By Barney Wells
From the tiniest white-frame rural chapel to the largest of megachurch campuses, church buildings seem to have two rooms in common. One is called the auditorium, sanctuary, or worship center—it is where the gospel message is proclaimed weekly through sermon, song, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. The other room is the fellowship hall.
Whether found in a dank basement room with a low ceiling or a cavernous gymnasium-like structure, the ubiquitous presence of the fellowship hall testifies to the importance of a place for fellowship.
Fellowship in the Bible refers to a common task and common concern for each other. But let’s be honest, in most churches, the fellowship hall is a place for food.
Food plays an important role in the New Testament.
Consider how many of Jesus’ teaching opportunities took place at a meal. From his first miracle at a wedding feast to his postresurrection appearances in the upper room (where he ate fish), on the Emmaus road (where he broke bread), and at the beach after Peter had led the others back to fishing (where Jesus cooked breakfast on the coals), much of Jesus’ earthly ministry happened around the table.
Acts 2:42 says “the fellowship” was one of the four continuous activities in the earliest days of the church, but Luke then writes, in verse 46, “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”
When the church resolved its first major doctrinal dispute in Acts 15, three of the four requirements for the new Gentile Christian from the apostles and elders had to do with food, specifically food that might prevent them from table fellowship with their Jewish Christian brothers. The first major conflict between apostles occurred when Paul challenged Peter over the matter of table fellowship (Galatians 2:11ff), and the Corinthians had to be rebuked because their potluck meals after the Communion service demonstrated selfishness rather than fellowship.
Of course, fellowship is much more than food, but it is not less than food. Healthy churches nourish fellowship by providing opportunities for members to eat together. From the monthly potluck of the small-town congregation to the coffee shop or food court of the megachurch, to the countless variations of doughnuts, muffins, or bagels shared before, between, after, or during services, to the in-home gatherings of small groups around a pot of soup and the Word, you will find growth, grace, and support happen around the table.
The root idea behind the biblical term fellowship is one of sharing, and in the pages of the New Testament, that sharing seems to focus on three areas: shared resources, shared work, and shared beliefs.
We are told light has no fellowship with darkness (2 Corinthians 6:14), and that we have fellowship in the Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14; Philippians 2:1). There is a fellowship, or partnership, in sharing the faith (Philippians 1:5; Philemon 6). Sharing generously of the things we have is a kind of fellowship (2 Corinthians 9:13; Hebrews 13:16). These are different, but all are fellowship.
Common Belief, Common Tasks, Shared Resources
Whether the church has multiple staff dedicated to preparing materials and training leaders for a well-organized small group ministry, or a handful of rank-and-file church members with Bibles gather around a table in the church basement, healthy churches nourish the fellowship of shared beliefs.
Hearing the Word preached and taught in the assembly is essential to the growth of Christian faith, but the opportunity to discuss and apply the Word to the challenges and joys of living out the faith with others on the same journey is an important part of growing in Christ. We need the chance to talk with others about our common beliefs, and how those beliefs shape our responses to the frustrations and crises of life.
Not only do Christians have fellowship in a common belief, we also have fellowship in a common task: proclaiming the gospel. One congregation may be able to keep several evangelists on the field, while another may work hard to supply the car parts for a missionary mechanic to keep a group of native evangelists on the road. One witnesses while another prays. Perhaps you can speak the Word that a friend or relative simply will not hear from me. To know who or what or where to send, when and what to pray, or to whom we might speak, we must have fellowship in this common task—and healthy churches nourish the opportunity to share in it
The large church may run several twelve-step or addiction-recovery programs, while the small church may have one or two folks who come alongside a struggling brother or sister. Both are nourishing a fellowship, a sharing in bearing one another’s burdens in the struggle with sin.
Grief may be shared through the offering of a support group, or simply one sister quietly sitting next to another through the service (and long after it has ended).
A ministry may provide microloans to members in need, or a couple of guys may come together on a Saturday morning to change the oil in the cars of ladies whose husbands are serving overseas in the military. Healthy churches also nourish this kind of fellowship, one of shared resources, talents, skills, and opportunities.
Barney Wells serves as associate professor of Bible and ministry and assistant dean at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary.