When God begins to bring you out of church and into a deeper relationship with Himself, there is a lot of unlearning that has to take place – particularly in the area of fellowship.
It has been said that every lost person has a Christ-shaped void in their heart that only Christ can fill. A similar thing can be said of believers who come out of the religious system. When God calls us to be with Him “outside the camp,” there is a church-shaped void in our heart where church used to be. This void makes us feel restless and insecure and empty. We remember the fellowship we used to enjoy, and we begin to long for it. Pretty soon, we begin to look for things to fill the church-shaped void in our heart.
This explains the seemingly endless pursuit of fellowship. Some look for it in the house church movement. Some look for it in a small-group setting, or in a living room, or at a coffee shop. People typically gravitate towards the opposite extreme of what they were hurt or disillusioned by. Problem with the pastor? We will look for (or create) a group without any spiritual leadership. Problem with doctrine? We will look for (or create) a group that agrees with us in belief, doctrine, or teaching.
Often it is nothing more complicated than trying to take all the “good stuff” we remember from our church days and attempting to re-create it outside of church – without all the “bad stuff” that made us leave in the first place. We will simply look for (or create) an environment that delivers the best of both worlds: all the things we love about church, without all the things we hate.
Once I was in a home meeting and someone was sharing a deep hurt. I sensed the spirit of God was about to minister a word of wisdom and comfort to this person. Suddenly, a brother who had been flipping through an old hymn book, oblivious to the surroundings, announced, “Let’s all sing Number 423!” Besides being rude to the other person and insensitive to how the Spirit of God was moving, what was the brother’s problem? He was trying to recreate a certain “atmosphere” that he once enjoyed in church. In his quest to make things happen on his terms, he completely misread the situation. It was left up to me to tell him to hush, and why singing a hymn wasn’t appropriate at this exact moment. He (predictably) was offended, accusing me of being “anti-worship” 🙂 . But his behavior illustrates a longing to go back and enjoy something he used to enjoy in church, without actually going back to church.
Here’s a radical thought: what if the church-shaped void in our heart isn’t meant to be filled with anything? What if God intends for us to get rid of that church-shaped void and stop trying to fill it? Isn’t the church-shaped void in our heart really just an idol? And that idol not only hinders our spiritual growth and maturity in a Christ-centered faith, it also hinders our relationships with one another and prevents us from entering into real Spirit-and-Truth fellowship with one another.
5 Reasons Why Fellowship Eludes Us
Why is fellowship so elusive to us? Everyone says they seek it, yet everyone says it is difficult to find. Those who find it cannot maintain it for long. Those that do manage to maintain it often end up looking more like an institutional church than a real Body of Christ.
I submit the following five reasons…
1. Indulging in “Fellowship Fantasies.” We often create unrealistic, unbiblical expectations of what fellowship is, and then we try to fulfill those “fellowship fantasies” in the real world. We imagine what the perfect meeting or group looks like, sounds like, and acts like – we may even experience a temporary rush at finding what we describe as the “perfect” church, house church, or group to fellowship with – but then we are surprised and disappointed to find that no one can live up to our idealistic notions. Some will end up going back to church, and others will just go from one group to the next in the endless pursuit of “like-mindedness.”
To overcome this, get real clear on one thing: there are no perfect churches, perfect groups, or perfect meetings. Get over your fellowship fantasy so you can interact with imperfect, immature people in the real world.
2. Chronic “Meetingitus.” This condition is contracted through years of attending church. Those who suffer from Chronic Meetingitus can only fathom fellowship in the context of a meeting – because that is the only context in which they have ever experienced it.
I first diagnosed this in a brother who met me for lunch many years ago. I thought we were having good fellowship, but soon he turned the conversation around to his real purpose: where do I meet, and who do I meet with? When I answered that I didn’t meet with anyone at the moment, his face literally fell and with a sad, whiney voice he said, “Oh, I was SO hoping to find some fellowship around here!” And he began to regale me with all the other meetings he had attended elsewhere. It occurred to me that if the brother really wanted fellowship, he could have had it right then and there with me sitting at the table; instead, what he really wanted was a “Meeting.” He couldn’t conceive of any important spiritual interaction taking place outside of an official meeting or gathering.
If you are afflicted with this condition, you are severely limiting your opportunities for fellowship. Expand your thinking to include any kind of interaction with other brothers and sisters as an opportunity for “fellowship.” Stop trying to capture “fellowship” and stuff it into a certain time and place. Eliminate the need for regularly scheduled meetings and open your eyes to the opportunities right in front of you.
