by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
This is the 3rd in a 6-part set of articles on, “What Does It Mean To Be The Church.” Here, we’ll explore the second characteristic,
“The Church Has Christ-Centered Fellowship.”
A few years ago, I came across a fascinating series of articles by a Protestant pastor named, Skye Jethani, with his observations on “How Churches Became Cruise Ships.” In it, he gives a little history about some major distortions that began happening in churches during the mid 20th century. He says:
“Prior to the 1960s most churches in America were small with a very utilitarian function – they transported people into communion with God by providing the basic necessities for living a Christian life. But by the 60s and 70s the Baby Boomers grew up and many stopped going to church. The culture had changed–secular values, youth culture, and entertainment had taken root and the church could no longer compete. Traditional churches, built for utility, struggled. But like some ship owners at the time, entrepreneurial pastors began tinkering to see if a new purpose for the church could be found. What these “pastorpreneurs” found was that people would still attend church in a post-Christian culture if it appealed to their felt-needs. The logic was simple: if the masses did not feel the need to connect with God then perhaps another “felt need” could draw them into the church: the need for community, or entertainment, help with their kids or marriage.”
This distortion was all about offering consumers more choices to address their perceived-needs and desires. So, things like coffee shops, bookstores, health clubs, and recreation centers were added to satisfy consumer appetites. Special ministries devoted to various consumer age groups, like youth, young adult, singles, and elderly, with attempts to attract individual Christians (or attract potential converts to Christianity) with means and methods that appealed to people’s self-serving hearts were added. Their products or services had to be tailored to the wants and perceived needs of the “customer,” or there would be no sustainable benefits for the church to gain. The consumer ruled, because where there is no customer, one could be sure that attendees and contributions would diminish, leading to an eventual closing of the church doors. So, the Christian consumer was king…not Christ, who calls us to die to ourselves and follow Him.
Eventually Orthodox Churches began to offer their own version of this phenomenon to collect interested consumers. Greek dance groups and basketball teams were formed, with gyms built to accommodate their “ministry.” Greek schools were also formed as a “ministry.” A myriad of other so called “ministry” activities also came along to satisfy church-consumers, including golf tournaments, bowling clubs, debutante balls, VIP clubs…and Greek parishes became marvelous activity centers, with much to keep parishioners busy, but little to draw them toward Christ as King over their hearts and lives. In fact, many of those activities did quite the opposite…consuming so much of these consumers lives, that there wasn’t much time or energy leftover to grow in one’s faith and be transported to communion with God. It was as though Orthodox Churches were attempting to sell the glamor and romance of the Love Boat…with Priests (and especially Assistant Priests and Youth Directors) thrust, not into the role of Captain Stubing (which would be bad enough because of his needed focus on pleasing the consumers), but even worse, into the role of Julie, the cruise ship Activities Director. Churches were usually judged on how many activities they had for the kids, while kids and parents complained about clergy’s attempts to grow young students’ faith as “too religious.”
And, even among parishes with a less ethnic flavor, there is still often a push towards more mere activities. Just because a church is more “American” (whatever that means), it doesn’t make its consumers any less tempted to create an Americanesque social-club. And in these efforts toward Church as social club, the word “Fellowship” gets thrown around a lot. “We’re doing this activity, or that, because it’s a way for us to have fellowship.” But the “fellowship” one has at these parish social-clubs is usually indistinguishable from the softball team up the street, or the garden club, or even the local bar, with their superficial chatting about sports or the weather or the news. In such secular fellowship, there’s really not much emphasis (if any) given to Christ as the center of these activities, nor of growing in what He would have us become.
While it may indeed attract numbers of people, it’s been a failed model for keeping people engaged with the Church, because, as far as social entertainment goes, the world is really much better at that kind of thing than the Church could ever dream of being. So, it’s not really sustainable for parishes. Which explains why so many of our youth, who grew up under that model, have left the Church in droves. They’ve become exactly what we’ve given them…a pretty shallow version of Christianity. Of the young adults that do, kind-of, stick around afterward for the sake of YiaYia…I can’t even begin to count the number of couples who come to the Church, wanting to be married, who are already living together and don’t see a problem with that…who haven’t the slightest clue about the sacramental life of the Church…and who, oftentimes, only have a superficial belief in God (in other words, no more of a belief in God than the demons have…believing only that He exists, but never believing in Him enough that they would give Him rule over their hearts and lives).
In Acts 2:42 we read that one of the four things the early church devoted itself to was “fellowship.” Fellowship was a very important part of their reason for meeting together. It was one of their objectives. But what is fellowship and why was it so important?
Saint John the Theologian and Evangelist gives us a picture of fellowship that’s radically different from the model we see displayed in churches who are Cruise Ship/Social Clubs. He says, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed, our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.… If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:3, 6–7).
The New Testament’s use of that Greek word for fellowship (κοινωνία), means communion, joint participation in Christ; the share which one has in God’s Kingdom, a self-sacrificial offering contributed together, etc. In Saint John’s writing above, this fellowship necessarily centers around a participation in Christ, through whom we have fellowship with God.
When Saint Paul talks about fellowship with Jesus Christ he insists that it entails fellowship in His sufferings (Philippians 3:10; 1 Peter 4:13) making us partakers in the sufferings of Christ (2 Corinthians 1:5-7). But Paul also points to a fellowship in the Spirit (Philippians 2:1-11) that keeps us united to Christ, likeminded with Him, concerned mainly for the best interest of others. Paul points to the realization of being united with Christ, as this, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). So, in this fellowship, as we become united to Christ through the Holy Spirit’s guidance we become a part of God’s new creation, willing to die to ourselves, in self-sacrificial acts of love, for the sake of others.
Thus, true Christian fellowship was never meant to put us aboard a luxury cruise ship, but rather, into the ark of salvation, centered upon uniting ourselves with the Person of Jesus Christ…with His will and loving mission.
Here Are the Links to All of the Articles in this Series About
What It Means To Be The Church: