10 May 2011

Need for living, challenging, "provoking" fellowship

by Dan Phillips

Recently I alluded to a particular long stretch, some time ago, that I spent in ongoing depression. One of the contributing factors to that depression, and to its eventual defeat, was my church fellowship at the time... or lack of it.

Note well: I said "contributing factor." I alone am responsible for the choices I made and make as to my own mental, affectional, attitudinal furniture. But associations are among those choices, and they can help, or they can hurt (Proverbs 13:20; 1 Corinthians 15:33).

In this case, we were attending a church in which the give and take of real fellowship just did not happen. I wrote, then deleted, descriptions of what I'm talking about — because I'm unwilling to speak critically of a doctrinally-sound church. Let's leave it at this: whatever the reason, and despite our best efforts, the fire and the wood just never met for us there. Speaking for myself, despite my regular readings in the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, readings of Spurgeon and other good sources, I was shriveling up inside.

Then one day a friend mentioned a church he'd found with terrific preaching. I went, as an advance scout. Sure enough, it was very good preaching. I brought a positive report back to camp, and we returned in force. That became our church home for years. God did us a world of good there, and we served and committed and gave to the best of our ability.

But as I cast back my memory's eye, good as all that was, the single factor that I remember most piercing and affecting me was the living fellowship arising from that passionate, Biblical preaching. I attended a Men's Fellowship meeting, and there met men who were alive, growing, excited. Each time we got together, they'd talk about Piper or Sproul, or this Biblical doctrine or that, which were really gripping and helping them and lighting them up. I found myself challenged once again, involved in the give-and-take of fellowship. One brother loaned me tapes (!) of Piper's talks based on his then-new Future Grace. In the context of the preaching, worship and fellowship, that book helped me mightily.

Extended fellowship is also very helpful, as a supplement (not a substitute). For instance, apart from whatever good God has stooped to do for others through my writing, blogging has been helpful to me. Knowing Phil and Frank has been immensely helpful to me. Our godly, growing commenters have been helpful to me. The discipline of thinking and writing, knowing that people wiser and godlier than I (a staggeringly vast category) will be reading and assessing, has been helpful to me. These are challenges, pokes, prods.

In time, I came out of the darkness that had been my daily reality. I won't say that every moment since has been sunshine and puppies; I'm afraid my temperament this side of Glory will remain susceptible. (For instance, I've already had passing winces over the scathing reviews of my two books... reviews that haven't been written yet!) But I've never gone there to live again.

Churches do have personalities, as Revelation 2-3 attests. Verses like Proverbs 13:20 and 18:15 and 17 are instructive here. We must set our hearts individually (Proverbs 4:23) to seek God-fearing wisdom with singular devotion (Proverbs 1:7; 4:25-27). But at the same time, in our seeking of society, of fellowship, we need to be with people who also have this commitment. We need their iron to sharpen our iron (Proverbs 27:17). We need their faithful, foul-weather commitment (Proverbs 17:17) and their loving rebukes (Proverbs 27:6). We need to "provoke" to good works, and to be "provoked" (Hebrews 10:24). We need wise brothers and sisters to examine our opinions (Proverbs 18:17).

The alternative is the great and arrogant folly of isolation (Proverbs 18:1), in faithless disobedience (Hebrews 10:24-25), and all the miseries and spiritual retardation that attend that path (Jeremiah 2:19).

At the same time, we should do our best to assure that our friends are not themselves charitably "slumming" by their association with us, locked into a "take-and-take" relationship in which we alone benefit, and they only give and give. Find people who can challenge you, and give yourself to returning the favor.

It makes a big difference.

Dan Phillips's signature


Trevor said...

GAHH!! Why the mosquito graphic! I just swatted my monitor!

On a more churchly note, thanks for this post Dan. I believe that this living fellowship is far too rare and nearly universally desired (intensely) by Christians. I speak for myself at least.

I'd love to see some discussion hereafter about this living fellowship. What does it look like in RL? What does Scripture say about it? What do we do to foster it? The basics, you know.

Steve said...

We have also left a doctrinally-sound church because "the fire and the wood just never met." We have sometimes wondered if we made the right decision, or if we were hasty in leaving and should have waited longer for the spark of fellowship to ignite.

I can easily envision someone church-hopping from "good church" to "good church" because none of them have the right personality; things just aren't "clicking."

How should we evaluate this aspect of church participation? Is there a balance between "I feel like I'm not experiencing true fellowship" and "I'm shopping around for the 'perfect' church"?

