The answer to what is a “fellowship of the Spirit” was easy in Paul’s times. Believers met together weekly in house churches, which could accommodate perhaps about thirty or forty people. The number was small enough that everyone could know each other, their background stories, their struggles and their hopes.
Fellowship, or koinonia in the original, means literally to share something with someone. Today we have gotten used to mostly symbolic fellowship. We share a building, an assembly at a worship service. Our offerings support a shared pastor and paid staff. But most participants typically don’t know the background story and struggles of more than a dozen or so fellow members.
The ideal setting for the Spirit to work in the lives of Christ-followers is that of believers gathered around God’s Word and sharing its application in their lives. This can happen through preaching in a worship service, but the applications typically don’t get personal. To provide more fellowship was the promise of the small group movement that gained prominence in recent decades. Typical first efforts divided the congregation by geographic area and encouraged neighbors to gather at someone’s home. But such groupings did not last long. There needs to be some other common interest to provide the glue that holds a small group together over time.
I have been leading and promoting small group ministries for more than thirty years. It has been an uphill struggle all the way. The best we’ve done is get penetration of only about five percent of the congregation’s total adult membership. We do hear stories of some congregations that have flourishing small group programs. Typically, they are in new suburbs with new residents looking for social relationships.
Following Covid, some small groups have found value in continuing to meet virtually over Zoom. This can be especially valuable for those who have children at home and can schedule an hour without blocking out the whole evening. Evolving technology opens up new possibilities for those who have the leadership skills to shape new program formats.
Finding Others with Similar Spiritual Temperaments
Congregations can help members find others they can more readily bond with. One approach is to identify those who share a spiritual temperament. Such a temperament is the way each of us personally relates to God best and most naturally. Spiritual temperaments influence where and how we most often sense God speaking to us, refreshing us, and stirring our passion for Him.
At church, we have some members who seek out those needing special care, especially when in wheelchairs. Praise God for those who share the temperament of caregivers. This is a form of pastoral care, considered basic to professional ministry. I have had training and know what to do. But I don’t jump at opportunities. My spiritual temperament is different.
Gary Thomas in Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Pathway to God has done the most helpful work on identifying differing spiritual temperaments. There is no right or wrong temperament. These are givens in your personality. He offers an inventory of questions helpful to identify your own main pathways.
Seven such temperaments are:
- The Naturalist: Loving God Out-of-Doors. Finds a walk through the woods to be very conducive to prayer.
- The Sensate: Loving God with the Senses. Wants to be lost in awe, beauty, and splendor of God.
- The Traditionalist: Loving God through Ritual and Symbol. Likes structured worship with symbols and sacraments.
- The Activist: Loving God through Confrontation. Serves a God of justice, and church life recharges batteries.
- The Caregiver: Loving God by Loving Others. Serves God by serving others.
- The Enthusiast: Loving God with Mystery and Celebration. Wants to be inspired by joyful celebration.
- The Intellectual: Loving God with the Mind. Drawn to explore basic issues in theology and church life.
How Differing Temperaments Express Themselves
Over the centuries, believers have found ways to be with others of kindred spirit. Naturalists have been drawn to the thirteenth-century Francis of Assisi, and this monastic order is still the most popular. Sensates gravitate toward others who feel a special connection with God through the arts and music.
When describing Activists, Gary Thomas had in mind social activists who feel a calling to pursue peace and justice in society, which is a form of piety in many mainline church bodies. That temperament can also include leaders, like me, who are inclined to test out where the Spirit is leading by putting ideas into action and watching for results.
Traditionalists like the assurance that they are approaching God through symbols and formats that have been used for generations. Assurance of continuity with the saints can be very helpful–until it turns into traditionalism that blocks new movements of the Spirit.
Traditional churches have a heritage of leadership by Intellectuals, who like to explore in-depth various shades of differences in understanding the Bible and teachings derived from it. Intellectuals typically have a low tolerance for Enthusiasts. One reading of American church history is that those with an Enthusiast temperament broke free from Intellectually dominated mainline churches to form their own church bodies with their own church culture and resources, like Pentecostals today. Can old-line denominations become more welcoming to Enthusiasts?
Accommodating Differing Spiritual Temperaments
Over time believers will sort themselves out to be with others who share their spiritual temperament. That’s what’s happening, I believe, with the non-denominational community church movement gaining momentum in the suburbs. Young families like to be with others who share the same middle-class hopes and stresses and who like easily accessible insights from an authoritative source, the Bible, on how to raise their families and find fulfillment in their lives.
Large congregations have the option to increase their attractiveness by offering a variety of ministries that appeal to different spiritual temperaments. That’s what is happening with churches that develop a contemporary worship alternative to the formal liturgy that is so appealing to Traditionalists.
Small congregations typically become niche churches appealing to a small segment of the population. Try to avoid becoming trapped into appealing to only one temperament. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit is the one doing the calling into a specific fellowship of believers. Follow his lead with the specific people he sends. Strive to accommodate at least several spiritual temperaments with creative ministries.
What does fellowship with the Holy Spirit mean to you?