The Secret of Growth Through Fellowship

In the early 60s, Brother Andrew, a man from Holland, smuggled a load of Bibles in his VW across the Romanian border and past communist guards. He checked into a hotel and began praying that God would lead him to the right Christian groups—the ones who could best use his copies of the Scriptures.

That weekend Andrew walked up to the hotel clerk and asked where he might find a church.

The clerk looked at him a little strangely and answered, “We don’t have many of those you know. Besides you couldn’t understand the language.”

“Didn’t you know?” Andrew replied, “Christians speak a kind of universal language.”

“Oh, what’s that?”

“It’s called Agape.”

The clerk had never heard of it, but Andrew assured him, “It’s the most beautiful language in the world.”

Andrew was able to locate several church groups in the area and managed to arrange a meeting with the president and secretary of a certain denomination. Unfortunately, although both Andrew and these men knew several European languages, they found they had none in common. So there they sat staring at each other across the room. Andrew had travelled hundreds of dangerous miles with his precious cargo, but there seemed no way of telling whether these men were genuine Christian brothers or government informants.

Finally he spotted a Romanian Bible on a desk in the office. Andrew reached into his pocket and pulled out a Dutch Bible. He turned to 1 Corinthians 16:20 and held the Bible out, pointing to the name of the book, which they could recognize. Instantly their faces lit up. They quickly found the same chapter and verse in their Romanian Bibles and read:

“All the brothers here send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.”1 Corinthians 16:20 (Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptural texts in these guides are from the New International Version of the Bible [NIV].)

The men beamed back at Andrew. Then one of them looked through his Bible and found Proverbs 25:25. Andrew found the verse and read: “Like cold water to a weary soul is good news from a distant land.”

These men spent half an hour conversing and sharing—just through the words of Scripture. They were so happy in this fellowship that crossed all cultural boundaries that they laughed until tears came to their eyes.

Andrew knew he had found his brothers. When he showed them his load of Bibles, the Romanians were overwhelmed and embraced him again and again.

That evening at the hotel, the clerk approached Andrew and remarked, “Say, I looked up ‘agape’ in the dictionary. There’s no language by that name. That’s just a Greek word for love.”

Andrew replied, “That’s it. I was speaking in it all afternoon.”

Have you discovered that beautiful language? In this guide you’ll learn about how God can bring all of us into His great circle of love.

The Church Created for Fellowship

Jesus established the church in order to meet the basic human requirement of nurture and support. We all have needs. And that’s what the church is all about. It’s not a place where we come to show off our uprightness like some fancy new hat. It’s a place where we come to help each other. The apostolic church became a fellowship of believers committed to each other. The minutes of the early church read:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and TO THE FELLOWSHIP, to the breaking of bread and to prayer....And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Acts 2:42, 47.

Scripture reveals a dynamic early church which called men and women into a joyful fellowship that extended all the way up to the Almighty:

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have FELLOWSHIP WITH US. And OUR FELLOWSHIP IS WITH THE FATHER AND WITH HIS SON, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our JOY COMPLETE.
—1 John 1:3, 4.

A community of hearts, bonded through contact with Jesus and with one another, experience “joy” to the fullest! They’re all speaking the same language, the language of love.

Christians become part of an extended family. They become brothers and sisters in Christ since all have a kindred spirit and a kindred nature. The broader the unity of belief, the stronger the ties among Christians. A Seventh-day Adventist youth serving his country as a soldier discovered the value of such ties. He said, “Wherever I went in a foreign country I had friends, even though I really knew no one. I would look up those at our mission stations and I found that our shared beliefs and hopes tied our hearts together. It wasn’t a casual thing; we trusted each other and found a real warmth of fellowship. I was treated like a member of the family in homes where we could speak only a few words to each other.”

The members of the churches established by Jesus’ apostles were bound together by their similar beliefs, their love of God, and their desire to serve Him and share His grace to the world. This close bond of fellowship was one of the reasons this powerless and persecuted minority turned the world upside down.

The Church Christ Established

Does Christ have a church, or is the whole idea of a religious organization just a human invention? Jesus answers:

“On this ROCK I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.”
—Matthew 16:18, margin.

Jesus is the anchoring Rock, the Cornerstone, of His church. What group formed a part of the foundation?

“Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”
—Ephesians 2:20.

What did the Lord accomplish when the gospel was preached?

“And the Lord added to the CHURCH daily such as should be saved.”
—Acts 2:47, KJV.