DJP said...

One thing, Steve, lies under my phrase "despite our best efforts." I left it at that because I didn't want to go on and on about what other people coulda shoulda didna done, or do, or... you know what I mean.

We attended for a long time. We attended various meetings. We had people over. Rather than folding our arms and smugly decreeing that others should reach out to us, and daring them to do so, we reached out. Just didn't happen.

So that's one thing. First focus shouldn't be on a long, self-written list of others' duties. It should be on my long, God-written list.

JackW said...

Pastor Begg said something a while back that has been sticking with me. Something to the effect that It’s not about us being satisfied, it’s about God being glorified. It seems to be our nature to congregate with those most like ourselves and then produce cookie cutter images. The church of the hands right next to the church of the feet so to speak. That is the impression that I’ve been getting lately anyway and it is probably an over-simplification.

donsands said...

Good words. Been in a deep pit, and good brothers in Christ helped me crawl out. They may actually have dragged me out.

The Lord is so good to us.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

From someone who has experienced a similar miry experience, a hearty amen to you for this post! I have learned that I need the kind of fellowship that includes the occasional, regular kick in the pants, and I've had to seek it out. (By the way, the Proverbs 27 link above the mosquito needs to be fixed.)

And I also have experienced the frustration of the one-sided give-and-take relationship. Reciprocating the ministry to one another is essential to a healthy body, I think.

Tom Chantry said...

Good post and all that…

One phrase jumped off the screen at me: “…the living fellowship arising from that passionate, Biblical preaching.”

That phrase encapsulates something deep and profound about the functioning of the church. We all get that fellowship ≠ potluck, but then how do we go about accomplishing it? The answer relates to last week’s post from Phil on truth in worship; the whole life of the church flows from its worship, and the heartbeat of worship is the proclamation of truth. So you can’t arrive at “living” fellowship by having a fellowship program or exhortations to just do a better job of fellowshipping. Those things might not hurt, but what generates the life of fellowship is a gathering of people who are enlivened and thrilled by a commonly loved truth. Passionate biblical preaching - not on the subject of fellowship necessarily, but on the person and work of Christ, together with all the implications those doctrines have for the Christian walk, is the sina qua non of living fellowship.

Taking the implications one step further, it is significant that the church in which you did not find this was “doctrinally-sound.” For the sake of the meta, we should all be able to stipulate two facts. First, some Christians fail to find true fellowship in churches where it exists, and that failure is their own fault. Second, some churches, while doctrinally sound, are also at fault. From the preacher’s perspective, it is important to consider the presence or absence of genuine fellowship within the church as an indicator of the effectiveness of preaching. Shallow how-to preaching can’t accomplish this; neither can cold doctrinal musings. Preaching which genuinely focuses the hearts of the hearers on Christ’s enduring love for His people ought to awaken within them a shared ethos of love for God, for His truth, and for one another. If preaching is biblical and powerful, that ethos should appear, and genuine, heart-to-heart fellowship should mature within it.

DJP said...

Yes, thank you Tom, exactly right.

There are those two poles, aren't there? At one extreme, there's the model of attending lectures, taking notes, and shuffling off after a brisk nod or two. At the other, group hugs and sob-sessions and gloppy goo. Both errors are errors.

Yet the caricature exists for a reason, and it's just plain sad. It seems as if many fellowships that rightly stress instructive preaching don't "do" fellowship so well; and others that rightly stress a lively fellowship don't "do" doctrinal preaching so well. The early church is proof that the two are not mutually exclusive. We just don't do it very well, too often.

Doesn't come pre-wrapped out of a box, does it?

John said...

Great article Dan.

Couple of thoughts (in general of course): for one, it’s my observation Christians don’t understand the Biblical definition of New Testament fellowship – so therefore don’t practice it. 2nd: the longer I’ve been a Christian the more I’ve realized the deep deficiency Christians have in the area of ecclesiology. The Church is the body of Christ – we are members one of another – so often deficiency in fellowship is a simple matter of disobedience to what God’s Word teaches on the subject. 3rd: I’ve found it interesting to learn how many Christians have no friends – no people they regularly call; regularly get together with and so on – and this is often the case with men more than women. And sadly: they’re fine with that. 4th: the kind of fellowship you discussed equals accountability. I’ve learned the hard way that people tend to not want to look at the things in themselves that are ugly, or are idols – or just plain sin – or the kind of things that Biblical fellowship brings to the table.

