The healing power of true fellowship
While on holiday in Norfolk I visited Norwich’s historic market. Amid the lovely food stalls and fascinating merchandise on offer I came across something rather sad. Tucked away in a corner sat the Womble Orinoco, looking lost, lonely and decidedly unloved. A once loved cuddly toy now neglected. Only a toy, yes, but somehow deeply symbolic of how many are experiencing life, and in some places church too, in what continue to be challenging times.
As the world began to emerge from the forced isolation of Covid, the Financial Times asked: ‘Are we ready for the approaching loneliness epidemic?’ I think signs of this were discernible pre-Covid, with the virus doing what it did with many other things – exposing and exacerbating what was already present.
‘A once loved cuddly toy now neglected – somehow deeply symbolic of how many are experiencing life, and in some places church too, in what continue to be challenging times.’
The book of beginnings reminds us it is not good for human beings to be alone (Genesis 1:18). We have been created to be in relationship, in community. It is part of what it is to be created in the image of God, for God exists in community. The community we call Trinity.
We often wrestle with the mysterious truth of the divine relationships, conjuring up ever more clever analogies to explain how one can be three and three can be one. Perhaps we need to return to the core biblical revelation that God is love (1 John 4:16). God expresses this love in the community of Trinity and in relationship with creation – including humanity – and thus offers a vision for healthy humanity.
God added to their number
This vision was at the heart of the picture of the earliest Christian community that Luke presents in Acts 2:42–47. Commenting on this in his seminal book Discipleship, David Watson said: ‘It is not surprising with such a community of disciples bound together in love that God added to their number, day by day those who were being saved.’
During the dark days of the early phases of the pandemic, the Bible Society conducted some research to find out what the wider community wanted the churches to be offering by way of support. Two responses stood out.
The first was the ongoing provision of food banks and similar services (something that chimes with Acts 2:45: ‘They gave to anyone as they had need.’)
The second was asking for pastoral care in the community. Pastoral care that is essentially centred on listening, welcome and community.
Over the years we have often talked of fellowship and pastoral care as if they are the internal facets of the life of the church, and mission and evangelism as if they are the external. This is not helpful, and it is not trinitarian.
As we noted above, God exists in community: a fellowship of both mutual love and missional love reaching out through the great acts of creation and salvation to all the created order – including human beings.
‘God exists in community: a fellowship of both mutual love and missional love reaching out.’
John Stott argued that true fellowship (the Greek word is koinonia) ‘is a Trinitarian experience, it is our common share in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It also expresses what disciples of Jesus share together, what we give as well as what we receive.’
Every now and then we have the privilege of experiencing God’s trinitarian life here on earth in a clear and vivid way. I was blessed with one such experience the day I went to Zac’s Place, a fresh expression of church in Swansea.
I encountered a community of self-proclaimed ragamuffins that was one of the most authentic Christian communities I have ever met. The love was tangible. It doesn’t matter whether you arrive in a bin bag, a BMW or on a bike.
I met many bikers: big, tough-looking guys in leathers and combat trousers. I met those battered and broken and those with serious addiction issues. And I met the apparently well-sorted middle-class professionals, including the woman in designer jeans and expensive hairdo who the bikers welcomed warmly as their friend.
And the great thing is that everyone was welcome. There is no inverse snobbery, no resentment of those who have some of the nicer things of life. Just real people trying their best to be real disciples of Jesus.
‘The love was tangible. It doesn’t matter whether you arrive in a bin bag or a BMW.’
The ‘Zaclicans’ highlighted the importance of the value of transformation. Personal transformation, including conversion and discipleship, and the transformation brought about by the struggles for social justice. At Zac’s the hungry are fed (the food is great), the naked are clothed, the sick are prayed for and God’s word is proclaimed. The kingdom of God is at hand. The adventure of discipleship is being lived.
A powerful antidote
Zac’s Place exemplifies the koinonia in Acts 2, which is seen in followers of Jesus eating, praying and sharing goods together. In short, sharing their lives with each other and the world around, in a prophetic symbol of the kingdom of God. A powerful sign of a Spirit-filled way of life that stands against the sinfulness of selfishness and is a powerful healing antidote to the epidemic of loneliness. A wonder of hope, reconciliation and generosity. A true community of belonging and service.
Such fellowship was a powerful engine of mission and discipleship in the first century and remains so today. In his book Disciples Together, Roger Walton identifies intentional Christian community as one of the three primary formational energies for the adventure of discipleship.
‘Sharing their lives with each other and the world around, in a prophetic symbol of the kingdom of God.’
Through the practical expression of Christlike love, koinonia draws people to Jesus and nurtures and sustains disciples as they follow. It is evangelistic, pastoral, practical and formative – a holy habit that both God and the communities we serve may be calling us back to.