Monday, October 29, 2007

50 years of the Australian Unity Agreement (16)

What is 'fellowship'? (8)

How can we make fellowship "just happen", or what can we do to facilitate it?

Now that we've looked at what happened in the New Testament churches when they got together I'd like to make some suggestions, based on the first century model, for Christians in the twenty first century.

It seems that meeting together over a meal was a central part of the fellowship of the earliest believers. This carried on the 'table fellowship' practices of Jesus, and also 'called to remembrance' the last supper. While sharing communal meals is a good way to facilitate the building of strong healthy relationships, I'm not suggesting that's all we should do. We learn from the Corinthian experience that even though they carried on the tradition of a shared meal it degenerated into something which Paul said was "not the Lord's supper". It also didn't take long for the church to replace this meal with a token or 'symbolic' meal, consisting of a morsel of bread and a sip of wine. The next step was to 'sacramentalise' it and to demand that the bread and wine should only be 'administered' by an ordained priest. The meal known as the Lord's table had progressively shifted from a full meal which was shared with family, friends and those who had been marginalised by society but were now invited to the kingdom of God, to a religious rite which was tightly controlled by those who ruled the churches.

The shift from a meal to mere symbols of one also coincided with a shift from grace to legalism in the church. God's grace was once celebrated as generous, abundant and overflowing. It later became something which the church-rulers tried to control and 'administer'. The morsel of bread (later to become a mere 'wafer' in the Catholic church) and the sip of wine also characterised how the church had become mean as it became legalistic.

To restore the meal to a central place in the gathering of believers might go a long way towards restoring the type of fellowship which was experienced in the early church, but would not guarantee it. There may also be other ways of facilitating this type of fellowship, with or without the communal meal. The following ideas are simply suggestions.
  • One of the features of a shared meal is that everyone participates in it. If we want to facilitate fellowship we have to encourage participation. I'm not suggesting that we simply find jobs for people to do (such as doing a prayer or reading, 'preparing the emblems', playing the organ), but that we structure our gatherings in such a way that everyone participates as fully as they would like. Paul obviously had this in mind when he said "When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church" (1 Cor 14:26). It's also probably what he had in mind when he wrote "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph 5:19-20. See also Col 3:16-17).
  • To have this kind of full participation gatherings also need to be interactive. It would be almost impossible in a large group to structure a programme (or 'order of service') where everyone is able to contribute with a hymn/song or a word of instruction. Imagine an ecclesia with 100 members all prepared to give an exhortation or sing a song! To have the kind of interaction which encourages full participation would mean that the structured, formalised, religious 'service' would have to give way to something which is fluid, dynamic, spontaneous and full of surprises. Ecclesias would have to decide if they wanted a formal service (like the liturgical churches Christadelphians so often criticise), or something closer to the experience of the first century believers.
  • The motivation for any gathering has to be the spiritual growth of everyone participating. It's not good enough to simply encourage attendance and assume that just by being there everyone will get something out of it. Gatherings of the church should be so that the whole body is fed and nurtured and enabled to grow.
  • In larger groups that means getting to know people who are used to sitting quietly, always behaving themselves, never ruffling feathers; the people who never speak up or express an opinion, and certainly never oppose anything; the kind of person who is always there, and because of that we assume they must be getting something out of it. It's possible that some of these people are dying on the inside, not getting the kind of food they need for spiritual growth, but desperately hoping that if they keep turning up one day something miraculous will happen and they will find what they need.
  • Of course, it's equally possible that we don't really know the noisy people either. We make assumptions about the people who always have something to say, who always have an opinion (right or wrong), who seem so confident in their knowledge and understanding of the ways of God. We can assume that because someone gives good exhortations they must be right with God, that their spiritual needs are being met, and that their main purpose is to feed others. It's easy to overlook the needs of noisy people. The noise might be a cry for help, disguised as self-confidence; or it might be a cover-up for something that is desperately wrong and needs sorting out. We will never know, unless we get to know them personally.
  • Gatherings of believers must promote relationship-building. Sitting in the same pew, or simply shaking a hand, does not constitute 'fellowship'. There has to be time spent together getting to know each other and talking about life in general. There will have to be opportunities for crying on shoulders, sharing a laugh, passing around photographs, and talking about work.
  • We mustn't forget, however, that our objective is not simply to be friendly and to get to know people (important though that is). We need to help people to connect with God, and to learn from their encounters with God. We need to share on a deeper, more intimate, spiritual level. The friendliness and relationship-building I mentioned in the points above are steps towards intimacy between fellow-believers and with God. But before we can ever develop that kind of intimacy we have to develop trust. In my experience, I have found that many Christadelphians have stopped trusting each other. The dreadful ecclesial fights that have gone on for generations have been one of the main causes of this loss of trust, but in a vicious cycle of mistrust we have learned that arguments lead to mistrust, and mistrust leads to misunderstanding and yet more fighting. The road back will be long and slow, and needs a great deal of prayer and patience.

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