Title: Looking at Fellowship Afresh
Looking at Fellowship Afresh
Part 3: Facing Questions & Seeing it Work
Answering worries and seeing a group at work
9. Answering the Fearful Questions
My purpose in this part is to backtrack in some measure to first of all seek to bring some reassurances and then to spell out some more detail how it can work. First of all may I bring some reassurances? I am aware that having made some of the assertions that I have made, there will be those who immediately feel defensive and whose defensiveness hinders them from catching the full import of what I have been saying. Let me therefore address what I would expect to be some of the stumbling blocks along the way, in a question and answer form.
a) A Church at fault?
Challenge: You are criticizing the church and all the good things we have done and that have traditionally been built into church life!
Answer: No, I have sought at various times to emphasize that all of the things that we traditionally hold to be good, ARE good. I am seeking to point out a failure by omission. The omission (which isn't everywhere in the church, but IS common) is of the failure to create real and meaningful relationships that go beyond surface encounter. ‘Fellowship' we have suggested is sharing of ‘life', not merely words. When we truly fellowship there is a sense of oneness, we truly feel one with that other person. For the reasons I gave in section 3, that often doesn't happen in any meaningful way in church activities.
b) Demeaning Spiritual Disciplines?
Challenge: You are demeaning the disciplines of worship, prayer, Bible Study etc.
Answer: No, I am actually a very strong advocate for each of those things and will always be. All I am saying is that in order to address this absence of open and deep relationships, the primary focus of the groups while it is being established , needs to be on the people of the group and then on those disciplines. Establishing reality in the people of the group is what this is all about. I have been an avid leader of Bible Study groups and still hold a higher view of Bible Study than most, but I recognize that a traditional Bible Study, even when all the people join in, is not the best way to really develop the people and the relationships within the group.
c) Abandoning Spiritual Disciplines?
Challenge: So are you saying you stop having such things as worship, prayer and Bible Study in the house group?
Answer: Definitely not. If that has been the impression conveyed it is simply that you can't say everything at once. That's why I am writing this Part. What it is, is a change in approach. With a more traditional house group, the leader may plan ‘a time of prayer' or ‘a time of worship' or a ‘time of studying the bible.' With the approach we are considering, that enables true fellowship to come about, the emphasis is first on the people and THEN prayer, Bible study etc. flow out of the talking . In the group that I spoke of in section 5, it met for about an hour and a half and I doubt there was one time when there was not prayer and not reference to the Bible.
d) Abandoning Structure and Planning
Challenge: Your approach lends itself to poor teaching and does not allow for systematic teaching of the Bible and ensuring the believers have a well rounded knowledge.
Answer: Well first of all that assumes that this is the only time in the weekly life of the church when the Bible is taught. Hopefully the first place it will be taught will be on Sundays at the main meetings of the church. There may also be additional specific teaching times in the week when subjects or themes or whatever other bible approaches are appropriate are covered.
The point of this group is to build fellowship which cannot be achieved by other means. What I have found is that when people are openly talking about their life, their experiences and their concerns in a secure environment, someone will start saying how they find a particular part or aspect of the Bible confusing. The most natural thing is then simply to address that ‘problem' for the next five or ten minutes or however long it takes. Actually dealing with the things the people don't understand is far better than repeating Bible teaching that most of them already know. There's nothing to stop the leader, when it seems appropriate and is not cutting across a flow of valuable conversation, suggesting a ‘slot' dealing with Bible difficulties – but that is a challenge to the leader - but you can always say you'll find out for next week if you don't know the answer to the present question!
e) Abandoning Prayer?
Challenge: This approach seems to leave out the opportunity for the group to pray together, and you therefore seem to give prayer a very low priority.
Answer: Well no, quite to the contrary, prayer takes on a very much more meaningful part in the life of the group. In the traditional house group, the leader probably suggests ‘things to pray for' which may or may not grab the group members but who dutifully will utter the words. In this group, needs come to the surface and the most natural thing is to suggest that one or two (not all the group otherwise it takes over the time and allows no space for the Lord to do or say other things) pray for the person in question. If you have a group who have been taught to listen to the Lord for one another, the leader may suggest the group waits on the Lord for words of encouragement or wisdom for the person in question. If group members are involved in things in the coming week that they have spoken about, the leader (or someone else as the group dynamic matures) may suggest praying for that person and their activity. Subtly the lesson is being conveyed that everything in our lives is important to the Lord and He loves to hear us sharing them with Him. A faith-filled group that listens to Him will also go looking for specific answers to their prayers in the coming week and will talk about them when they are next together. No, prayer takes on a new reality when people are being real.
f) A Therapy Group?
