A wise person once defined a cynic as a “wounded idealist.”
I spoke with a friend recently who has stopped going to church. Like most people who drop out, he didn’t leave in protest or ask that his name be removed from membership; he just stopped seeing the point in going. I wanted to encourage him to give it another try, but I often feel like giving up on organized Christianity myself. When I read the Bible and then look at most churches, what I find is very different—so different, in fact, that I wonder whether they’re even the same thing.
I’ve rarely seen anything in church that looks like the kind of “fellowship” (Gk., koinonia) you find in the New Testament. In our popular ecclesiastical vocabulary, fellowship means something like what teenagers mean when they say they’re “hanging out” with their friends: getting together, shooting the breeze. But the biblical meaning of koinonia is closer to “living in community” than “socializing.”
The first occurrence of the word in the New Testament is in Acts 2:42 where the disciples in Jerusalem “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” In addition to sharing corporate worship, they also shared their possessions, practicing a form of voluntary communism: “No one claimed that any of their possessions was his own but, they shared everything they had in common” (Acts 4:32). In this way, the early church was more like a monastery or commune than what we’re used to. Our churches are more akin to social clubs like Kiwanis and Rotary. Not that there’s anything wrong with such voluntary organizations; they’re just not the church.
We see other evidence of what the original meaning of koinonia in the “one another” sayings of the New Testament: love one another, bear with one another, forgive one another, confess your faults one to another. You’re more likely to find that kind of interaction at an AA meeting than in church.
Churches are a lot like families. They’re messy. They cause both joy and pain. Rarely do they measure up to the ideal, and sometimes people have to stay away just to keep from getting hurt.