Fellowship.  It’s one of the most oft-repeated words in the lexicon of “church speak.”  It appears frequently as an interrogatory: “Where do you fellowship?” or, “Wasn’t the fellowship sweet?”  Ditto the well-worn, “Food. Fun. Fellowship” we’ve all seen on postcards, bulletin inserts and other mailers.

Interesting word, “fellowship.”  The basic connotation includes companionship, friendly association, the mutual sharing of experience, activity and interest.   Think Dorothy Gale and her trio of stalwart companions from Oz.  Robin Hood and his Merry Men.  Frodo and Samwise Gamgee.  Jesus and his disciples.

What was the title of the first book in Tolkien’s LOTR trilogy?  If you recall, it’s The Fellowship of the Ring.  Do you think that was by accident? Or was Tolkien trying to tell us something, trying to show us a bit of what true fellowship means, what it looks like and how it works?  How it is opposed.

“Come now,” I want to ask my IC friends.  Is the sort of “I’ve-got-your-back, you-ve-got-mine, together-till-death” sort of fellowship characterized by Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas the sort of thing you see on your average Sunday morning?  Bible study or “fellowship” group?  Sunday school class?

I would say, maybe.  But it is rare.

Ever wonder why?

“Fellowship” comes up frequently in my interactions with folks who are puzzled, perhaps mystified by the concept of “fellowship” without paid staff, programming, a formal liturgy or a building with a steeple on top.  “Where do you fellowship?” they ask.

Lord love ’em, I could ask my IC friends the same thing: “When and where do you “fellowship” in an institutional church setting?”  Does this “fellowship” occur during the 90-second “Hi, how are you? Fine” interaction between services?  During the all-eyes-forward, sitting-all-in-a-row Sunday monologue?   When most of the morning is spent “interacting/fellowshipping” with the back of someone else’s head?  Does it occur in the parking lot as people wave hello or goodbye, in Sunday school classrooms where parents drop off or pick up kids?  Around the coffee urn during the Sunday “fellowship hour”?

I doubt it.  True biblical fellowship in the “Lord of the kings” type of model doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes time.  Authenticity.  Vulnerability.  Flexibility.  Lots of it.  Authentic, soul-deep, genuine “fellowship” of the Frodo and Samwise Gamgee kind doesn’t take place with hundreds of others on a once or twice a week basis. “Oh, that’s why we have small groups” some say, “that’s where the rubber meets the road in personal relationships.”

If this is so, why not just cut to the chase?  Why the buildings, budgets and big shots?  Why the hierarchies, top-down pecking orders?  We were in one church where the only people who were deemed “qualified” to lead a small group – which typically lasted six to ten weeks – were Board members.  What’s with that?

And while we’re at it: what’s more conducive to cultivating real relationships: a big building, high ceilings, face-forward seating, and a proscribed program conducted within a flinty time frame, or a living room with comfortable seating, pillows and sofas, family pictures on the wall, shared meals, leadership, service, a kitchen table, an open Bible and unlimited time?

Ironic, isn’t it, that what many believers offer as a primary reason for their involvement in a traditional church is the very thing that the traditional church so often mitigates against?  Doesn’t your heart long for something… more?

Stay tuned!