Fellowship Group – what is in a name?

There is never a week when I do not get a response to my blog.  So following my recent blog, Without fellowship groups church life is a sham, I was delighted to receive a number of super comments:

  • Great blog, Paul. Couldn’t agree more. Fellowship groups are all that you say and, in my experience, also the place of much ‘growth of a soul’.
  • Great to continue to receive your blogs, especially today
  • Thanks Paul. Another good read.
  • Wonderful! We never stop learning new things!! hope you enjoy engaging with the members of your group, have fun as well as studying and walking with each other!

But not every comment was positive. One respondent wrote:

Paul, fellow is a masculine term. Fellowship is fine for you guys. I much prefer the small group, friendship group or any of the non-sexist terms. I think the younger generation is more sensitive to this than we of the older generation. The goals, outcomes, do not differ. So perhaps the words might be more sensitive to differences.

I consulted with the members of my fellowship groups on this last point, but they were far from convinced:

One of the men wrote:

Having now googled dictionary definitions of ‘fellowship’, I can find no evidence of any male connotations or use of the word. I conclude that if the correspondent is female, she is a determined campaigner looking for any sign of possible male words and trying to shoot them down, even when her perception of the word is strongly tinged with her campaign aims.

A woman member of the group replied:

Whilst I consider myself a feminist, I do find this anxiety over terminology quite annoying!  It’s only a word and a word that sums up for me what a church community is all about. The Collins dictionary defines it as ‘mutual trust and charitableness between Christians’.  That’s good enough for me. The dictionary actually states that the word ‘fellow’ comes from Old English feolaga, one who lays down money.  I am sure that the person who wrote to you would not turn down a fellowship (financed research post)!

I did some research myself, and discovered that according to Etymology Online, “fellow has been used familiarly since the mid- 15th century for ‘man, male person’, but it is not etymologically masculine. It would be perfectly acceptable to call a woman a fellow traveller, for instance.”  To which, of course, many other examples can be added: for instance, at my old Cambridge college ‘fellows’ can be both men or women – I have never heard of any woman academic resenting the title.

I then reflected some more on the alternatives proposed to the term ‘fellowship group’.  Although I recognise that ‘fellowship’ has an old-fashioned ring about it, the alternatives are less appealing.   Some churches speak of ‘small groups’ or ‘cell groups’, but that relates more to size than to purpose.  Other churches use the term ‘home group’ – for me that has a degree of warmth, but it again fails to express the purpose of the group.

I am not convinced by the term ‘friendship group’, for friendship is not the same as fellowship. Friendship is about liking one another, whereas fellowship is about sharing a common identity, which within a Christian context is an identity found in being children of God, and brothers and sisters to one another. We see something of the depth of Christian fellowship In the words of 1 John 1.3: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may also have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ”.   Stephen Smalley, comments: “Christian fellowship is not the sentimental and superficial attachment of a random collection of individuals, but the profoundly mutual relationship of those who remain ‘in Christ’ and therefore belong to each other (see 3.23-24). Just how deep this fellowship can be is indicated by… the phrase ‘to have fellowship’…; this expresses not just the fact, but also the conscious enjoyment, of fellowship in Jesus Christ’”.

If the term ‘fellowship group’ is for some compromised by gender-influences, then perhaps the best alternative is found in a term which has in some churches more recently into vogue: viz. ‘life group’. Life groups are where in the jargon, we can ‘do life together’ – or as I would prefer to say, ‘share life together’.

Maybe this is a generational thing – but for the time being, I am going to stick to the expression ‘fellowship group’.

One comment

  1. Ran across this on my search for a different word for fellowship. I agree that there isn’t one. I also agree it feels gendered to me. I want a different word. Some seem to dismiss those that feel it is gendered. Please don’t. That’s part of the problem. While different dictionaries may say different things, fellow is often used for a male human.

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