A Disciplined Spiritual Life Month 3

Fellowship Across Difference

In this series, Ken Chitwood explores classic spiritual disciplines, taking up a new practice each month and sharing his experiences with the Thred community. Read more here.  

“Fellowship,” my atheist friend said, “can be the ickiest word in the Christian vocabulary.”  

For a long time, my friend was actively involved with an evangelical church in the U.S. “We were never invited to just ‘hang out,’” she said, “it was always something about the ‘lady’s fellowship’ or people ‘fellowshipping’ together, like it was a verb or something.”  

The emphasis on fellowship isn’t what drove her from the church, she told me, but it sure didn’t help. In the end, the invitations to fellowship just rang hollow. Beneath the potlucks and small groups and trips to the beach, there were no real friendships or deep connections.  

“It was all façade and no fellowship,” she said.  

I love me some atheists 

I’m a Christian. I make no qualms about that. The people in my life—Muslim and Jewish, Pagan and of no particular faith at all—know that about me. Heck, they know I’m a pastor too. Some of them even read my blogs on spiritual disciplines.  

But even though I’m a believer, I love me some atheists. I value my Muslim mates. I cherish the connections I’ve made with Pagans and people who live vastly different spiritual lives than me.  

These relationships are just so…refreshing.  

Take, for example, my friend above. That conversation around fellowship had me lol’ing (and maybe crying a bit too). It was so honest and raw, real and resonant.  

We Christians probably do say the word “fellowship” too much (we could say “hang out”; it’s not a sin). And sometimes, that fellowship is a thousand miles wide and only millimeters deep. We’ve all sensed that some people in church are prone to hide their true selves in favor of putting on a front.  

But in a world of diversity and difference, fellowship, despite its seeming failings, is still worth it.  

That word, “fellowship”   

In contrast to solitude, which invites us to draw away from others for the sake of our relationships with them, the discipline of fellowship invites us to draw closer. 

Fellowship, as a spiritual concept, is first between believers and God. God draws us to Him and reconciles us to Himself through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The author of 1 John talks of our fellowship with others flowing from our companionship with God and His light.  

Elsewhere in the New Testament, authors encourage followers of Jesus to gather together—in worship, study, prayer, celebration, and service. In large groups or just a few folks. Even one-on-one. Jesus did this kind of thing with His companions and followers, urging them to do the same as they founded communities of their own. 

The underlying message of these encouragements to fellowship is, in the words of spiritual director  Dallas Willard, that Christians “must be in contact if they are to sustain and be sustained by each other.” In other words, you can’t feed your spirit alone.  

The (over)use of the word fellowship in certain circles comes from the power of the Hellenistic Greek word used to speak of these connections: κοινωνία (koinonia), which is to invite people—from different cultural backgrounds, social classes, and faith traditions—to joint participation in daily life. That kind of connection, that kind of partnership, that discovery of being and belonging together, is not fostered through one-off events or soup suppers during a certain season.  

The invitation to live “life on life”—to walk together, to learn from one another, and become partakers in each other’s whole selves, takes time—involves sacrifice. It requires transparency and mutual transformation.  

In brief, it’s not just about Sunday morning coffee hour. Real fellowship is about showing up and sitting beside others in the small moments of life. The muck and the mess. The mediocre and mundane. And sometimes, that ain’t easy.  

Into the auroral hours 

The possibility of fellowship was made even more difficult for me in my month of practicing the discipline. That month, I found myself curiously isolated from my local church. We had just moved to a new apartment in a new town, with no easily accessible church in our tradition and no friends in the neighborhood.  

Our chances for fellowship were few and far between.  

But then, some of our dearest friends came to visit. Our kitchen wasn’t ready. We hadn’t set up the guest room. We still had boxes piled up in the living room, and two of our heaters were broken. But they came anyway, looking to connect before they made their own move a month later.  

The catch, you might say, is that they aren’t Christian. In fact, they’re pretty…anti-Christian. Not in an angry kind of way. They’re spiritual. He goes to synagogue for the High Holidays. She’s really into astrology and tarot. But they don’t vibe with Christianity whatsoever. They’ve seen too many people they love get burned by the church, deeply hurt and marginalized by things Christians said and did. 

But they fellowship-ed with us anyway. There’s value in this type of fellowship too. 

And I’m so thankful for it. Because every time we’re together, I find myself filled, challenged, provoked, and comforted. We’ve gone to jazz clubs and been on bike rides, picnicked at mountain lakes and celebrated each other’s nuptials in big, public parks. Our days together are always, at least, a 12-hour affair, starting with a slow breakfast, which turns into a late lunch, before we spend some time outside and retire to the living room in the evening for a drink and more conversation into the auroral hours. You can’t shut the four of us up.  

Our connection is deep. It’s meaningful.  

So, when they showed up in my month of practicing fellowship, I realized I wasn’t starved of fellowship at all. Across distance and through even the smallest life moments, I had it with them all along.  

We strangers and aliens 

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s important that you, if you’re a Christian, still connect with your local church and find community within it. God didn’t only reconcile us to Himself, He also restores our relationship with one another.   

What I am saying is this: We can, and should, find fellowship beyond church walls too.   

That’s because it’s important to connect across difference. While disagreements and dissimilarities can be found in the church (boy howdy), connecting with someone on a deep level who believes something fundamentally different about the cosmos and the fate of everything that ever existed can be a challenge. Our spiritual postures and practices shape our political outlooks, our social circles, and personal proclivities. In short, if you don’t come from the same religious perspective, you can end up disagreeing about many things.  

But that’s why we need that kind of fellowship.   

Because in this age of ghosting, cancel culture, and going “no contact,” it’s vital that we choose a different, more difficult path. The path of connection. The path of sticking it out and learning to love. The path of fellowship.  

Though loving others across divides is messy and difficult, we need people who are not like us to share life’s joys and sorrows with, celebrate milestones, and be vulnerable around. To find welcome in the presence of someone with whom you know you disagree. When that kind of fellowship is fostered, it is a transcendent thing. It does more than transform relationships, it has the potential to transfigure them, elevating them into holy connections imbued with cosmic relevance.  

That’s because it mirrors, in a wondrous way, the fellowship Jesus first extended to us “strangers and aliens” (Ephesians 2: 12:-13).  

So, may you connect. May you find friends. May you foster fellowship in the rich soil of deep difference. May you live life with the people in your midst—atheists and Pagans, Muslims and Buddhists, and people everywhere in between—not despite being Christian, but because of it. Amen.  

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