Challenge: It sounds like you are advocating a feely-touchy therapy group that gets bogged down in people's worries and fears and anxieties and that never teaches triumphal Christianity.
Answer: A number of years ago I wrote two books on Church Security and in the first one I imagined a sizeable congregation on a Sunday morning and tried to look into their minds and the things that concerned them. Since then, I have become even more sure that most people at some time or other (for some a lot of the time) have ‘concerns'.
They would prefer not to call them ‘anxieties' because Paul taught, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Phil 4:6) – not realizing that Paul wouldn't have said that if anxieties were not common to all of us. They may be family concerns, job concerns, church concerns, health concerns, all things that leave us wondering.
So yes, we present our concerns to God but who says we can't share them with our friends and, together with them, give them to God and receive His peace?
Even more, when we share them we often find that we are not alone with that concern and as we share, we either realise our worry was baseless, or we find help and guidance and wisdom as to how to deal with it. I would suggest that saying the only way of dealing with worries is by praying about them, is shortsighted and foolish. God's answers and God's wisdom so often come through the body. Until you share them in the body, the body can't minister to you. This is no more ‘therapy' than receiving God's wisdom through the Sunday sermon. It's not a case of one or other, but both are valid and essential. It's also not a case of prayer or help, it's both.
10. The Need for Grace & Truth
The apostle John described Jesus as “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). Grace and truth are the two key ingredients involved in ‘fellowship'
a) The Need for Truth
Can Jesus bless a lie? Can Jesus bless pretence? “Hi, how are you today?” “Oh, I'm fine thanks.”
The truth? No John Doe wasn't! He was worried silly about his finances, how to make ends meet, he was worried about losing his job with a new suspected wave of redundancies coming, he was worried about their children and he was worried about the fact that he wasn't sleeping well.
What makes it worse is that John Doe has sat listening to sermons week by week but feels that hearing about the Beast and the False Prophet of Revelation, and the plagues of Egypt , and the sin of Achan, really hadn't helped him one bit!
Yes, he belongs to a house group where everyone seems so nice and problem free, and so he feels absolutely alone. He has even wondered about giving up church because it just doesn't seem relevant – which what his wife had done three months earlier! But for the time being he continues to pray out loud with the others in the group and continues to add his wisdom in the Bible Study, but all the while he has this black cloud hanging over him.
Pastors at this point start making excuses: “Well I'm always here and John could come and talk to me,” but the trouble is this church is so good at ‘talking the talk' that no one else seems to have worries and so John feels he is a second class citizen. It's better to hide away!
b) A Fresh Start & a Fresh Group
The good news was that John didn't give up his faith or give up on church; he simply changed church because a Christian friend had shared how blessed he was at his church. Observe each of the things that happened in the story that follows for we will examine it in detail soon.
In the new church John was invited to become a member of a small house group. First of all he hedged; he had had enough of unreal church house groups, but the leader pressed him further, “Come along and try it for a couple of weeks and if it's not for you, ditch it!” So John went along.
The honesty scared the life out of him. Christians didn't say things like this. The group seemed completely relaxed and the chat around the group of eight of them eventually focused on a conversation several had been having about bringing up teenagers.
A need (family) acknowledged and ministered to
One of the women in the group, Alice, was nearly in tears when she shared how worried she was for her teenage daughter mixing with a bad bunch. John was almost embarrassed when a couple of the other women sat down either side of her and put arms around the woman and wept over her as they prayed for her. Do Christians do this sort of thing?
A second need (illness) acknowledged and accepted
It got worse when the group leader turned to one of the men after the praying had finished and said, “Tom, how is it going with you, now?” “Not so good. I don't know, we've prayed and prayed for our daughter, Annie, but she's not got any better, worse if anything. I don't know where God is in all this. I have to confess I'm on the verge of giving up!” John sat this aghast. Christians don't say this sort of thing, what was going on here? He waited for the leader to give a pep-talk but instead all he heard was, “Yes, it sucks doesn't it! Yes, there are times when he seems a million miles away. Anyone else struggling with anything similar?” John kept quiet.
