The New Testament, written in Greek, contains some words that are difficult to translate and for which there are no exact English equivalents. This language barrier creates challenges for Christians who want to think and live biblically. The Greek word that is commonly translated “fellowship” (koinonia – see Acts 4:32 and 1 John 1:3) is perhaps the best example of this. Koinonia implies far more than socializing at church pot-lucks or chatting on the church’s front lawn after Sunday service. The word means “holding our lives in common,” a meaning that first century Christians demonstrated through spiritual, social, and material generosity toward one another. Fellowship (is) a “common sharing of the grace and of the blessings of God,” a definition that comes close to the biblical idea of koinonia. John Wimber
Our Theme: ON COMMUNITY.
All churches associated with John Wimber and the Vineyard were originally called Vineyard Christian Fellowships. When Sandy and I started our church plant in Iowa City in 1988, and then again in Cedar Rapids in 1998, it was required that new churches take the name “Vineyard Christian Fellowship” to be officially associated with the Vineyard family.
Today, that name has disappeared almost completely from the Vineyard, with most churches (including our own here in Cedar Rapids) changing their names to “Vineyard Church of such-and-such city.”At the time we changed our name, most Vineyard pastors reasoned that the general public just didn’t really know what a “fellowship” was anymore, and with the cultural resistance to any word (i.e., fellow) that might represent any sexual bias, it seemed wise to dump the word “fellowship” and just call ourselves a “church.”
I know that this might sound like some old pastor who pines for the good-old-days, but after reading John’s quote here on koinonia, I’m wondering, if by changing our names away from “fellowship,” we might have also allowed our churches to wander away from the truest definitions of community as described in the New Testament?
As Wimber states here, koinonia means so much more than folks coming through the doors on Sunday morning, sitting in a chair while staring at a stage full of activity, sipping coffee with a handful of people sitting next to you, and making light conversation before grabbing the kids and heading out the door into another week of work, school, and life.
I’ve talked with several other pastors of both larger churches and smaller churches in our area and the results are pretty much the same. They believe life-giving small groups, where people (using Wimber’s definition of koinonia) experience “a common sharing of the grace and of the blessings of God” is a rare thing indeed. This is why, I believe, we’re seeing more and more experimentation with “doing church” across America today. My friend, Bill Faris, has been a Vineyard pastor in southern California for decades. Several years ago, he came to a growing awareness that his traditional Vineyard church was not producing the kind of koinonia Wimber talks about here. Recently, he wrote the following commentary about some of his recent experiences as they’ve been using a different church model on Sunday mornings. Here is what he said:
I often tell people about our House Church when I am out and about. It is not uncommon for people to sound interested in making a visit to see what all this is about. Sometimes I think: “they wouldn’t necessarily be very impressed” by what they saw. Let me explain.
In my more traditional church ministry days it was very much on my mind to seek to impress visitors. In fact it was important to do so because, often, they were either “church shopping” or otherwise in the “we are checking you out” column. Nowadays, it’s more like having someone over to be with my family. Our attitude at House Church is: “you’re welcome here. Come and be a part of our family and make yourself comfortable”.
Imagine, then, if you went to visit someone’s family and they had a greeter at the front door who handed you a piece of paper that had the schedule of what your hangout time with the family consisted of. Then imagine that someone walked you into the living room and told you where you should probably sit. Someone else asked you if you were “new” at the Faris House and if you had any questions, etc. Wouldn’t that feel odd? Trust me, I understand why people make special efforts to do things a certain way at “Big Church”. But this is not the House Church way.
To be sure, we have some structure and there is leadership in action at our meetings. But how “impressive” is it (in that certain sense of the term) that a 10 year old led our worship on the piano as best as she could last Sunday? Believe me: I loved it and it feels so right to have the children of the kingdom minister at their capacity and from their hearts. Phil Strout, our National Director in the Vineyard, is very strong on enrolling the next generations into the life and practice of God’s kingdom. But no “Big Church” would feature 10 year old Stephanie at the keys on a Sunday a.m. I was happy for Stephanie that, after practicing all week and taking it seriously, she knew she would be followed and received by the adults as our worship leader of the week last Sunday. There is something very sweet and very good about this.
