Relationships between Church members possess great influence when it comes to the overall health of the church. When a church is known for its loving fellowship, the atmosphere may be characterized as warm, welcoming, non-threatening, and hospitable. On the other hand, if a church is known for not having a loving fellowship than it may be characterized as cold, non-welcoming, threatening, and uncomfortable.
Without a loving fellowship, a congregation will struggle in everything that it does. Charles Arn wrote, “One of the most important contributions your church can make to members— and nonmembers— is to teach them how to love” (Arn, 2013, p. 127). This is the foundational belief of why it is so important to focus on congregational relationships. This is obedience to Christ’s teaching in John 13:34-35 but it also how we come to know God. In 1 John 4:7-8 we learn that if we love we know God and if we don’t love then we don’t know God. What we see is that Christian fellowship not only connects members to each other but also connects them to Christ.
There is an undeniable sense in scripture that believers are to have a deep spiritual connection displayed through their relationships. Passages like John 13:35 word as though our relationships are markers for the Christian faith. By having a common faith brings believers to a common ground but there is also the understanding that believers have the Spirit of God binding us together in the most holy faith (Ephesians 4:3). It would be hard-pressed to say there is any scriptural ground for a Christian not to engage in deeply committed and authentic relationships with other believers. In fact, part of the sanctification a person goes through is to turn their thoughts and feelings out of themselves and towards other believers.
We see Jesus immediately begin to gather his disciples after his baptism and temptation in the wilderness. Fellowship with others was of paramount to Christ. We see when Jesus was away from the disciples in pray but we also see him keeping them at least a few yards away during His most intense night of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus spent over three years of time with the disciples sharing in everyday life. Jesus one day would look at the disciples and says, “ I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made it known unto” (Jn 15:15). In relationships, there has to be a mutual honesty and transparency. Jesus called the disciples friends because He could freely share what God had been doing. Congregational relationships mirror this “friendly” relationship with confession, exhortation, rebuke, and encouragement.
After the Holy Spirit descended and indwelled in the disciples, after the sermon of the Peter, after the three thousand souls were added all on the same day of Pentecost, we see almost immediately a close fellowship mentality. The people seemed to throng upon the disciples as, “they continued stedfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). It seems the remainder of the New Testament is about the growth of the fellowship of the church and the growing pains it would have to deal with. In the context of congregational relationships, we read “by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13) and “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The congregations were to be “of one accord, of one mind” (Phil. 2:2), and that we are to “consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works” (Heb. 10:25).
In Paul’s letter to the Philemon, the master of a runaway slave, Onesimus, he focused on the common ground that believers stand on. According to Paul, fellow believers all share in some in the same grace from God and therefore live in a common mutuality that makes all equal. The implications this has for churches has been profound. Coming from this perspective, it would be perfectly acceptable and even beneficial to all, for pastors to approach others as their equals. This goes for board members and congregational members. It would also apply to others as they relate to the pastor. In this view, it would be normal for pastors to have strong relationships with others in their congregations.
Leading the fellowship.
Paul wrote in Romans 12:3-8 about a diversity of spiritual gifts in the body of Christ. This diversity ended up causing issues at some point in several of the churches, including those at Rome and Corinth. With the church at Rome, the tensions between people’s gifting’s were only bolstered by growing racial tensions between Jews and Gentiles. Such differences are magnified when they are also used to solidify a person’s position and authority over another person. But these things shouldn’t be in the Christian community. Paul’s view on this is that the Christian community is a body in which each individual is joined to every other member of the community”.
Therefore, it seems that both of the scripture describes an approach for all believers to approach relationships with other believers with a high level of openness. As for pastors, they need to be aware of the dangers of pride from spiritual gifts or different positions in the church bring. They also need to be aware of the utility of diversity of gifts and backgrounds. This demands that pastors approach all other believers with a mutual respect, not of a position of hierarchy. Each believer is valuable to Christ and to other believers. This usefulness extends past the profitableness for ministry but also for the benefits that relationship brings with other people.
The biblical foundation begins to point out the importance of fellowship in the congregation. Loving fellowships, mutual understanding, and ministry partnership are all important components of a healthy congregation. Without strong relationships in the congregation, the likelihood of a church accomplishing the great commission will be minimal. To flourish a congregation must have fellowship and it is up to the leaders to promote and cultivate the leaders. Peter Scazzero writes in his book, The Emotionally Healthy Church (2010), “As go the Leaders, so goes the Church” (p. 20). A proverb from my dad says, “a fish always rots from the head down.” The leadership of the church can point the direction of a church’s fellowship by what it teaches and by what it models. Mostly by what it models how to fellowship in front of the members of the congregation and community.
If the leaders of the church are together in one mind and one accord they will produce an atmosphere of unity in the church. When they work together through conflicts and problems they will model to the church how they can do the same with their own personal conflicts. When the leadership of the church partners together to do ministry it encourages and models how others in the congregation can also work together. On the opposite side if there is division in the leadership, jealousy, and a whole number of other relational pitfalls then the potential for harm in the congregation is great and the possibility of schism looms. Since the ramifications of unhealthy congregational relationships are serious, it is important that the leadership of the church keep their ears open to what is taking place in the relationships of the people.
This means that leaders have to constantly gauge themselves and the relationships of those in the congregation. The first part is probably a little harder to do since it might mean adjusting the way we relate to people. Mel Silberman put it in his book, People Smart (2000), “Think of getting interpersonally fit just as you would think of getting physically fit” (p. 9). He suggested that we have to do some work to make improvements in our areas of strength and our areas of weakness.
While individuals can work on their relationship skills it is still the responsibility of the church to foster those relationships by creating atmospheres for relationship building. The joke is that many churches think of fellowship as the two minutes of handshaking during the worship service or involving the green bean casserole after the service. While those do play in a part in fellowship but only a part. They only add to a much larger possibility of a loving fellowship atmosphere in the church.
Russell and Russel (2010) wrote that there are several ways to create this type of atmosphere through the work of the church. The first is the use of the “large atrium” in which “You can hear the buzz of the crowd long before you arrive in the atrium” (p. 212). It’s been said that you can see how much people enjoy each others company by how long they stay before and after service. He offers two more suggestions for creating an atmosphere, recreational opportunities, and meaningful activities like service projects and mission trips.
The methods are many and very personal to each church’s particular culture. What may work best at one church may not work at another. Ultimately, each church need to rely on the biblical foundation for having a loving fellowship and the basic need of people to belong. Having a loving fellowship can be one of the strongest assets a church has in regards to discipleship and evangelism. It’s too important to not understand and study. It’s too important to not intentionally promote and protect our Christian fellowship.
McIntosh, Gary L.; Arn, Charles (2013). What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Indispensable Rules of Thumb for Leading Your Church. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Russell, Bob; Russell, Rusty (2010). When God Builds a Church. Howard Books. Kindle Edition.
Scazzero, Peter, (2010). The Emotionally Healthy Church. Zondervan. Grand Rapids, MI.
Siberman, Mel; Hansburg, Freda (2000). People Smart. Berret-Keohler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco, CA.