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You may hear someone say that people in their church do not want to go deep. These folks are wary of the “same old, same old” social conversations. They want to have more in-depth relationships. While I don’t want to throw shade on their complaint, I need to say that what they desire is challenging to realize.
It is so rare that whenever we have looked for a church, we never made a church that does not have “fellowship” a deal-breaker. Without being cynical about it, we don’t expect it. Instead, we take another approach: we ask the Lord to bring folks into our lives who want to have these types of relationships.
More importantly, we must lead by example. Whatever it is that you want, you must be a credible and genuine example of it. It’s wrongheaded to complain about anything and not do all you can to be part of the solution. As we are asking the Lord to bring those relationships to us, we want to explore how to build in-depth with a few of them.
If you back up one step, you will realize that the church is the sum of its parts. Any local church can only be what the individuals and family units are. If the church does not have a vision and practice of biblical fellowship, it doesn’t make sense to expect it in the families. There are always a few who have these types of relationships. But for the most part, if it’s not happening in the homes, it won’t be happening in the church.
After a couple marries each other, it’s usual for them to start talking less, not more. In the beginning, the lovers may have been talking heads who could not get enough of each other. Marriage is the context where you can quickly get enough of each other, and the drift from each other begins.
Though the busyness and pace of life have something to do with this “talking less” problem, it’s more about learning about each other in ways that dating did not reveal. If you put “two sinners in a box” in a 24/7 way for weeks and weeks, the irritations will escalate, and a desire to take a break from each other will increase.
Perhaps it would be useful to define the word fellowship. When most folks hear it, they think of gathering in a room in the church building to eat food. That descriptor is not what I mean at all. Fellowship is not about food but about genuine friendship. It’s how you build in-depth relationships. Let me give you my definition.
Fellowship is two people who are willing to reveal their entire relationship with God with each other. You have a two-sided relationship with God: good and not so great. Meaning, there are areas where you’re “nailing it” with the Lord, and there are other areas where you’re not all you should be. God knows this, and you know it, too. But other people do not.
Biblical fellowship is when you begin to explore with another human being the possibilities of sharing your full experience with God with them. For the record, it’s exceptional to have more than a handful of these friends. Ideally, you want one person like this in your life, and preferably that person is your spouse if you’re married.
After Lucia and I tied the knot, we assumed that we would continue on this journey that would take us into the depths of more revelation and enjoyment of each other. We only got to the “revelation part.” The more we learned about each other the more irritated we became with each other.
Rather than learning and loving each other, we started drifting apart. We became the “two sinners in the box,” and we did not like what we saw in each other. To make matters worse, we did not respond well to what we were observing and experiencing. Without a sin plan, which is a way to respond biblically (redemptively) to each other, we reacted in ways that complicated matters.
Long story short, we repented. The way it happened was us “sovereignly stumbling” on this idea of fellowship. As we began to think about what was wrong with us, we saw a missing link. It’s not that we didn’t talk to each other, but a significant part of our lives had a bolted door. Behind that door was our “full relationship with the Lord.”
I had a relationship with the Lord, and so did Lucia. Both “parts” of our unique experience with God were positive and negative. Some things were going well, and a few things were not so hot. The problem was that we were willing to talk about those things that were going well but tentative about being vulnerable with each other.
As you might imagine, it takes a lot of faith, work, trial, and error to recover such a marriage. Who wants to open up first? Who wants to take the risk? What if it goes poorly, which it almost always will? How do we persevere? So many questions and uncertainty. Lots of disappointment in the process.
The end of the story is that we did persevere. We reconciled imperfectly, but we’re determined to do this. We were not going to reclaim what we had initially, but we were going to explore the fullest depths of each other’s lives. We “repented enough” to where we planned to experience the best possible one-flesh union.
You become one-flesh the day you marry, but the fullest practical experience of it takes all your lives. A husband and wife began as a dating couple, not knowing anything about each other. Then they start talking, learning, and growing together. That is the process; it’s a relational adventure.
After marriage, you discover more. Rather than resisting the more difficult and annoying things you are learning about each other, you keep pressing into each other. Part of why you want to know more about your spouse is to cooperate with the Lord in discipling them. You’re now on the “Lord’s Restoration Team,” which is a spouse’s call to help their mate to realize their fullest potential in Christ.
They can’t do that without your help, which is why fellowship is so vital in the marriage. Of course, if you don’t know how to repent biblically, you will not enjoy biblical fellowship. What you’re going to learn about any person after you spend time with them, no matter who it is, are unsanctified things.
The ideal is for you to find a friend who is willing to “go there” with you. You hope to reveal your animating center to them, which is your fullest relationship with the Lord. You start by appropriately modeling it in your life. This kind of fellowship is not for the timid. I realize that many Christians are cynical about these things because of the things that have happened to them. I understand: shaping influences can have too much control over the mind of the hurting.
The first thing you must do is acknowledge the need for human companionship. It’s not good to be alone because part of what it means to be an image-bearer is to live in a community. The Trinity is a community, and the Lord made you to long for companionship. I’m not speaking of marriage exclusively but about at least one genuine friendship.
After you acknowledge your need, your second step is honesty about how uncomfortable it will be. Opening up (appropriately) to others is harder for some than others. Sadly for a few people, they come from backgrounds where this kind of vulnerability has not gone well. They don’t know what it’s like to live in grace-motivated, grace-filled relationships that aren’t punitive.
Their shaping influences tempt their “spidey senses” to resist fundamentally flawed people. They are more about self-protection than self-disclosure. It can take years to become comfortable enough to let anyone into the real world of their thought lives. Unfortunately, some of them never get to that place but rather hopelessly choose to live in that self-torturing, dualistic world where there is a discordance between who they know themselves to be internally and the person they project themselves to be to others.
Perhaps you will try to be friends with this kind of person. If so, guard your heart. What you don’t want to do is judge them harshly. Assess them for who they are, but rather than being unkind or impatient, perhaps the Lord will use you as their gentle restorer (Galatians 6:1-2). Horrific shaping influences are dastardly things.
If you choose to pursue “fellowship relationships,” you will collect more “counselee types” than reciprocal relationships. The more you pursue others, the more you will find yourself doing restorative soul care because there are more hurting believers than those who want fellowship as I have defined it.
After you determine that this is something you want to do, you want to develop a plan. Part of making a plan with a fellowship-focus is asking each other the right questions. There are not your “standard social questions,” which are the ones that get you started. You want to ask “soul questions.”
As you think about your soul questions, here are some excellent ones that you can ask. Of course, you want to begin by asking them of yourself. Be aggressive, honest, and specific. Challenge your soul; nobody will know but you and the Lord. Perhaps it would serve you, as you “sit before the Lord,” to do so with a notepad.
Talk to God. Write out your responses. Dig deep and be broad. Don’t stop—make these kinds of insightful queries your regular practice. As you are doing this, ask the Lord to give you a friend with whom you can (tentatively) practice sharing with them. Preferably, your friend is your spouse if you are married. If it can’t be your spouse, ask for a same-gender friend with whom you can have fellowship. Lead them. Serve them. Help them. May both of you experience the joys of biblical fellowship.
This list of questions is not exhaustive. They will help you now while giving you a sense of the things you want to ask yourself and others. It would be great if you added to this list. Also, if you want to know more about how we “sovereignly stumbled” into this kind of relationship, please read The Reason We Blew Up Our Marriage.