In a word: a pity. How about a solution? A church needs to preach the Word, pray that Christ is exalted, and do what it can to facilitate koinonia fellowship and pray God will pour out His grace.

Sir Aaron said...

@DJP: Don't forget about Ecc 4:9-12!

@John: I agree wholeheartedly. I know that I'm one of those who really never had any friends for most of my life (a byproduct of my being homeschooled). In my adult life, making friends has been made much more difficult by my unique occupation and the fact that my wife works (an extremely alienating subject in conservative churches). So its been a difficult journey to make and hold real friends. Frankly, it's a tough position to be because when I need advice or motivation I don't really have anybody.

Lynda O said...

Great points Dan. I too have found the extended fellowship online very helpful, including a close email friend, for fellowship with like-minded believers. I have noticed lately, that for the majority of church-goers at any given church, the "fellowship" is primarily social and secular, without any reference to spiritual matters -- and here I appreciate what one good preacher observed, that Christian fellowship is not supposed to be the potluck dinners and social events, but the fellowship that is spiritual, based on our common beliefs and interests.

In my own situation, where I must attend (for family sake) a church that is not doctrinally sound, the online fellowship is more essential than supplemental. In the local church the people that are "into" serious Bible study have either left this church (which a few families have done, realizing the errors and lack of depth) or they really love this pastor and believe his teaching even when it doesn't agree with the Bible's clear teaching... so what to do? The "serious" people here just resort to labeling if you try to engage them about what a particular passage means (oh, well you're a premillennial dispensationalist, end of discussion...) I can have social fellowship with the majority that rarely if ever discuss the Bible or teaching, but to really grow in understanding (and iron to sharpen iron), the online blogs and email friends are a must.

Rachael Starke said...

Oh such a thought provoking post and comments, and on a really busy day - there has to be a word for that particular rustration!

It's interesting that you and Tom are both calling out the connection between great preaching and great fellowship. In our last church, we very much did *not* have the former, but really *did* have the latter. It's probably what helped keep our new (at the time) family together.

Now we're in a church with much better preaching, but the fellowship is not really there. One of the reasons is that our pastor caught the church planting bug and sent off about eighty percent of the really solid believers (our friends) to other places. We just don't see them any more.

If I had more time I'd ask out loud, in response to Lynda O., where we draw the line between really needing online fellowship because we're genuinely on our own, and when we need to pray for grace to love who's around us (as well as praying for God to send more likeminded people our way). I've been convicted (thankyouverymuch, Mr. Turk), that my church family is my church family. I don't get to pick who to love. If you can't be with the one you love, love the one(s) you're with. Or, um, something like that. :) Anyway, Lynda, I'm not necessarily disagreeing entirely, merely turning the issue over and looking at it from another side...

Robert said...

Wow...a lot of good comments making the wheels in my head spin fast! I agree with Tom, Dan, John, and Aaron (which is actually the order of the posts...makes it easy). I guess the real question is how do we work our way out of the mire?

I think that the church needs be a place where people are really looking for other people to have this type of interaction with. And personally, I think that this starts with the leaders of the church and ca become infectious within the church. Now, I am not letting the congregation off the hook by any means, but if there is not a genuine interest shown from the pastor/elders/deacons towards members of the church, then what example is there to follow? Paul said to imitate him as he imitated Christ...I would think our pastors should be setting the same type of example. Before anybody gets carried away, I am not saying that they have to be Paul. Of course, all of us in the congregation should have the same aim, though...to set that same example. But the more mature believers and the leadership should be leading the way so as to edify the rest fo the body of Christ.

Also, if the preaching is cold, yet doctrinally sound, it seems like something is missing. How can anybody read the Word of God (especially in preaching) and not have some type of passion in the preaching? I don't see God as being totally matter-of-fact about things...He came in the flesh (humbling Himself), was persecuted the whole time He walked the earth (and is still persecuted - think of what Jesus told Saul), and took on the wrath He should be pouring out on us...all so that He could save us and display His glory. I can not consider the type of love displayed through those actions (and then in adopting us as His sons) and think of this cold, lifeless expression upon His face. And I can not think of His wrath as having no passion, either. I think many pastors (and congregations) go overboard in trying to keep their emotions from controlling them.

Now, back to us in the congregation. We have to humble ourselves and open ourselves up to the type of loving fellowship that the Bible says we should have. Here are a few examples:

"We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people." (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15)

"and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near." (Hebrews 10:24-25)

"Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much." (James 5:16)

This is the type of fellowship that we should long for as the body of Christ. And we should feel sad when we do not have it or pursue it. And we should pursue it with all of the people in the church. The type of alienation that Aaron describes should not happen within the body of Christ.

