To my amazement this autumn I find myself hosting and leading a fellowship group. Although in my role as a minister I have often promoted and written material for such groups, I have rarely hosted or led a group. I saw that as a job for others. But now that I am no longer leading a church, I am one of the ‘others’. In some ways I feel privileged to be asked to care for a fellowship group – but I also feel somewhat challenged, and even more so in that this term we have been asked to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation by looking at Paul’s Letter to the Galatians through the lens of Martin Luther’s commentary. I confess that I am not familiar with Luther’s commentary, so it will certainly be a learning experience for me.
The group that I am leading has been going for some time. So at least I do not have the challenge of creating a group. But I do have the challenge of developing a group. With that challenge in mind, I wrote to all the past members of the group with a view not just to inviting them to my home, but also to setting out my aim. In my letter I said:
There is more to a fellowship group than studying the Bible together. For as the very name suggests, the key to a fellowship group is the fostering of community. If I were asked to sum up my ideal of a fellowship group, I would say:
- Fellowship groups are about friendship, community, and sharing life together. They are places where people can relax with one another, laugh with one another, and even weep with one another: they are about being real with one another.
- Fellowship groups are about caring for one another, being there for one another, praying for one another, and offering practical support for one another
- Fellowship groups are about reading the Bible together and discovering how God’s Word applies to our everyday lives.
- Fellowship groups are about encouraging one another to share the good news of Jesus with others.
- Fellowship groups are about extending friendship to others, and inviting others to join us, even if it means that in the end a new group has to divide to accommodate all the newcomers.
Hopefully I have whetted your appetite to join us! And, of course, if you wish to bring a friend, please feel free to do so.
I like the term ‘fellowship group’. Other churches speak of ‘small groups’, ‘Bible study groups’, ‘cell groups’, ‘nurture groups’, or even ‘life groups’. But my mind ‘fellowship group’ describes most clearly the purpose of the group: such groups are about developing a community, where people can love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Sadly we live in a world where, in the words of Mother Teresa, many are:
hungry for love, for understanding love, which is…. the only answer to loneliness and great poverty…. People are suffering from terrible loneliness, terrible despair, terrible hatred, feeling unwanted, feeling helpless, feeling hopeless. They have forgotten how to smile, they have forgotten the beauty of the human touch. They are forgetting what is human love. They need someone who will understand and respect them.
Loneliness, however, is not just to be found in the world beyond the church. Many people in our churches today are also crying out to be affirmed, to be valued, to be loved. But the truth is that nobody can be affirmed, valued, or loved within a crowd. Howard Snyder, an American Methodist, wrote:
Our churches are filled with people who outwardly look contented and at peace, but inwardly are crying out for someone to love them… just as they are – confused, frustrated, often frightened, guilty, and often unable to communicate even within their own families. But the other people in the church look so happy and contented that one seldom has the courage to admit his own deep needs before such a self-sufficient group as the average church meeting appears to be.
Relationships in many a church can in fact be likened to a game of billiards or snooker, where balls are flying in all directions, knocking into one another, but never relating to one another. After a morning service people ask one another: “And how are you this morning?” “Fine, thank you” – and off they walk without revealing that inwardly they are far from fine – their personal world is in chaos – their job is perhaps on the line, their son is going off the rails, their ageing parent is causing them concern… But they are afraid to be honest with one another, in case people look down upon them. “Fancy, you losing your job – clearly you can’t be all that good at your job”. “Fancy, your son is going off the rails – clearly you can’t have done all that good a job as a parent”. “Fancy, your mother or father is causing you concern – clearly you are not facing up to your responsibilities as a son or daughter”. Yes, they are afraid to be honest, in case people look down upon them – they are afraid, because they are insecure. They are insecure in the sense that they are not sure of the other’s love. They wonder: “Will they love me, warts and all?”.
Fellowship groups, first and foremost, are where we can be real with one another; are places where loved can be meaningfully given and meaningfully expressed. Without such groups church life is a sham.