DAY 18 Experiencing Life Together Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. Colossians 3:15 (CEV) How wonderful it is, how pleasant, for God's people to live together in harmony! Psalm 133:1 (TEV) Life is meant to be shared. God intends for us to experience life together. The Bible calls this shared experience fellowship. Today, however, the word has lost most of its biblical meaning. "Fellowship" now usually refers to casual conversation, socializing, food, and fun. The question, "Where do you fellowship?" means "Where do you attend church?" "Stay after for fellowship" usually means "Wait for refreshments." Real fellowship is so much more than just showing up at services. It is experiencing life together. It includes unselfish loving, honest sharing, practical serving, sacrificial giving, sympathetic comforting, and all the other "one another" commands found in the New Testament. When it comes to fellowship, size matters: Smaller is better. You can worship with a crowd, but you can't fellowship with one. Once a group becomes larger than about ten people, someone stops participating-usually the quietest person-and a few people will dominate the group. Jesus ministered in the context of a small group of disciples. He could have chosen more, but he knew twelve is about the maximum size you can have in a small group if everyone is to participate. The Body of Christ, like your own body, is really a collection of many small cells. The life of the Body of Christ, like your body, is contained in the cells. For this reason, every Christian needs to be involved in a small group within their church, whether it is a home fellowship group, a Sunday school class, or a Bible study. This is where real community takes place, not in the big gatherings. If you think of your church as a ship, the small groups are the lifeboats attached to it. God has made an incredible promise about small groups of believers: "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.' Unfortunately, even being in a small group does not guarantee you will experience real community. Many Sunday school classes and small groups are stuck in superficiality and have no clue as to what it's like to experience genuine fellowship. What is the difference between real and fake fellowship? In real fellowship people experience authenticity. Authentic fellowship is not superficial, surface-level chit-chat. It is genuine, heart-to-heart, sometimes gut-level, sharing. It happens when people get honest about who they are and what is happening in their lives. They share their hurts, reveal their feelings, confess their failures, disclose their doubts, admit their fears, acknowledge their weaknesses, and ask for help and prayer. Authenticity is the exact opposite of what you find in some churches. Instead of an atmosphere of honesty and humility, there is pretending, role-playing, politicking, and superficial politeness but shallow conversation. People wear masks, keep their guard up, and act as if everything is rosy in their lives. These attitudes are the death of real fellowship. It is only as we become open about our lives that we experience real fellowship. The Bible says, "If we live in the light, as God is in the light, we can share fellowship with each other.... If we say we have no sin, we are fooling ourselves." The world thinks intimacy occurs in the dark, but God says it happens in the light. Darkness is used to hide our hurts, faults, fears, failures, and flaws. But in the light, we bring them all out into the open and admit who we really are. Of course, being authentic requires both courage and humility. It means facing our fear of exposure, rejection, and being hurt again. Why would anyone take such a risk? Because it is the only way to grow spiritually and be emotionally healthy. The Bible says, "Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed." We only grow by taking risks, and the most difficult risk of all is to be honest with ourselves and with others. In real fellowship people experience mutuality. Mutuality is the art of giving and receiving. It's depending on each other. The Bible says, "The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part." Mutuality is the heart of fellowship: building reciprocal relationships, sharing responsibilities, and helping each other. Paul said, "I want us to help each other with the faith we have. Your faith will help me, and my faith will help you." All of us are more consistent in our faith when others walk with us and encourage us. The Bible commands mutual accountability, mutual encouragement, mutual serving, and mutual honoring. Over fifty times in the New Testament we are commanded to do different tasks to "one another" and "each other." The Bible says, "Make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. " You are not responsible for everyone in the Body of Christ, but you are responsible to them. God expects you to do whatever you can to help them. In real fellowship people experience sympathy. Sympathy is not giving advice or offering quick, cosmetic help; sympathy is entering in and sharing the pain of others. Sympathy says, "I understand what you're going through, and what you feel is neither strange nor crazy." Today some call this "empathy," but the biblical word is "sympathy." The Bible says, "As holy people . . be sympathetic, kind, humble, gentle, and patient." Sympathy meets two fundamental human needs: the need to be understood and the need to have your feelings validated. Every time you understand and affirm someone's feelings, you build fellowship. The problem is that we are often in so much of a hurry to fix things that we don't have time to sympathize with people. Or we're preoccupied with our own hurts. Self-pity dries up sympathy for others. There are different levels of fellowship, and each is appropriate at different times. The simplest levels of fellowship are the fellowship of sharing and the fellowship of studying God's Word together. A deeper level is the fellowship of serving, as when we minister together on mission trips or mercy projects. The deepest, most intense level is the fellowship of suffering, where we enter into each other's pain and grief and carry each other's burdens. The Christians who understand this level best are those around the world who are being persecuted, despised, and often martyred for their faith. The Bible commands: "Share each other's troubles and problems, and in this way obey the law of Christ." It is in the times of deep crisis, grief, and doubt that we need each other most. When circumstances crush us to the point that our faith falters, that's when we need believing friends the most. We need a small group of friends to have faith in God for us and to pull us through. In a small group, the Body of Christ is real and tangible even when God seems distant. This is what Job desperately needed during his suffering. He cried out, "A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends, even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty." In real fellowship people experience mercy. Fellowship is a place of grace, where mistakes aren't rubbed in but rubbed out. Fellowship happens when mercy wins over justice. We all need mercy, because we all stumble and fall and require help getting back on track. We need to offer mercy to each other and be willing to receive it from each other. God says, "When people sin, you should forgive and comfort them, so they won't give up in despair.” You can't have fellowship without forgiveness. God warns, "Never hold grudges," because bitterness and resentment always destroy fellowship. Because we're imperfect, sinful people, we inevitably hurt each other when we're together for a long enough time. Sometimes we hurt each other intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, but either way, it takes massive amounts of mercy and grace to create and maintain fellowship. The Bible says, "You must make allowance for each other's faults and forgive the person who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.” God's mercy to us is the motivation for showing mercy to others. Remember, you will never be asked to forgive someone else more than God has already forgiven you. Whenever you are hurt by someone, you have a choice to make: Will I use my energy and emotions for retaliation or for resolution? You can't do both. Many people are reluctant to show mercy because they don't understand the difference between trust and forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go of the past. Trust has to do with future behavior. Forgiveness must be immediate, whether or not a person asks for it. Trust must be rebuilt over time. Trust requires a track record. If someone hurts you repeatedly, you are commanded by God to forgive them instantly, but you are not expected to trust them immediately, and you are not expected to continue allowing them to hurt you. They must prove they have changed over time. The best place to restore trust is within the supportive context of a small group that offers both encouragement and accountability. There are many other benefits you will experience in being a part of a small group committed to real fellowship. It is an essential part of your Christian life that you cannot overlook. For over 2,000 years Christians have regularly gathered in small groups for fellowship. If you've never been a part of a group or class like this, you really don't know what you're missing. In the next chapter we will look at what it takes to create this kind of community with other believers, but I hope this chapter has made you hungry to experience the authenticity, mutuality, sympathy, and mercy of real fellowship. You were created for community. DAY EIGHTEEN THINKING ABOUT MY PURPOSE Point to Ponder: I need others in my life. Verse to Remember: "Share each other's troubles and problems, and in this way obey the law of Christ." Galatians 6:2 (NLT) Question to Consider: What one step can I take today to connect with another believer at a more genuine, heart-to-heart level?