Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! (Psalm 133:1-2)
One of the cheesiest most overused terms in the church today is “fellowship.” We hear the term all over Christian culture reiterating a Christian answer to the troubles of our lonely, isolated, and fractured selves. Many of our church efforts in this vein are surfacy and ineffectual. A potluck dinner, a sunday school class, a sermon series on brotherly love, etc. etc. Yet it seems like we rarely experience fellowship. Closeness, vulnerability, rebuke, love–these are the kinds of features that distinguish fellowship from just “buddies” or “acquaintances” or “facebook friends.” In the shallowing of fellowship, closeness is replaced with text messaging, vulnerability is reduced gossip, trust is replaced with independence, rebuke with ad hominem attacks, and love becomes “likes.”
I contend that one of the biggest reasons we don’t typically have great fellowship is also the most obvious, We. Don’t. Know. How. This is not simply a matter of will–choosing to BE in fellowship or to DO fellowship–though we can’t have fellowship without some willful submission to the demands, hopes, and expectations of others. This is not simply a matter of “making time.” Fellowship does indeed take time, and if you value it enough you will make the needed time for these loving trusting relationships to grow strong. But having a strong will and free time is not enough to make fellowship happen. Nor is this simply a matter of abstract knowledge–knowing why fellowship matters, what it looks like, or how God has commanded it. That kind of knowledge would certainly help. But fellowship is also a matter of practical knowledge. Fellowship is, among other things, a skill, and if you have not practiced it, you won’t be good at it. And when you don’t know how to do something as big and unwieldy as fellowship, then you can get hurt, badly.
Unfortunately, even when you do know how to do fellowship and be in fellowship, it still will hurt you sometimes. The hurt doesn’t have to be any more than the hurt from a surgeon who operates on you to help heal you, but that is still a kind of hurt. People can hurt you. And you may be tempted to push them away, keep them at arms length so they can’t hurt you. But at that distance, neither can they help you. For that matter, neither are you much help for them. And besides helping and hurting, people who are pushing others away just aren’t being together. And you can’t have fellowship without some sort of togetherness. There’s a kind of meaningful peace when we aren’t trying to fix problems, or accomplish things, or plan for the future, but instead we are just together.
For those of you know know me well, you might not think me an expert on fellowship. That’s an understatement. I’m a novice. To me, fellowship is a mystery that comes easy for other people but hardly comes at all for me. I want it, but don’t understand it. I need it, but I’m so clumsy at it that I get hurt whenever I feel like I’m using it right. If you get bucked off the horse too many times, you start to prefer walking over riding. That’s kind of where I’m at. So as I speak, please don’t think I’m presuming some expert status on the subject of fellowship. The how of fellowship remains a mystery for me. But at the same time, it doesn’t seem to be rocket science either. People need to trust each other, fight fair, work through conflicts, hold each other to honorable standards, put each other’s needs above their own, help, love, and be willing to be changed and grown in the process. That means saying you are sorry (and meaning it), that means preempting feuds rather than saving up grievances against each other. Fellowship means giving what you have to offer, and receiving what they have to offer. In short, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
The difficult artistry of fellowship enters here. The command does not say to “love your neighbor as if he were yourself.” They may not receive love the same way, or have the same needs and interests I do. I should love them with the personalized fellowship with which I would like them to love me. I need to seek to understand you, and as I learn how you receive love and how you operate in trust, I offer expressions of fellowship that address you there. After all, I want people to love me through food, respect, and encouraging words–some of my preferred modes of affirmation. It’s only fair for me to find ways that speak the same kind of love to you in your language.
Meanwhile, as I’m slow to learn this new language, I can testify that fellowship hurts. Don’t expect a lot of credit for trying either. Your efforts might be invisible, or the verbal equivalent of gibberish. Courageous humility is paramount. Until you find those expressions of fellowship that speak to them, they may not even know you are trying. It’s worthwhile, but the payoffs can be slow coming. It hurts, but ultimately it’s a good hurt.