When Jesus established the church, He promised that “the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18), and the Christian church still endures. It has had extremely powerful enemies—from Roman emperors to communist dictators—but the blood of martyrs has only caused it to grow stronger. When one Christian was burned at the stake, or tossed to the lions, several others sprang up to take his or her place. The church has often been driven into hiding, but it emerges from the deserts and caves somehow stronger than ever. Skeptics have done their best to reason the Christian Church away and have often predicted it would disappear with other “superstitions.” But Christian truth competes more eloquently than ever in a scientific, secular age.

One of the church’s greatest challenges came soon after its acceptance as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The church grew prosperous—and eventually was corrupted. It seemed spiritually dead in the Dark Ages. But the Lord always preserved a core of courageous and faithful believers who, in the most bleak and difficult times, shined bright as stars on a moonless night. The word church literally means “the called-out ones.” God creates His special people from those He has summoned out of the world.

Paul compares Christ’s relationship to His church to a husband’s tender, protective relationship to His wife:

“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.”
—Ephesians 5:23.

The church is a family with each member establishing relationships to the other members of the family and contributing to their well-being.

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with GOD’S PEOPLE and MEMBERS OF GOD’S HOUSEHOLD.”
—Ephesians 2:19.

Paul also represents the church as a living body, with Christ Himself as its head.

“And he [Christ] is the head of the body, the church.”
—Colossians 1:18.

How do we become a member of Christ’s body, the church?

“For we were all BAPTIZED by one Spirit INTO ONE BODY.”
—1 Corinthians 12:13.

When we are baptized, we testify to our faith in Jesus and become members of the “body,” the church.

The book of Revelation pictures churches as golden lampstands (Revelation 1:20). What is Jesus’ relationship to these lampstands?

“I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone ‘like a son of man.’”
—Revelation 1:12, 13.

John saw the risen Christ walking among His churches, showing His care over them and His presence with them through the years. Christ has never forsaken His people, and He never will.

A Church With a Purpose

A recent Gallup Poll revealed that although 94 per cent of Americans say that religious experience is important to them, only 25 per cent attend church regularly. A lot of people today have bought into the idea that religion is a strictly private matter, nobody else’s business. They excuse their lack of involvement by pointing to hypocrites in the church. But the fact is, Christ brought the church into existence to fulfill our inherent needs. Private commitments tend to wither away when the going gets tough. We need the support of others to keep our faith alive and productive. Individuals need the church because fellowship helps us grow. The church also plays three other important roles:

1. The church guards the truth.

“The church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
—1 Timothy 3:15.

The church upholds and defends God’s truth before the world. It’s easy for individuals, following their own varied points of view, to go off on all kinds of doctrinal detours. It’s simply not realistic to believe that truth is whatever you find in your heart. Truth is what God says is true. And we need the collective wisdom of other believers to help us focus on the essential truths of Scripture.

2. The church is an example of what God’s grace can do for sinners.

“But YOU ARE A CHOSEN PEOPLE, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, THAT YOU MAY DECLARE THE PRAISES OF HIM who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
—1 Peter 2:9.

The changes that Christ makes in the lives of believers give praise to the God who calls us “into his wonderful light.” The church is built on Jesus, the epitome of “the mystery of godliness” (1 Timothy 3:16). Its strength rests on Christ’s presence in the heart of the Christian.

3. God’s people are His witnesses to a needy world.

Just before He returned to heaven, Jesus promised His disciples:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
—Acts 1:8.

It is a great privilege for the church to take the message of God’s tremendous love worldwide. We have a great responsibility as Christians to represent God to the people in our lives.

Organized for Strength

The church that Christ established had a definite organization. One could be included in, or excluded from its membership (Matthew 18:15-18). God’s church appointed leaders and had a world headquarters as well as local meeting places (Acts 8:14; 14:23; 15:2; 1 Timothy 3:1-10). When they were baptized, believers joined a definite, organized group. (Acts 2:41 and 47).

The church exists for mutual encouragement.

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but LET US ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER — and all the more as you see the Day [of Christ’s coming] approaching.”—Hebrews 10:24, 25.

This, in a nutshell, is what a healthy church group does. Its members build each other up in the faith, they encourage one another.

God organized His church to strengthen God’s people—and also to serve the world. The plain fact is, we can do far more together than we can as isolated individuals. Take just one example: the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We carry on an extensive medical work around the world—from inner-city health vans to clinics in remote islands of the South Pacific. Our educational institutions have brought tens of thousands of youth to a knowledge of a better life in Christ—from Loma Linda University, pioneering in heart transplants, to tiny mission schools scattered through the African interior. We carry on famine and disaster relief. Local churches in the U.S. and Canada help clothe and feed the poor and homeless at over 2000 Community Service Centers. And even more important, groups of Seventh-day Adventist believers are sharing the message of salvation through a soon-coming Saviour in more than 200 countries.