A third need (financial) revealed and dealt with
“I don't know about similar,” one of the other men, Geoff, shared, “I don't really think this is in your league, Tom, but we've just found out we've had our identity stolen and somebody has ripped £500 out of our savings account. The bank says we'll probably get it back eventually but for the moment we've had to cancel the holiday we were planning….” His voice tailed off. “You know I could lend you that money until you get it back,” volunteered one of the other men in the group, “so at least you can go ahead with the booking of that holiday, if you like.” “Really? That would be great, thanks so much. We will get it back to you though!”
Revelation opens the door for sharing
Yes, but what about Tom's daughter, John thought. As if the leader had read John's mind, he looked around the room and said, “I've got a feeling that Tom's not the only one in this room who feels God is a million miles away. Who is it?” Before John could stop himself he found himself saying, “Yes, me.” “Do you want to share, John?” the leader gently enquired. “No, not really, there's too much at the moment.”
Two needs ministered to with love, prayer and revelation
“That's fine,” the other replied and turning to the group, “Can we pray for these two guys. Tom and John, would you like to just come and stand in the middle here and let's gather round them.” For a few minutes heart felt prayers were uttered and some tear shed. Eventually one of the women shared, “Tom, I've just had a picture of you in the hospital visiting your Annie and I saw you standing by the bed looking down at her when suddenly there was Jesus standing next to you and he had tears running down his face, but he put an arm around your shoulders and said, “Yes, Tom, it sucks, but be patient my son. I am here with you and I will restore her to you.” Tom's shoulders heaved. And then she turned to John. “John, I've just seen a picture of you back at home in your living room, sitting alone with your head in your hands, and I've seen Jesus come and sit down next to you and he spoke very gently and said, “John it's all right. I haven't left you. I am here and I understand what you are going through. Indeed I have brought you to this place so that these people in your new house group are going to bring my help and my answers to you. It will be all right. Fear not I am with you.” It was John's turn now for shoulders to be heaving.
Further Bible revelation and Bible Study
After a few more minutes the group sat down again and as they did one of the others turned to John and said, “You know that is interesting. Just before we came out this evening, I had my Bible open and it was Judges 6 when the angel came to Gideon and said, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior." You know I just have the feeling the Lord is saying the same to you.” “Well let's all have a look at that passage together shall we,” said the group leader. “Anyone need a Bible, I've got a couple of spares here.”
Three quarters of an hour later as John left the house he thought, “Well that's a bit of a different group, I think I'll be back here next week!”
c) Recognising Grace
Grace can have different meanings. One of the simplest that I like is simply, “God's resources to help us cope with now”. In this sort of group where ‘fellowship' occurs, as we said before, grace is a key ingredient. In the illustration above, in John's old church it was there but was just not visible or taken hold of. In the new church, in the new group, grace oozed out from every direction.
It came first of all in the women, Alice , who shared her fears about her daughter. Do you know it takes God's grace to be honest? Grace comes in all different forms. This grace we might call courage . It take courage to be able to say, “I'm not holding it together,” because so often in church we're told that good Christians are victorious Christians and if we go through life having bumps along the way, the tendency is to be told by the enemy, “You're second class! Give up!” Cowards hide behind a respectable façade and deny the truth. The courageous are not afraid to say, “At the moment it sucks!” That's modern terminology but if David, the man after God's own heart, was writing today, that‘s what you'd find in so many of his psalms!
Have you ever realised that God has given us a book full of failures – Abram at times, Jacob the twister, Joseph the spoilt brat, Moses the heavy handed, David the adulterer, Solomon the idiot wife taker, and so on. In the New Testament, Zechariah the unbeliever, Joseph the self-righteous, Peter the big mouth, James and John with even bigger mouths, Saul the misguided zealot, and so on. It's not what they were – because all these descriptions are absolutely true – but what they became. The truth is that each one of us is a ‘work in progress' and that work is God's work and He's going to keep on working on you until the day you pass through death to heaven.
Grace was also exhibited in that group by the two women who just got up and went over and prayed with her and wept with her. That grace is called compassion , and compassion doesn't judge. Do we have people in our church who aren't getting it together with their teenage kids? Is your tendency to look down your nose at them? Sounds like you need a dose of grace, compassion in fact!
