suggest, for at least three months to start with. The basic principles of love, acceptance and caring spoken of here, need to be conveyed, both by word and by example, because that is how they themselves then need to go on to do it.
Thus while house groups proceed normally, the house group leaders need to meet together and enter into the experience themselves and face both the fears and the wonder of it. As they themselves work this through, they will be changed and will, in themselves, become sufficiently secure to be able to go on and lay down their lives for their individual groups.
A preliminary measure of success in a group is the extent to which the group can talk about any and every aspect of their lives in the group, without fear – and be real in doing it.
A secondary measure of success in such a group is the ‘feel-good factor' that each member is gradually able to express about their group experience.
Because we are imperfect human beings, we will never get it completely right, but in my own experience I do know that we can go a good way down this path that results in security and reality and the group members changing and expressing their understanding and appreciation of these changes, and what has caused them.
As these changes take place they bring change to the whole church which, hopefully, will become more open and available to the Lord and His declared purposes for His church and His world. A warning: moving into this experience takes time and grace and I will explain this further in Part 3 later.
8. The Outworkings or Effects of Fellowship
Where this level of fellowship does NOT become the experience of a church, the truth is that we will find a church where unreality exists and:
On the other hand, where this level of fellowship DOES become the experience of a church then we will find a church where loving reality exists and:
Bringing real fellowship into the experience of the life of the church can thus bring complete transformation to it and its effect upon the community.