I recently read this though provoking article over at The Resurgence and it brought to mind some of the discussions I had while implementing Riverview's current small groups ministry that just kicked off about a month ago. I had the opportunity to preach and teach on the topic of fellowship, both in the context of a month-long Sunday School class and through a three-week sermon series. I think I was able to communicate somewhat effectively what Christian fellowship looks like in the church.
There are some realities that we all need to recognize before we even try to have fellowship or community with other people. For example, we all need to realize that we are all different people with a different set of desires, influences, and preferences, and we bring a virtually limitless set of ways of thinking to the table. Secondly, we all need to realize that we are all sinners in need of grace - both from God and from one another. Thirdly, and most importantly, we are all sinners saved by grace who have been adopted into a new community - a new family - that sets us apart from the rest of the world. In essence, we have fellowship with one another in this community - we find commonality in Christ. The gist of the article linked to above is that our fellowship - our community - is found only in Christ and in nothing else. In fact, if we try to find commonality with one another in anything but Christ, then one of two things will happen:
1. We won't experience true, biblical fellowship. Why not? Because we are finding commonality in something that is not foundational and eternal. Say, for example, that I like bass fishing. Throughout the course of several church or small group meetings, you and I get together several times, and as we come to know each other over time, we discover that we both are absolutely enthralled with bass fishing. We have found common ground. We even schedule a few trips to go bass fishing together, and our friendship deepens. Is this biblical fellowship? Nope. But we're friends, and we're hanging out together - we're fellowshipping! It's still not biblical community. Why not? Because our common ground is bass fishing - not Jesus. In order to have biblical fellowship with people, it must begin and end with Jesus.
2. Our efforts toward fellowship will fail. Let's continue on with our bass fishing scenario. Let's say that you and I have been fellow bass fishermen for a few years now, and we've enjoyed several trips together. But over time, as we've learned more and more about each other, I've discovered that there are some things about you that, actually, really irritate me. For example, you talk when we're trying to fish. You also have a totally different philosophy from me as to where the best bass fishing takes place. Not only that, but as we've been out on the water together and have talked more, I've discovered that our political preferences are actually quite different. We think rather differently. And the more I think about it, I don't really like you.
Fellowship that is found in anything but Christ will ultimately fail because the worldly things that we can have in common are not transcendent enough for you and I to accept our differences and love one another. We may have some things in common, but there are also several things we don't have in common, and if we're honest, those differences have the potential to divide and separate us.
This latter point played itself out after one of my Sunday School sessions on the topic. After each Sunday School session and sermon on the topic I was approached by members of the congregation who were thinking through what I was saying, and had some follow-up questions. One of the questions was, I thought, intriguing, and it took me a while to figure out at the time. The question went something like this: "There are some people that are just so different from me that it is impossible to have fellowship with them. How can I have fellowship with people who seemingly come from another planet than I do?" The answer is, you can't. You simply cannot build community with people when you are trying to find something in common with them, because at some point, your similarities will break down and your differences will be exposed, and you will find that those differences will be enough to drive you apart. Every time we try to find fellowship with people based upon earthly commonalities, it is doomed to failure.
But, if I have Jesus in common with people - even those who are seemingly from another planet - we have something to talk about! If you and I come together and share no similarities or preferences with one another, we won't even bother. But if we both have Jesus, then even those things we don't share or agree on become secondary issues. Yours and my commonality in Christ can't be disrupted by our different preferences in fishing holes, nor our different political persuasions.
This becomes so important to remember, especially in church contexts. If intellectual Christians who like to ponder the complexities of theology try to find commonality in that regard with the layman, they're doomed to failure. If older people who prefer organ music try to base their fellowship with younger believers who like music with guitars, drums, and keyboards, on their common bond of liking worship music, it's obviously not going to work out. Christians come together in community - in fellowship - not because they are similar, because they like the same music, because they think the same way, because they're of the same ethnicity, or anything else. Christians come together in community because of and through Jesus.
This is why the article I linked to says that as soon as we become focused on "doing community" (having fellowship) with one another, our fellowship is actually killed off. Having fellowship becomes the end-all. Instead, we can have fellowship with one another because we have fellowship with Jesus.