Could private religion have accomplished all this? Of course not. Only an organized group of dedicated Christians could have this worldwide impact.

Christ and the apostles emphasized the need for individual believers to work together.

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable . . . its parts should have equal concern for each other . . . . Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
1 Corinthians 12:21-27.

All parts of the body are not exactly alike, yet every segment is important and all must work together in harmony. An eye separated from the body can’t see. A hand cut off has no value. Whether we are an eye, a hand, or even only a finger, we can’t be truly effective for Christ totally on our own. Belonging to a church, being united to the other members of the body, strengthens us as Christians.

The Joy of Worship

Deep in our hearts lies a longing to worship God. But that need can wither away unless given expression. So we are urged to give voice to our deepest admiration:

“Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.”
—Psalm 29:2.

“My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.”
—Psalm 84:2.

How did the psalmist feel when he thought about going to the place of worship?

“I REJOICED with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD’”
—Psalm 122:1.

What part does music have in public worship?

“Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.”
—Psalm 100:2.

“Praise God in his sanctuary; . . . praise him with the strings and flute, . . . praise him with resounding of cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.”
—Psalm 150:1, 4-6.

The Bible tells us that offerings are an appropriate part of divine worship.

“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts. Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.”
—Psalm 96:8-9.

Prayer is also a vital aspect of public worship.

“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.”
—Psalm 95:6.

Bible study and preaching are central to New Testament worship. Beginning with Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, found in Acts 2, the book of Acts reveals the fundamental role the Word of God played in the services and faith sharing activities of the early church. From the time of the Protestant reformers to our day, every great religious revival has been based on biblical preaching. Why?

“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
—Hebrews 4:12.

What’s Right With the Church?

Some object that the church is full of imperfect people. That certainly is true. What Henry Ward Beecher said is also true: “The church is not a gallery for the exhibition of eminent Christians, but a school for the education of imperfect ones.”

Since none of us is perfect, the church will never be perfect either. In one of His parables Jesus reminded us that weeds grow among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). Someone has suggested that the church should be called the Society of the Forgiven and the Forgiving.

When we read the New Testament letters of Paul, we discover that the apostolic church had critical problems. And the church today often has serious defects. At some time or another most of us have gone to church expecting to be fed with the Word of God, but have come away hungry. We’ve known ministers who didn’t take their responsibilities to their congregation seriously enough, and church members who didn’t live what they preached. Some churches have grown unfriendly, and as one person said, “so cold, you could skate down the center aisle.”

Sometimes it’s very hard to look past these failures and see Christ’s original intent for His church. Sometimes it’s easy to walk away from the problems. But please remember that no faulty congregation can ever destroy or disturb the Great Cornerstone of the church—Jesus Christ Himself. So, in the long run, our only hope of receiving nurture in imperfect churches is to keep our primary gaze on the Saviour who ministers to us.

The church will never cease to be a place of worship where sinners meet God. Jacob said of the place where he found God:

“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it. . . . How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”—Genesis 28:16, 17.

Christ is both the foundation and head of the church, and its Saviour and Lord. Despite its faults, the church belongs to Him. Those who come inside and focus on Christ will see His glory and the power of salvation. They will have the joy of the Lord and the joy of shared fellowship with believers.

“CHRIST LOVED THE CHURCH AND GAVE HIMSELF UP FOR HER to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”
—Ephesians 5:25-27.

The church is so important to Jesus that He “gave himself up for her” when He died for each of us individually and for the church collectively. So church membership should be important to you. What about your relationship to the church? Are you a member of Christ’s body?

Finding a Church

How many true religions and beliefs does Jesus have in the world?

"There is only one body and one Spirit ... there is only one Lord, ONE FAITH, one baptism." --Ephesians 4: 4, 5

Since Christ has "one faith" in this world, how can we find out which religion or belief is true? Jesus gives us the secret:

"If someone decides to do God's will, they will find out if my teaching comes from God or if I speak for myself." --John 7:17 (See also John 8:31, 32).

When we commit ourselves to doing God's will, He will help us to see if the teaching comes from God or is it just human tradition. The key element in deciding which church to attend is to examine your respect for and submission to the Word of God.

A genuine fellowship is built on the truths of Scripture, and not just around a charismatic leader or large institution.

Continue to make Bible discoveries in these lessons, walk in the light as it is revealed to you by the Bible, and God will clearly show you what His will is for your life. A growing Christian is a person who opens his heart and mind to accept the truth as God reveals it in His Word.