I tucked the pan of blueberry muffins and knocked on the glass door. The kitchen was dark but I knew they were home because several cars sat in the driveway. I went inside. At the end of the galley kitchen, I saw two heads bent together over something in the middle. Swish, swish – a pair of scissors snipping. Drawing closer, I saw a ring of gray and white hair laying in tufts on the table. Wait, not hair – fur. In the center of the ring was a bunny. Annie greeted me and explained that the brand-new bunny – a gift for the daughter of Annie’s fellow bunny stylist– had fur so matted that they had to cut it. I wasn’t sure the bunny looked much better. The formerly fluffy creature now resembled a craggy cliff face, with straight lines of trimmed fur stacked one upon another like rock formations. Cotton the Bunny would fly home with his new owner the next day. Annie’s friend was hoping the airline wouldn’t mind if the bunny hung out in a cardboard box under her daughter’s seat for the return trip.
I put my pan of muffins on the table and dropped my purse. This was another of the typical, unpredictable, wonderful days of fellowship at Annie and Jimmy’s home. Annie and Jimmy hosted our fellowship group and I’d been coming here on Tuesday nights for almost a year. The last year expanded my view of Christian fellowship. Fellowship, as it turned out, had more soul-shaping power than I expected.
At the beginning of 2021 I, like many people, jumped on the bandwagon of choosing a word of the year. My word for 2021 was community. After a wearying year mired in pandemic loneliness, countless people like me found themselves hyperconnected online but still empty. We needed other people, face-to-face, reading our expressions, squeezing us in a hug, laughing at our jokes, and helping the school books, board room, or doctor’s office release their grip on us for a few hours.
My idea of Christian fellowship looked something like sitting in a circle of chairs in a church hall – and if the chairs were the folding metal type, then all the more spiritual, right? Next to this, the fellowship was greeting each other and making a prayer request before delving into a formal Bible study with videos and a workbook. And then, my favorite of all – a potluck.
That kind of community has value and I wholly advocate participating in a formal study to learn the Bible and know God better.
But what I see in the Gospels is that learning God’s word took place within a personal fellowship whose primary purpose wasn’t doing but being.
Jesus called the disciples to Himself. After Jesus’ resurrection and return to heaven, these disciples were commissioned to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth. But before the disciples became mega-missionaries,
…He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach…(Mark 3:14 NKJV emphasis mine).
Before the disciples were ready to preach, they needed to be with Him. Being with Jesus was His way of making them more like Him and preparing them for the work ahead.
Christian spiritual formation is much the same today. God uses Christian fellowship to make us more like Jesus and to comfort us during our inevitable troubles in our sin-soiled world.
Paul understood the importance of interpersonal fellowship when he wrote: For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, so that you may be established– that is, that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me. (Romans 1:11-12 NKJV)
A year after I came to my first fellowship evening at Annie’s and Jimmy’s, I’ve grown.
If you, too, are hungry for deep fellowship but you’re unsure where to start – maybe you’re an introvert like me or you want to be part of a group but you can’t host it yourself – then join me as I share a few tips I’ve learned from Annie and Jimmy on how to nurture a thriving fellowship.
1. Make it a Priority
The reason our fellowship group has met regularly despite everyone’s busy lives is that Annie and Jimmy prioritize fellowship.
One evening I walked into their kitchen to discover that Annie had arrived home only minutes before I came through her door. She had been shuttling her children to a learning center and then to sports practice. Now they were throwing together a quick dinner. She was visibly tired, and I remarked that if she was ever too busy or exhausted to host fellowship, then by all means let the group know. Everyone would understand. Each of us would likely cancel fellowship for the same reasons.
But she replied, “I was tired, but I said to myself, ‘God will bless it, then I told people to come.”
Annie and Jimmy are busy. They have six kids, ranging in age from 2 to 18, and the school-age children all learn at home. Most of the children are in one or more sports. The family dogs produced eight puppies last fall. Jimmy works full-time as a military officer and leads a large online ministry, preaching on a conference call and live video most nights of the week. Every year Jimmy and Annie mark the anniversary of Jimmy’s spiritual birth in Christ by hosting a pile of ministry members at their home for several days of intensive Bible study, prayer, and fellowship. One attendee slept on a recliner in the laundry room.
Fellowship happens because Annie and Jimmy know that “God will bless it.” And He has. They are obedient to God’s call on their lives and trust Him to minister to their needs.