Grace was also exhibited in the leader when he turned and enquired of one of the group, Tom, who he knew was struggling with a sick daughter. That grace is called caring . But then we saw grace in him again as he agreed with the other that it was difficult. Those weren't just words; he felt it. That grace is called empathy or understanding . But then he didn't immediately come up with an answer, he turned the focus outwards away from Tom, to give him breathing space, so much so that John thought he'd forgotten him. That was the grace of wisdom, which also allowed Geoff to share – perhaps again the grace of courage . This was followed by the grace of generosity that was offered by another member of the group
That was followed by the grace called revelation (knowledge about someone else in the room) which opened the door for John to share – perhaps yet again the grace of courage to share. There was a further demonstration of grace by the leader who did not push John to share, perhaps we simply call that the grace of acceptance .
Now instead of looking down their noses at these men with their different needs (a sick daughter and a life falling apart) grace kicks in, in a big way, and the leader draws all the group in to ministering to the two of them – the grace of leadership – and then we see grace in each person praying for them, some with tears, again the grace of compassion . Then we find the grace of revelation, prophetic pictures for them both which touched and ministered to them both.
As the group comes to the end of the time ministering to the two men, yet another of the group has the grace of applied revelation – seeing the application of recently read Scripture, and the leader acts with the grace of wisdom to follow it through by a short and simple study of the passage in question to allow it to come through more clearly and perhaps yet speak more strongly to John along the way, while also being a blessing to the others.
d) The components of the group
This group has been Jesus to its members. In what we have observed, as well as the different facets of grace we have also seen:
PS. For those who are concerned that this is ‘just' a therapy group, you might like to know that in the months ahead Alice built up her relationship with her daughter who is now going on strongly with the Lord, Tom's daughter Annie is healed and well and enjoying life to the full as a nurse, Geoff and his family went on their holiday, got the money back and were able to pay their friend in the group, and John and his wife are now fully restored to church life with stronger relationships with the Lord and are about to go with a missionary team for two weeks into Africa. Therapy? Call it what you like, but they are healed up and blessed people going on strongly with God and it all came through fellowship!
PPS. I may need to dispel the idea that this sort of thing happens every week. It doesn't, but when you have open fellowship then it does happen considerably more that at any other time. Some weeks this group might just chat about their lives and about church and about contacts they have outside and out of that my flow prayer, worship, bible study and maybe even ideas of how to move out further. It is a place where ideas are born, vision created, and wisdom given and action commenced. Don't limit it!
11. The Environment in which to Learn to Serve
I'm not sure if we might have thought of the various people in this group as ‘serving' one another as they ministered to each other, but that is what the word ‘ministering' means. To minister is to serve. In one form or another as hearts opened to hearts, this group was about ministering to one another.
So often when we speak about us ‘serving the Lord', it seems to take on a heavy connotation, but in what we have observed, the serving was gentle and easy.
Now if we had started with a group that has only just come together and the things on these pages were alien to them, then there would need to be quite a lot of teaching and guidance (training) to bring the group into the place of maturity where it clearly is. To achieve this we need the grace of teaching , the grace of learning , the grace of perseverance … and probably quite a lot more as well!
Although these things may appear obvious when we read them in the above illustration, a lot has gone into creating this group and enabling it to work like it does. May we suggest the following:
a) A Need to Understand God's Love
b) A Need to Learn to be wise in ministering to one another
The unwise may think we have strayed off the subject of ‘fellowship' but actually for fellowship to be real we need everything we've been considering as we “share our lives with one another”.
Above all, put on love. And how do you express and minister love? With gentleness. Haven't we got so much to learn!
And Finally….. may I be like the proverbial preacher and add yet a further comment. I am aware, having made the comment at the end of the previous Section that a group that genuinely fellowships, becomes a place where ideas are born, vision created, and wisdom given and action commenced.
When people feel secure and blessed they relax in the Lord in a new way and it seems He is able to more fully express His heart through them, and this comes in the flow of ideas and possibilities. Where grace and truth about, the heart of God is shared more fully and the road ahead, that is the will of God, becomes more clear. Faith is stirred and deeds are done. The spin-offs from this sort of group are endless. Is that why the enemy fears it and allows us to have second-rate substitutes that limit the fruit. May it not be so!