I am continuing to think upon the subject of fellowship. Chris, Tina and Rich have jumped into the conversation with thoughtful, helpful posts. I wouldn't mind some more people joining the discussion. Post on your blog and leave a comment linking to it here.
Since I am having a hard time finding fellowship within my congregation right now I thought I would look in my life for where I have found fellowship, which for my purposes here I will define as "friends, gathered in a group". Right now, that is my working model of fellowship:
- Friends - Fellowship without friendship seems like an oxymoron to me. If fellowship doesn't include or give rise to friendship then I don't know what the word "fellowship" means. But hey, I've already admitted that. And maybe this is a flawed part of my definition. If fellowship really is just getting together at pot luck dinners and voters meetings then I can declare victory and move on, mystery solved. But I don't think so.
- Gathered in a group - I am not saying that one-on-one time with friends isn't fellowship. It is the most core form of fellowship there is. But there are times when a group of friends is better. A party of two is what the waiter says when seating you, but it isn't really a party. Even this introvert admits that sometimes a group makes things better - more fun, or more interesting, or easier to bear.
I can look at my history and see periods of intense fellowship that still reverberate through my life to this day. In each case those times were at work or started there. I have made friends at every company I've worked for (except my present one, unfortunately), but there have been a few jobs that have contributed a disproportionate share of brilliant, creative, charming, loving people I am lucky to call friends. I took a closer look this morning at two of the companies where this occurred. There were few similarities between them. One was fairly small - I was employee #40. I spent over three and a half years there. The other was larger, with an employee base in the hundreds, and I was there for barely a year. The former was my first job as a "software engineer" and I was very excited and eager to be working for "a vendor", although within a year or so that had faded. At the latter I was coming off my first position as "software architect" and gladly returning to being just a "senior software engineer". I was jaded and cynical (wait - I am always jaded and cynical!) and just wanted somewhere to hide and be part of the hive for a while.
In the first I had friends who seemed truly happy there and a bunch who really weren't. Much of the time I felt more aligned with the latter. Looking back, that group (myself included) were all wrong - it was a great place to work. Then it got bought by a much bigger company and we were right to be disillusioned after that, because it changed into something different and the specialness of the place was gone. Some of the most sour gripers are still there, funnily enough, so they must've found what they were looking for in the big corporate environment. Most of the rest of us just fled. It was the mid-1990s and finding a tech job was easier than finding cheap clothes at Wal-Mart. In the second company (which funnily enough was bought by the same large company a little while after I left it) everyone was already sour and turned off when I arrived and I quickly found a gang whose cynicism matched mine and settled in. It wasn't "special" at all - in fact, it was just a grind.
Yet in both I found friends - real friends, who are still in my life on a daily or weekly basis, as are some of their families. And not just a few - I went through my address book and LinkedIn contacts and figure between the two I have eight friends and well over 20 acquaintances with whom I am still in some form of contact. How did that happen? What was the same in both?
- The first is obvious - we saw each other, a lot. Five days a week, every week. But that's just life at work. Fellowship would grow exponentially if that's all it took. And weirdly enough, with only a very few of the people did I work directly. So it wasn't shared mission and accomplishments that drove the friendships. It was mutual attraction, which sounds bizarre but is the only way I can describe it.
- We got together to talk (and bitch, laugh, gripe, joke, whine, gossip, mutter and plot) every single day, often multiple times a day. It wasn't just being in proximity that was required - there were people in those companies I couldn't stand (and still can't, and I am sure the feeling is mutual). No, there had to be time together talking. This included going to lunch together often - weekly at least, daily in some cases.
- Because bitching gets boring after a while, talk turned to other things and the discovery that everyone was really interesting outside of work. These places had attracted some top-notch people who were into a lot of cool and different things beyond programming computers. It was exciting to be around them - they made you feel special just being there.
- Over time the relationships carried over to outside of work. There was getting together for dinners with spouses, playing chess, going to movies, backpacking, parties and what have you. In those gatherings the friendships spread to each other's families as well.
- After leaving those jobs I made sure to continue to carry those relationships forward. This takes work, tending and discipline; relationships do die from neglect.
Lots there to think about in that list and all of it relevant to fellowship in church, I think. Point by point:
- I wonder if this is why some churches try and have things going on every single day, thinking the constant immersion will cause relationships to arise and grow. And perhaps that's the right model, although it smacks a bit too much of retiring from the world to me. I am still noodling on this.
- But it can't be just getting together to have yet another service where most are passive audience members. There has to time to talk and not just about things on the church's agenda of approved small-group discussion items. Which leads to:
- There needs to be more than just God-talk. Or to put it in slightly less grating terms, we can all love Jesus and want to follow Him, but our yards still need mowing and our kids still need raising and our vacations still need taking and those are good things to talk about, too. Church seems to want to monopolize the conversation with "talking about Jesus". Yet He gave us our lives to lead - I think He thinks it's OK if we talk about that, too, and not just in a "WWJD?" way.
- Everything can't happen at church. Going out to eat is important because it gets everyone outside of "church mode". So does getting together as families or friends and just "doing stuff". Not just good deeds/mission things, but "just stuff". And I think that can involve groups where only some people are believers (gasp!)
- We have to stay at it and if we find people we bond with we have to make sure not to drop them when either party changes locations.
But here's the most interesting point of all that hit me looking at my "fellowship history - in both cases, work and church, the institution itself can do almost nothing to foster fellowship! I never made a friend because we were both forced to go through some team-building exercise at work. I made them because we stumbled across each other and found we had mutual interests, likes, dislikes, and personalities that "fit". Period. Full stop. In fact, I would say in many of the cases the friendships were forged in spite of the shared experience of work. And that's where I think church gets off in the fellowship weeds.
First, it tries to foist a model where we're all supposed to feel an equal amount of fellowship toward each other (at least that's how it feels to me) and I just see that as being unrealistic. In neither company above did I have "fellowship" with the entire organization. That would be unrealistic. Therefore, is it realistic to think we can have fellowship with an entire congregation above a size of, say, 30 or 40? I don't think so. But people act as if we should. Maybe I am being unbiblical by saying that, I dunno. Second, church tries to push fellowship as a product, as a process, as a program, and it's not. If fellowship is friendship writ large as a group (which I may still be wrong about) then there is no way to manufacture friendship. It just happens and it's a gift every single time. And it often happens when the people involved decide to get away from the organization for a bit, if just for lunch, and discover each other as human beings outside of the collective. Unfortunately my first attempt at that in my church didn't really go anywhere and now that person has moved away anyway. But it's a weird friction - go enough to hook up with people and then make sure and get away enough that there can be room for friendship that has more than one thing in common.
Maybe the paid professionals at church feel differently because for them it's their job, so a lot of the factors I raise above are in play for them? I don't know. I do think pastors and staff have it harder having fellowship with us "laypeople" because they're held to a higher standard and can't be themselves (and are trained to keep their guard up anyway). That's why there seems to be a lot of "ministerial councils" and other get togethers of just the hired guns (so they can let their hair down and complain about their customers/users just like the rest of us? :o). From some of the interactions I've had with pastors via blogging I think it would be great if everyone could meet their pastor away from church first, like them for a human being first, and then have them for a pastor. But it doesn't seem to work that way. Bummer for everybody involved.
Does any of the above make any sense whatsoever? I am still struggling, still working through all this "fellowship" stuff.