In Acts 2:42-47 we are given a glimpse into the life of the first century church, and this section begins with the simple phrase “they devoted themselves to.” In the following verses we discover that they possessed devotion to God’s Word, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer, as well as an emphasis on giving, involvement, worship, and evangelism. And as the church’s story unfolds throughout the book of Acts it becomes apparent that their measurement of growth was not based on numbers but on one’s level of devotion to God. So, in this series of articles, we are exploring what the first century church devoted itself to so we can determine whether or not we are devoting ourselves to the same things. According to Acts 2:42, the first century church not only devoted itself to God’s word (i.e. Apostles’ teaching) but it also devoted itself to fellowship.
What do you think about when you hear the term “fellowship”? Maybe you are like me and the first thing to come to your mind is church ice cream socials, potlucks, and holiday parties. Maybe you automatically think of those social gatherings that we do outside of the regularly scheduled worship services and Bible classes. But is fellowship just a social event or is it something more than that?
The Greek word translated fellowship refers to an “association, community, communion, [or] joint participation.” It conveys the idea of intimacy and unity. As a result, fellowship is presented in Scripture as a partnership between multiple parties, such as in the case of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem “extending the right hand of fellowship” to the Gentile converts via Paul and Barnabas in Galatians 2:9, and symbolically referred to as a yoke, such as in the case of 2 Corinthians 6:14 where Paul instructs us to “not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” So, the Bible does not talk about fellowship the way we talk about fellowship. We talk about it as an activity, like a meal at the church building or a gathering in somebody’s house, but the Bible talks about fellowship as a relationship.
And research shows that building relationships (i.e. fellowship) is essential to spiritual maturation and congregational growth. Dr. Flavil Yeakley, church growth statistician and former Director of the Center for Church Growth at Harding University, concluded in one of his research assignments that “converts who remained active in a church longer than six months developed an average of seven friends in their church, but converts who dropped out before six months only developed two friends.” In other words, he showed that whether or not a new convert will remain faithful is largely influenced by whether or not he/she develops intimate relationships with other members of the body. So, Dr. Yeakley concluded that “a church that focuses on helping new converts make friends within the church will be more likely to grow.”
The problem today is that all too often we do not recognize fellowship as an essential part of our assemblies. When we talk about the essential aspects of the assembly we tend to focus on when we assemble (i.e. on the first day of the week) or the activities in which we engage when we assemble (e.g. worshipping God, biblical study, prayer, Lord’s Supper). So, sometimes we treat fellowship as though it’s important but not essential. Worshipping God, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, praying, and studying His Word—we recognize these aspects of the Christian assembly as essential, not debatable nor optional. And fellowship is relegated to a different category. It’s purely secondary. It’s purely optional. It’s something we do if we have extra time.
But Scripture places a higher priority on fellowship, and I think it is because fellowship is the only aspect of our assembling together that necessitates our involvement with other people. Think about it: can you praise God in song alone? Yes. Can you communicate to God in prayer alone? Yes. Can you listen to a lesson from God’s word or study His word alone? Yes. Can you remember Christ’s death through partaking of the Lord’s Supper alone? Yes, as long as you have access to unleavened bread and fruit of the vine. Can you make a financial contribution to the kingdom alone? Yes. But can you fellowship alone? No. There is no possible way to fellowship alone. Fellowship is the one aspect of the assembly that you absolutely cannot do in isolation.
That is why Scripture presents fellowship as an essential aspect of our worship assembly. The author of Hebrews wrote, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). In this passage, the inspired author of Hebrews instructed his readers not to neglect assembling with the body of believers. Did you notice why he gave this instruction? It was not specifically because his readers would miss out on worshipping God or because they would miss out on important biblical teaching or because they would miss an opportunity to commemorate the Lord’s death. The author of Hebrews instructed them not to neglect assembling with the saints specifically because they would miss out on encouraging each other through fellowship! To the author of Hebrews fellowship is essential because it is the avenue through which encouragement occurs and, as he mentioned in Hebrews 3:13, without consistent encouragement we can easily become calloused toward sin.
So, God’s will is for us to fellowship with the believers, not just to be present with the believers. Some will leave the assemblies of the church thinking they have fulfilled all that God expects of them simply because they sang, they prayed, they listened to biblical teaching, they partook of the Lord’s Supper, and they made a financial contribution. But they did not contribute to, enjoy, or reap the benefits of fellowship. The truth is that you can be in the presence of a congregation and still worship alone because you refused to fellowship. There is an essential part of our assembly that is just as important as the preaching, singing, praying, giving, and Lord’s Supper, and it’s called fellowship.