Too many churches are pervaded by a sense of unreality. My mind goes to the announcement made in many a church: ‘After the service we will have a time of fellowship over a cup of tea or coffee and biscuits’. I feel like shouting out ‘Rubbish! That’s not true’. For I have rarely experienced true fellowship over a church cup of tea or coffee. I may have experienced a certain superficial friendliness – but true fellowship, rarely. Fellowship is more than being friendly. Fellowship is something that goes much deeper. Fellowship is about being real, open, and honest – where judgment is suspended and love and acceptance are the norm.
Some years ago the American Jesuit John Powell wrote of the five levels of conversation we can experience.
- Level 5: Clichés – ‘Terrible weather we’re having these days!’
- Level 4: Facts about others – ‘Did you hear about Mrs So-and-So?’
- Level 3: My ideas and judgments – ‘Workers these days are only out for what they can get!’
- Level 2: My feelings – ‘I’m so relieved! I never realised that you felt that way about it!’
- Level 1: Peak communication involving absolute openness and honesty: ‘Our relationship hasn’t been easy, but I want to tell you that I really value you as my friend’.
Most people can operate at levels 5,4, and 3 without difficulty.
- Level 5 is the kind of conversation we have with a stranger at a bus stop – or in a church pew
- Level 4 is the kind of conversation we can have with an acquaintance, whether in or without the church
- Level 3 is the kind of conversation that can go on at a church AGM – although normally its not to complain about the workers, but rather about the young people who mess up the church kitchen!
But how often do most church people get down to level 2 and 1? The levels of real feeling and communication? Yet these levels are what real fellowship is all about. This is why I am a great believer in churches running ‘fellowship’ groups. Incidentally, I know that the term ‘fellowship’ has for some an old-fashioned ring, but at least it expresses the purpose of the group in a way that terms such as ‘small’ or ‘home’ groups do not. Neither do I favour the term ‘Bible study’ group, for to my mind reading the Bible together and discovering how God’s Word applies to our everyday lives is just part of being a fellowship group.
However, simply calling a group a ‘fellowship group’ doesn’t guarantee the experience of true fellowship. Honest conversations and meaningful relationships only develop as people are prepared to make themselves vulnerable. Yet, as I have discoved, once one person is prepared to be ‘real’, often others are willing to be ‘real’ too.This process is well-described by Scott Peck, an American psychiatrist:
Vulnerability in community snowballs. Once its members become vulnerable and find themselves being valued and appreciated, they become more and more vulnerable. The walls come tumbling down. And as they tumble, as the love and acceptance escalates, as the mutual intimacy multiplies, true healing and converting begins. Old wounds are healed, old resentments forgiven, old resistances overcome. Fear is replaced by hope.
This autumn I am leading my fellowship group in a series of studies on the theme of ‘There is Hope’. We will be looking at some of the key Bible passages which deal with hope of life beyond death: for example John 11.1-44; John 14.1-14; 1 Cor 15; 2 Tim 4.6-8 ;1 Pet 1.3-9; and Rev 22.1-6. I would imagine that for some it will not be an easy experience. Indeed according to a 2018 survey of attitudes to death in the UK, some 34% of Christians felt unable to talk about death even with their family or friends. However, I trust that as my group is real with one another and some perhaps begin to share their fears, we will all realise afresh that Christian hope is not a whistling in a dark, but it is sure and certain. But to get to that point we need to be open and honest – with ourselves and with one another.
Thank you Paul for this timely reminder of this set of levels in communication. I well remember Dr. Jack Dominian, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Middlesex Hospital back in the 1970s wrote about these levels of communication in connection with the marriage relationship. I have never forgotten his booklet or the challenging application to my own marriage!
Also having spent 40 years in ecumenical work I know only too well how denominational relationships fail to get much beyond level 4 or 3. It was Cardinal Basil Hume who said at a Swanwick Conference (I was present and heard him) ‘when we (the RCs) first used to come to these gatherings we used to watch each other praying. Now we pray together’. When we first came we were extremely polite to each other. Now we’re friends!’
and finally from my local church PCC: our Rector got through the Annual General Meeting in 17 minutes. ..a personal best (PB to we runners) It was almost silent. It couldn’t be faulted technically. Everything went through ‘on the nod.’ There were no contentious issues. The officers were all returned un-opposed…and we went home! Had we really had a meeting?
Clifford Owen, retired Anglican.