According to the Apostle Paul, a Christian congregation is a fellowship of the Holy Spirit, also called the body of Christ. In his letters to the early churches, he had many words of encouragement for those first believed. Offering his observations was participating in the Spirit’s work of building up relationships in a specific fellowship.
A key question for any Christian congregation today is how well their fellowship of believers offers others encouragement for living out their individual relationship with God in their daily relationships with others. Some churches delegate that job to the pastor. Healthy churches share that function in individual conversations.
“Mutual conversation and encouragement” was a key concept in Martin Luther’s understanding of church life. He even listed it as a fifth means of grace, a very lofty status right up there with Word and sacraments. But you won’t find much of such mutual encouragement in traditional churches. One of my pet peeves about the church life I experienced in a lifetime of Lutheran congregations is that I found little of such “God talk” beyond the formal worship service. Most conversations seemed to be the same “small talk” you could hear in any other social setting.
One of the reasons for an absence of “God talk” is a poor appreciation for how the Holy Spirit goes about calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying believers in church life. He does that through other believers. A better translation of Paul’s emphases will help. The usual word in English is to exhort others. Whatever that means sounds like somebody else’s job. When you go back to Paul’s Greek, the keyword is parakaleo. That root is also the Greek for the name Jesus gave to the Holy Spirit, his Spirit, the parakletos. Comforter is a common translation. In other contexts, Advocate is good. But Encourager also fits well in Paul’s use, along with Empowerer.
How does the Spirit encourage individuals? He does that through other believers like you. For Paul, the purpose of such encouragement was to build up the fellowship, a key concept for church life. “Let us make every effort to do what leads to peace and to building each other up” (Romans 14: 19). Do you have words or stories or reactions that will spiritually encourage others in the fellowship? Then let the Spirit work through you by sharing what you have learned about Spiritual life.
Fellowship sharing has gotten very difficult in fast-moving suburban life. To have face-to-face relationships means getting up from home and coming together at church or at somebody’s home. If I have learned anything over 30 years of pastoring, it is that bringing participants together on a weeknight to learn and to encourage each other is a constant challenge, achieved only with a small percentage of church participants.
Having an internet-based virtual church fellowship would open up new opportunities for sharing fellowship life in a congregation. Just like internet developments of the last twenty years brought major changes by making it possible to buy things from home, perhaps a virtual church fellowship can make a significant positive impact on the fellowship life of a congregation’s participants. You don’t have to get up and “go to church.” You can do your weekday fellowshipping after the kids are in bed or early in the morning.
I am working on the technology for offering virtual church fellowship. Check progress on www.VirtualFellowship.church.
For the importance of fellowship building efforts in a congregation, see my 2000 book, Builder Ministry in the 21st Century.