If you are part of a fellowship, and especially if you’re the host, prioritizing regular fellowship will be a deciding factor in whether your group thrives or fades. Choose to thrive.
2. Don’t Worry About Meeting an Agenda
Fellowship doesn’t require you to have a meeting agenda or pre-determined activity. The heart of fellowship is personally sharing our celebrations and our deepest needs. A formal meeting purpose, like a Bible study, can be used within a fellowship group but should not replace informal time to simply
share your hearts and lives. Face-to-face, heart-to-heart fellowship is critical to encouragement and discipleship, and it’s why most churches urge members to attend a small group.
Focus on being available to each other and let group activities arise naturally based on members’ needs or desires. Want to play basketball rather than memorize a Bible verse? This is God’s work, too.
3. Create Intimacy by Authenticity
My friendship with Annie and Jimmy grew deep quickly over the last year. I have the same level of comfort with them as I do with friends I’ve had for many years. I attribute this to Annie and Jimmy’s willingness to be vulnerable and authentic. Not many women would invite a houseful of visitors while dinner dishes were slung across the table, the toddler’s bowl of spaghetti was overturned on the floor, and socks littered the couch. Far from irking me, the evidence of an ordinary family doing life together put me at ease. If they could let me see their dirty laundry, literally, and still welcome me, then I could trust them with the dark and painful parts of my heart. Annie and Jimmy prioritized fellowship, which meant that if clearing the dishes and scrubbing floors edged out time for fellowship, then the house would have to wait. The work eventually got done anyway, and those of us who were welcomed into their home always left feeling treasured because our hosts put God and us above their personal preferences.
Whether you’re hosting a fellowship group or a guest, be yourself. This is harder than it sounds, but it’s worth it. Be brave. When you’re tired or discouraged or in a bad mood, the most authentic thing you can do is share that. Rather than annoying others, you may secretly relieve them. They’ll feel the same way you do tomorrow, next week, or five minutes from now, and your honest admission and commitment to being real will inspire your companions to drop the mask and be honest, too. At that moment, a true connection happens.
“My problems are a better bridge than my perfection could ever be,” Annie said. That’s authenticity. A commitment to rejecting artifice means we are free to be ourselves and to be loved for, not despite, it.
4. Practice Patience and Embrace Others
As a mother with a child with autism, I’m careful who I visit. Luke, my son with autism, enjoys people but doesn’t always understand appropriate social behavior, so I limit our visits to people who are patient with Luke.
Annie and Jimmy have provided a high level of comfort for me as an autism mom because they have a high tolerance for shenanigans.
Why? Because children are as important a part of their ministry as adults.
One night, my older son, Luke, who has autism, held out a red crayon in his hand, pressed it against the wall, and ran. Jimmy and I spent a good portion of the evening scrubbing the mark, which still shows a ghostly echo to this day. Before meeting Annie and Jimmy, I would’ve felt horrified and wondered if I
should ever come back. But my hosts laughed it off. Such obnoxious behavior would occur again among all children involved.
Of course, I’m vigilant and mindful of my children’s behavior and there are consequences for deliberate disobedience and egregious disruption.
But Annie and Jimmy’s purposeful grace toward disruptive behavior allows me to relax at fellowship, which means I won’t hesitate to rush my kids into the van the following week to drive them to fellowship.
If you want to cultivate a truly welcoming atmosphere in your fellowship, then expand your tolerance for shenanigans. People with families like mine will be profoundly grateful for an open door of hospitality for children who are “differently-abled” and for kids who are being, well, kids, with all of the noise and squabbling accompanying them.
5. Decide to be a Blessing
When my sons and nephew are about to leave for fellowship, I often tell them to “be a blessing.” Coming to fellowship with the attitude and intent that we’re going to delight or comfort our friends helps me overcome my introverted tendency to assume that everyone is noticing my perceived flaws. Being a blessing to others pulls the focus from me and puts it on others. When I bless my friends and they bless me, then we are all built up into God’s spiritual house.
Walk into your fellowship group determined to be a blessing and watch your self-consciousness fade.
God used Annie and Jimmy to make me a fitter servant of Jesus and to encourage and comfort me through some tough life issues this year. If you want to take your relationship with the Lord to the next level, then I urge you to find, or form, a fellowship group using the principles outlined above, and study what the Bible teaches about community and fellowship to further expand your knowledge.
Cotton the Bunny was safely stowed under the airplane seat after being waved through security – “That is such a cute puppy!” – but his most recent picture shows little improvement to his coiffure.
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