Then, I listened as Steve recounted his remarkable adventures in ministry. It was clear that our notion that our people “take us with them” when they minister away from Foothill Ranch is absolutely the case. I love this discovery we’ve made of this concept. It was fantastic to feel the sense of partnership we had in Steve’s trip, especially after just finishing up our Christmas shopping efforts for the Philippines. Then listening to Kristen explain about Stacey and Jessica and the Berkeley Students For Life and knowing that we could participate in “sending” Kristen and Stacey to be with Jessica (one of our “at large” House Church members!) was, again, “impressive” to me. Sharing in Melodie and Kathy’s victories in the workplace and rejoicing in Melodie’s encouraging reports about Nicole — impressive!
And having (the other) Steve there on his own with his son, Jacob — and watching a four year old come in, make himself at home, and watching how Stephanie instantly started reaching out to him and caring for him and knowing that Danielle has already been babysitting him and feeling his comfort with her — all quite impressive. And knowing that Robert was in Japan but not far from our hearts and knowing that Hsiwen could share the big news of his becoming an Uncle again and me sharing about what God is doing in my life with a roomful of people who I now see as essential to his work through me — again, impressive!
Yet, just as Jesus had “no form that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53) and was not “impressive” in carnal ways and yet carried the power, anointing, mission, and presence of God in his person — this is what House Church reminds me. The Incarnation was not razzle dazzle. It was God touching real people in real, simple, and profound ways as he demonstrated his love and executed his plan to save and heal us. Impressive? Yes — but not in worldly ways.
So, with these thoughts I’ll close this meditation for now. So much more could be said. We were so full of things to share about how God was working in our lives last Sunday we could scarcely get the teaching time regarding the Intro to Proverbs (but we did). That may not be “impressive” in a technical and scheduled sense, but I think it really pleases the Lord that we have become so mutually-supportive and integrated into one another’s walks with Christ that we don’t dare meet just to get other stuff done for its own sake. We take time to “be with”. Would all this impress the visitor who thinks (perhaps) House Church is the hip “new thing”? Perhaps not. When it comes down to it, we are not all that “impressive” (on the outside) — and yet, to those who have eyes and ears for the kingdom of God — there is a lot more to us than anyone would have ever guessed. And that is impressive!
Thanks, Bill. As I see it, what you guys and gals are presently experiencing at your Vineyard House Church sure sounds a lot more like what John Wimber defined as biblical koinonia. There are hundreds of stories out there like this. What’s your story? Find someone and share it.
(P.S. since the original writing of this blog, our Vineyard church in Cedar Rapids has now joined Bill Faris and his growing group of Vineyard-At-Home churches. Check us out at our website.)
Father God, I feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit. I’m sad that to become an established church, we’ve lost much of the fellowship that we set out to do in the process. Koinonia, Jesus, is not just an ancient word to be studied, but is a Spirit-empowered activity to be explored. Help me, Father, to find creative new ways to stir true koinonia in our midst. For your name’s sake. Amen!
QUESTIONS FOR YOU TO PONDER
- What ministry decisions have we made in our churches that have actually served to reduce koinonia (fellowship) amongst the people?
- Is it possible to restore biblical “fellowship” in a generation where social media has become our primary tool of communication?
- If so, what specifics might God be asking of me and my church to accomplish this goal?
So, what is God speaking to you today as you ponder the Wisdom of Wimber?
Between Easter 2016 and the end of August, we are sharing with you a blog series we call The Wisdom of Wimber: As I See It. In order to keep all 64 blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our Wisdom of Wimber page for ease of use. Might we also suggest that you order a copy or two of our book by the same title! It’s available in both paperback and e-book formats…and will soon be available in Spanish! Click here for more info. ENJOY!
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