Sorry for the long comment...this just made me think a lot.

Lynda O said...


Well yes, as I said, I do have fellowship with several families, those who are rather indifferent about doctrinal matters -- and those friends have helped out in times of need such as past medical problems, and including us in holiday get-togethers.

Throughout this, the Lord has answered prayers with special and unexpected blessings for fellowship online -- for the important part of "iron sharpening iron." Along the way I also found one other woman in a similar situation there, who studies her Bible enough to realize at least some of what's wrong there but is likewise compelled to attend -- and so prayers continue for additional fellowship and discussions with her.

Jessica said...

I was going to say what Lynda said - so often people think of fellowship as "getting together" and so they arrange bowling nights for the singles, or movies, etc. It social, not spiritual. Our fellowship is in Christ. One of the things that I love about my church is the fellowship - people going out to lunch after church and discussing the sermon, or talking about MacArthurs newest book - our fellowship is centered around the gospel.

Chaotic Order said...

My wife and I found a church where the preaching / teaching / fellowship / worship and all of it is simply wonderful. It is by no means perfect, but we do have the opportunity to grow and be challenged on a daily basis with our fellow believers. The problem is that we are over 60 miles from the church. We have been forced by economic reasons (large family, large vehicle with low gas mileage, etc etc etc) to attempt to find a local church.

We have found a VERY solid church, but the fellowship just doesn't appear to be there. Therefore we looked elsewhere, found a brood of vipers, and went back. But still the fellowship isn't there. I don't know what to do...

I do feel your pain. I understand the depression. I could most likely attribute some of my depression over the last several years to the lack of fellowship at churches where we have attended and been quite active in.

Karen and I are doing everything we can to find a way to move our family out toward what we consider to be our home church. We pray that God will allow this, but if not, to find a church home where we can serve and find the fellowship we need as a Christian!

John said...

Sir Aaron..

Don't say those kinds of things. It makes guys like me cry.

I encourage you to pray brother - and in concert with that the place I recommend looking first is your church - a great common ground on which to build any friendship. If people in your church are judgmental about your wife working - maybe that's just a small part of the whole and you're "imagining" that is the collective conscience.

Perhaps in answer to prayer and in your reaching out God will open the door to such a relationship in that body. He is faithful and knows what we need before we even ask.


Sir Aaron said...



Bobby Grow said...

This reflection reminds me of what Paul said in II Corinthians 8 where Titus and the over-abounding fellowship of grace he brought to the churches was a boon of encouragement for Paul (who was suffering much affliction, I would imagine depression). We definitely need each other! If the Church would be the Church for each other, Christian counselors and psychologists would be unnecessary.

DJP said...

Jay Adams famously made that very argument a few decades ago, on the basis of Romans 15:14.

Bobby Grow said...


I've read Jay Adams, I was encouraged by him!

Trevor said...

Can we make a blog post out of Tom Chantry's comment? That was a super-helpful reminder (and answer to my question, methinks!).

Toyin O. said...

So true, thanks for sharing, we should never understimate the importance of fellowship.

John Dunn said...

I too have struggled with this lonliness in crowded churches.

Reflecting on this I can't help but thinking that we, as new covenant community, have lost the Apostolic teaching of the Church being a corporate covenant community . . . one body, one faith, one Lord.

Our western individualism has ultimately shaped the way that we view ourselves and the Church. Typically we understand the faith as a 'personal relationship, personal salvation, personal decision, personal faith, personal repentance, etc.' This fierce individualism is ingrained into the very fabric of American life and thought. However, we need to reclaim the Apostolic understanding of the Church as a corporate covenant community, the Body of Christ, serving one another in Spirit-wrought love. Then will true fellowship abound in our midst.

Pastor Pants said...

As a pastor / preacher I think those of us who teach can really lead our congregation in this in two ways:

1) Depth. If the sermon is sound but never stretches anyone, there is less to talk about. A sermon should contain the gospel for the unbeliever, enough milk for the new believer and comfort food for the weak and struggling. But it should also contain enough meat to challenge the mighty in the Word.
I have a couple at church that read the passage in advance, discuss it and often read or listen to many of my favourite teachers; I make it my goal to challenge, excite and surprise them each and every week!