3. The “Done For Me” Fellowship Model. This is a variant of the typical Fellowship Fantasy but sounds more spiritual. It’s an idealistic notion of how things “should be.” Scriptures are produced to support an idea of how meetings and fellowship should be conducted, and this (along with a little help from our favorite house church leaders) is used as a template to critique whatever group we’re attending. Invariably, the group falls short of the “New Testament model” and disappointment ensues. “You’re doing it all wrong!” the critic cries, and either causes a commotion or leaves in consternation.
But what is the underlying expectation? We want to walk into a “done for me” fellowship that requires nothing from us. We want all the people to be fully grown with a mature model of church government in place and everything running smoothly according to the “New Testament pattern” we envision – but we aren’t willing to invest ourselves into making it happen. We want a ready-made fellowship that we can just show up and benefit from without having to do any of the hard work of making it work. I doubt any such fellowship exists, or would survive for very long.
4. Self-Destructive Self-Centeredness. Fellowship is based on relationship. Relationship is based on loving God and loving others. Since love is based on putting others first, Self-Centeredness is not compatible with fellowship. This, in a nutshell, gets to the heart of the matter. We spent years going to church to get our needs met – the service was for us, the sermon was for us, the music was for us, the pastor was for us, the fellowship was for us. Now we are looking for fellowship, and the motivation still revolves around getting our needs met. We “need” fellowship, we “need” social interaction, we “need” other people, we “need” encouragement from like-minded believers. And so, we really haven’t changed at all. We’re still consumed, absorbed, obsessed, and infatuated with what we need and frustrated by what we don’t have.
So it’s no wonder that fellowship eludes the Self-Centered. In the world of banking, if everyone shows up to make a withdrawal, and no one makes a deposit, the whole system goes bankrupt. Many fellowships and groups are spiritually bankrupt for the very same reason – everyone is taking but no one is giving. They suck each other dry with their problems, their needs, their issues. Many would argue that the gathering of Believers is the place where people SHOULD come to get their problems solved, their needs met, and their issues resolved. I would suggest, however, that the gathering of Believers is the place where people should come to be problem solvers, to meet the needs of others, and to help others work through their issues. It sounds similar, but the difference is like night and day. The end result will be that everyone’s needs are met because everyone is giving without expecting to receive – and in the giving and helping and ministering to one another, our personal needs are met. Ironically, if we focus on “getting” instead of “giving” we end up bankrupting ourselves and everyone else. This is the death sentence for many groups that drags you down instead of building you up.
5. Dysfunctional Relationships. The biggest reason why fellowship eludes us has to do with our own inability to understand what healthy relationships look like. As I watch these Christian dating commercials I see women who are head over heels “in love” with the man of their dreams, gushing about what he does for them, and how he makes them feel. I’m a little bit concerned about the future of any relationship that is based on how the other person makes them “feel.” Why? Because there is a misconception that love is based on what the other person does for me, and how they make me feel. This is not true love at all; it is too Self-Centered to be genuine love.
A relationship is not about what I can take from the relationship, but what I can give to the relationship. A dysfunctional relationship is based on what I’m getting out of it. If I’m getting what I want, I’m happy and I feel loved and satisfied; if not, I am unhappy and I feel unloved, and I start wondering about the relationship. This is 100% backwards!
But when this attitude creeps into all our relationships, the result is disaster. When that happens, my relationship with God hinges on what God does for me – I am happy and feel loved as long as I am healthy, wealthy, blessed, and feeling good. But if God lets me down too many times, I start to question the relationship, and I feel unhappy. Well, that’s not love, that’s a dysfunctional relationship you have with God.
What does this have to do with fellowship? Everything. Because fellowship is based on relationships with others. And if your idea of a relationship is “what can I get out of it” instead of “what can I put into it” then the relationship will fail. It doesn’t matter if the relationship is a marriage, a friendship, a business partnership, an employer-employee relationship, or the fellowship that exists between brothers and sisters. To make relationships work, we have to give more than we get. A dysfunctional, one-sided relationship ruins the whole thing, and that makes fellowship impossible.
Why God Doesn’t Allow Fellowship
Here’s a strange concept: God may be closing doors in your life when it comes to fellowship with others. We seek it, we pray for it, we complain about it, yet God does not give us what we ask for. Why not?
