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Fellowship and Partnership
by Tom Goodman
April 25, 2008

You know we're living in strange times when atheists feel they need a church and Christians can't see a reason to connect with one.  As church leaders, what can we do about that?

Last week, New York magazine ran a story about some atheists who feel the need to organize in church-like ways:

Many [atheists] are experimenting with building new, human-centered quasi-religious organizations....  They aim to remove God from the church, while leaving the church, at least large parts of it, standing....

Churches fill needs, goes the argument -- they inculcate ethics, give meaning, build communities.  "Science and reason are important," says Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain of Harvard University.  "But science and reason won't visit you in the hospital."

In the same week, I read a report about Christians who feel no need to connect with a church.  The Barna research organization labels them "the Unattached," and most of them self-identify as believers:
Six out of 10 adults in the unattached category (59 percent) consider themselves to be Christian.  Moreover, 17 percent of the unattached are born again Christians -- defined as people who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that they consider to be very important in their life, and who believe that they will experience Heaven after they die because they have confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior.

One-fifth (19 percent) of the unattached read the Bible and three out of every five (62 percent) pray to God during a typical week.

So, some nonbelievers recognize a need to gather in church-like organizations, while some believers don't see a need for church.

As church leaders, how can we communicate the value of believers connecting to a church?  Last night, in Week Five of the Anchor Course, we discussed this very topic.  (By the way, half of the participants have been active in our church since being reached by the telephone campaign last Fall!  Isn't that great!)

In the class, I got a chance to share with seekers and believers about Christ's vision for his church.  When we become believers, Christ expects us to join other disciples in pursuit of that vision of what "church" is supposed to be.

When I think of God's hopes for our congregation, I know he wants us to be a fellowship and a partnership.  The first word looks inward; the second word looks outward.  The first word speaks of sharing life together; the second word speaks of pursuing goals together.

First, we are a fellowship.  The first gathering of believers was described with these words:  "They devoted themselves... to the fellowship" (Acts 2:42).  They met regularly together, they prayed for each other, worshipped together, and shared possessions with those who had needs.  The warm fellowship impressed and attracted others so much that new people were joining daily.

The Christian life was not meant to be a solitary life.  The Bible says that our fellowship with God is proven valid by our fellowship with his people:  "No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us" (1 John 4:12).  Verses like this remind us we cannot really say we're connected to God unless we're also connected to other believers -- with all the patience and forgiveness and sensitivity that such a connection requires.
Second, we are a partnership.  Paul wrote to one church with deep fondness because they understood the importance of working together and not just assembling together.  He reminded them:  "In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel" (Philippians 1:4-5).  He often expressed by name his appreciation for the men and women who shared the ministry with him.  Their names show up in his letters: Timothy, John Mark, Luke, and little-known personalities such as Phoebe, Epaphras, Euodia, and Syntyche (e.g. Romans 16:1; Colossians 1:6-7; Philippians 4:2-3; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; 2 Timothy 4:11).

As we put our faith in Jesus and start spending time with a congregation of fellow believers, we need to identify the ways we can be useful to that gathering.  We partner together through financially supporting the work, through praying for God's blessing on the work, through offering suggestions to improve the work, and through volunteering in the work.  The church isn't an institution that does things for us; the church is a community of believers who have partnered together to make a difference in the world.

We need both fellowship and partnership with others who have drawn the same conclusions that we have about Jesus.

The fact that Hillcrest is a fellowship reminds me to look inward at the life we should share together.  The fact that Hillcrest is a partnership reminds me to look outward at the work we should do together.

We need both!  Without a sense of fellowship, all we would do is tackle our projects, complete our assignments, and finish our work.  In such settings a person's moral choices would never be challenged, his beliefs would never be refined, and his needs would never be addressed.

On the other hand, without a sense of partnership, a congregation quickly becomes introverted.  Soon, the only factor that is addressed in deciding what to do is simply that which pleases the current participants.

So, we are supposed to be a fellowship that meets each other's needs and a partnership that mobilizes people for meaningful action.  Work with me to communicate this vital truth to seekers and believers alike!


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