2) Passion. Passion covers a multitude of homiletical sins. Sure, it cannot compensate for poor exegesis or exposition, but I am not convinced a sermon is complete without it. We need to convey just how thrilling, how serious, how exciting, how radical, how fun, how shocking, how life changing the text before us is; not merely in what we say but in HOW we say it. And, needless to say, the text has to captivate us first before we can convey that to others.

When we first arrived at our church (2 years ago) we struglled with the fellowship (my wife in particular) and with the lack of spirituality within the fellowshipping. But I can see it really changing now. Just the other week a new guy who was invited by mutual friends (who in turn were invited by mutual friends) was saying how when they all used to meet up socially they would discuss football, TV and the like. Now they find they are discussing the previous Sunday's sermon. Imagine the joy in my heart when I heard that!

Passion is contagious and it can be the thing that sets that wood alight. But it has to come from the pulpit first of all.

Jeremy Kidder said...


Just one question, how can a church be said to be "doctrinaly sound" when it is not living that doctrine out in vital and growing relationships. Does not James tell us to messure our wisdom buy the fruit it produces?

There is no orthodoxy where there is no orthopraxy!

corinthian said...

So, what are thoughts on the "agents of change". These might be different depending on the size and tradition of the congregation, but how does one practically move a doc.sound church into deeper real fellowship? I can't accept just preaching, there have to be more agents of change. For example, service together, outreach together, etc. Thoughts?
We do well with friendly and welcoming, but not as well with depth.
I also rarely have anyone come up to me and bring up a theological/spiritual topic whether in thanksgiving or out of concern. I long for that level of depth.
PS, we have solid preaching, it's the application that suffers...

Jim Pemberton said...

This is more crucial to the Christian life than most Christians think. When have we heard a sermon on fellowship, or what theology of fellowship has been developed? What category of systematic theology does it fully fall under? Ecclesiology? Anthropology? it doesn't fit in a neat category. However, the Bible tells us much about it.

Those of us who are married know that maintaining a marriage takes active and fruitful work, and that this is often in the form of some type of sacrificial giving for each other. We give up such things as time and self-identity in favor of a greater union.

It's no different in the fellowship of a church. The problem is that we all tend to gravitate toward social activities that are most comfortable for us - where we can gain the most and give the least (or at least where giving is to people who we feel good about). But this is the social pattern of the world.

But true fellowship for Christians is the same sort as that of sharing a foxhole in the heat of battle, for it is a battle that we face. Christian fellowship is supposed to go far beyond just acting nice to each other a couple of times a week. It's not comfortable because we are dressed for war and rounds are coming downrange from the enemy. If we can't recognize that, we're dead.

We sin and struggle with sin. A visit to the hospital or sitting with someone who just lost a loved one is more than just making someone feel good, it's about encouraging them to trust God when they are most tempted to grumble against Him because of their situation. Daring to know someone well enough to help endure without succumbing to the temptation to cheat on a spouse (for example) takes guts, precious time, and active sacrifice. Additionally, we need to be trusting enough of each other to submit ourselves to that kind of loving scrutiny. We are not above it and it's spiritually life-threatening to think we are.

This is the people we need to be.

trogdor said...

"At the same time, we should do our best to assure that our friends are not themselves charitably "slumming" by their association with us, locked into a "take-and-take" relationship in which we alone benefit, and they only give and give. Find people who can challenge you, and give yourself to returning the favor."

Amen to that. We are one body with many parts, and far too many are content to be tapeworms.

We actually recently had a sermon on the discipline of fellowship. Two points I recall are well worth pondering.
(1) Fellowship can only happen between believers; anything else is friendship at best.
(2) Beware of secular friendships with fellow believers.

Sir Aaron said...

What is a secular friendship with believers?

trogdor said...

Consider the type of friendship you can have with a non-believer, a friendship consisting purely of non-Christian (secular) things. Sports, Simpsons quotes, movies, work, shared hobbies, etc.

Now picture having a friendship with another professing believer that consists of the same types of things and no more. What does it say about y'all if your single most defining quality makes no difference to your friendship? If the friendship could just as easily be had with someone who is still in open rebellion against your Lord?

We have a much closer bond with the most-different genuine believer in the world than we would have with an unbelieving identical twin. If our friendships with fellow believers don't reflect that, something is seriously wrong.

Sir Aaron said...

Yeah, I guess I'm a little wary of people saying that my friendships with other believers have to involve spending more time talking about the Pastor's sermon than anything else.

I find it difficult to have any real friendships outside the body of Christ because Scripture permeates my entire worldview. So even my perspective on "secular" matters is entirely different than that of an unbeliever.