1. To break religious addiction. Often when a person gives up one addiction (like smoking) they end up taking on a new addiction (like overeating). It is difficult to recognize an addiction and overcome it without finding something else to replace it. In the case of religious addiction, some leave the church and immediately go out in search of another addiction to replace it. “Fellowship” becomes the new drug of choice – it sounds so spiritual! – and people tend to wander around in search of their next fellowship “fix.” It is a very real psychological and spiritual condition.
God will not reinforce or encourage your religious addiction by giving you more fellowship. In my experience, He longs to have you all to Himself for a little while. He seeks intimacy with you that you have probably never experienced before (and will probably never experience) until He can get you alone and apart with Him for a season. The stronger the addiction, the more difficult it is to accept these seasons of being alone with God – and the more difficult it is to accept, the more necessary it is for you to learn to be totally and completely satisfied in God; so satisfied that people can take nothing away from it, and people can add nothing to it. This is critically important to recognizing true fellowship when God allows it. He only allows it when He can trust you with it, and knows it will not just be another religious addiction for you to become enslaved to.
2. To reduce us to Christ. The question always needs to be asked: “Is Jesus enough for you?” For many, the honest answer is no. They feel they “must” have fellowship, social interaction, and the smiling faces of brothers and sisters constantly encouraging them on. Without this support, they are moody, irritable, lonely, and dissatisfied. Jesus is not enough for them.
For that very reason, God must deny us the fellowship we so desperately seek from others and reduce us to Christ – to bring us to the place where Jesus is all you want, and Jesus is all you need. People can only take us so far. If our spiritual life depends on being in constant contact with people then what happens when people are not around? Exactly what people searching for fellowship complain of: loneliness and emptiness.
How is such loneliness and emptiness possible? Simply because we have more faith and assurance in the people we see around us than in the invisible, indwelling Christ Who lives within us. People will disappear and disappoint; on the other hand, Jesus has never left us, and will never forsake us! The solution is more of Jesus and less of everything else – and for most people, “fellowship” is part of the “everything else” that has to be sacrificed for a time, until Christ has preeminence in them.
3. To teach us the true meaning of love. We have looked at the reasons why fellowship eludes us. They all relate to a Self-Centered existence that is not compatible with the Christ-Centered Life, which means it is not compatible with Love. When people get together in this state it creates more problems than it solves and does tremendous damage. This is why many have come out of the religious system; yet, if we do not unlearn what we learned to do in church, we’ll create the same problems and do even more damage when we meet outside of the church.
God needs to do some work in us before we are fit to fellowship with others. We have to learn what a real love relationship looks like. Where do we learn it? As we enter into a new season of being alone and apart with God, we begin to understand what true love is. And when those lessons of love are learned in our personal relationship with God, He shows us how to apply those same lessons of love in all our other relationships. We benefit from a better marriage, better working relationships, and deeper, richer fellowship with others – all in due season. Our personal relationship with God is the foundation upon which all other healthy relationships can grow and thrive. This is why we emphasize this One Relationship above all others: it is the most important, yet often, it is the most neglected.
4. To prepare us for tribulation. Regardless of what you believe about the Rapture and the Tribulation, Jesus says that we will experience tribulation in this world. Many Christians around the world currently suffer persecution without the comfort of other people to support them or encourage them. Yet, these same Christians have shown us time and again that they have a strong spiritual life, and they continue to produce spiritual fruit (including joy!) in spite of deep affliction.
If your spiritual life is based on church, or meetings, or regular face-to-face fellowship with others, what happens when those things are taken away, or denied, or not available, because of persecution or tribulation? It has happened before, and it could happen again; and if it does, many will stumble and fall because they have not learned how to live in Christ, and find their joy in Him, without fellowshipping with others. It is only by the grace of God that they can maintain their testimony, and they will be the first to fall when persecution arises.
And so, God often denies us the very thing we seek (fellowship) until a particular time and season that comes only after a period of seeming isolation; and even then, the fellowship we enjoy is precious because it is so fleeting. It seems to come and go. Our spiritual life is constantly tested by these ebbs and flows of fellowship.
But here is an interesting reality: we can only experience true fellowship when we know we can live without it. The more we cling to fellowship, the more elusive fellowship becomes. If we can let go of our need for other people, and find our support in Christ alone, it actually prepares us for deeper, more satisfying fellowship and relationship with others. Getting everything we need from the Lord actually means when we do interact with others, we can support, help, encourage, and give ourselves away to them without expecting or needing anything in return. Having God as our Source strengthens our relationships with others and puts them (and us) in a much better position: one where we can truly get out of our own world, focus on others, and make better use of the opportunities all around us for really building each other up.