Note to leader: Prior to the class, provide for each student the article “Authentic Fellowship” from Christianity Today magazine.
In Bowling Alone Robert D. Putnam argues that Americans are spending less time together in social activities and civic engagement (Simon and Schuster, 2000). In fact, since the 1960s, he claims, participation in civic associations, local and national politics, churches and social clubs, and time spent with family, friends, and neighbors has dropped by 25–50 percent. He estimates that between 1960 and 2000, church membership and attendance declined by one third.
In his latest book, Better Together, Putnam tells the stories of 12 different communities or organizations that are bucking this trend toward social isolation and lack of civic or church engagement (written with Lewis M. Feldstein, Simon & Schuster, 2003). One of Putnam’s positive examples is Saddleback Church, an evangelical megachurch in southern California where on a typical weekend at least 15,000 people attend. In such a large congregation, it would be humanly impossible to get to know everyone else. But Saddleback is intentional about helping attenders become belongers, and involvement in small groups is the key. At any given time, 8,000 people belong to small groups. Senior pastor Rick Warren believes being in Christian community is an essential part of being a Christian disciple. He says, “If you’re a Christian, fellowship is not optional.”
[Q] Where do you find your primary support as a Christian? With family members? With a small group? With co-workers? With Christian friends outside your church?
[Q] In your experience, what are the greatest impediments to meaningful Christian fellowship? People are too busy? People don’t see each other often enough outside of church? People don’t see it as that important?
[Q] Does your congregation have small groups? If so, how do they work? How do people get into them? How do small groups change composition over time? What do the small groups do? How do they contribute to the life of the congregation? Which is emphasized more in your small groups—fellowship, study, or outreach and mission?
[Q] What experiences of Christian fellowship have you had? What were some of your positive and negative experiences?
Teaching point one: The basis of our fellowship and community in the church is Christ’s work of reconciliation.
Read 2 Corinthians 5:16–21. The same action that saves us and brings us into fellowship with God also reconciles us to others and brings us into fellowship with each other in the community of faith. It’s not just that we find fellowship with each other at the foot of the cross: the cross itself is what opens up for us the possibility of being a community of the redeemed and reconciled in fellowship with each other.
[Q] With which statement do you find yourself agreeing most:
1) Part of God’s saving work is to create the church, a fellowship of believers.
2) The creation of the church, a fellowship of believers, is not part of God’s saving work, but it is one of the consequences of God’s saving work.
3) The church, the fellowship of believers, is just an instrument that God uses to bring people to faith and to strengthen and support them in their daily walk with Christ.
4) The creation of the church as a fellowship of believers is for the purpose of mission in the world—bringing others to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Why did you choose the statement you did? Do you find yourself agreeing with more than one statement? What is the difference between the four positions? What is at stake in each position?
[Q] Snyder says the community of believers has a mission purpose, that is, “being a living witness to Christ and the gospel power in the world.” How does this Pauline passage describe the mission of the fellowship of believers? Is there an integral connection between being reconciled to God, to each other, and engaging in a ministry of reconciliation in the world?
Teaching point two: God’s reconciling gospel through Christ leads to fellowship (that is, community), where natural human boundaries are broken down.
Read Ephesians 2:11–22. Humans prefer being with people like themselves, in what are called affinity groups. We’re more comfortable around others from the same nation, culture, and social and economic group. We’re more relaxed and less on guard when we socialize with those who share our value system and religion.
“Birds of a feather flock together,” we say. But our natural affinities are challenged and in fact broken down in the fellowship of the redeemed and the reconciled. In Paul’s setting, the most enduring hostility, culturally and religiously, was between Gentiles and Jews. This alienation carried into the church. Paul, however, taught that Christ has made peace between these two groups. Now, through Christ, formerly hostile and disparate peoples are being made one. The dividing wall of hostility has been destroyed by Christ’s death. A new “building” is under construction, one people of God, who are the dwelling place for the Spirit of God.
[Q] Do you agree or disagree that part of God’s re-creative work in the world is to break down walls of alienation and hostility between affinity groups—between nations, cultures, and language groups, between rich and poor, the educated and the less educated, men and women, young and old, black, white, and brown? Why or why not? Why should the fellowship among believers transcend natural, human divides?
[Q] It is often said that the most segregated hour of the week in the United States is Sunday morning when Christian churches are worshiping. Why is this? Is this a judgment on the Christian church? Should Christian congregations work toward being multi-ethnic and multi-racial? Or do we just need to accept that we will feel most comfortable worshiping with others like ourselves?
[Q] How much social diversity is there in your congregation? Why isn’t there more? Describe a time when you experienced Christian fellowship with people from other affinity groups. How can your church cultivate Christian fellowship with people different from yourselves?