Fellowship, our greatest witness

It is the welcoming and embracing spirit and action of a local congregation that does as much as anything to win people's hearts to Christ.

James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods Seventh-day Adventist Church in Longwood, Florida.

Twenty-one years ago I was serving as associate pastor of a large suburban congregation when I was invited to join the editorial team at the Adventist Review as an assistant editor. Suddenly a word unfamiliar to our four-year-old son came into frequent use in our home—"editor." The word sounded interesting, but what did it mean? There was nothing in his limited experience to serve as a reference point.

Not long after, our son lined up his toy animals on the couch (his favorite was a little dog named "Doggie"). Addressing them in good preacherly fashion, he solemnly intoned, "Ladies and gentlemen, dogs and editors." To him, it seemed an appropriate use for his new found word.

As Christians, we seek to share with the world "something" we call God. The word sounds interesting. But what does it mean? There's nothing in normal human experience to serve as a reference point. How do we put the notion of God into practical perspective?

The Word

John tells us that Jesus was the Word, and "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14).* What does that mean? Why did John employ such a metaphor? Let me offer a suggestion.

In my mind are thoughts. As far as you're concerned, they have no form. But when I take those abstract thoughts and put them into words, they suddenly become accessible to you. They suddenly assume meaning, shape, and form.

That's what Jesus did in revealing to our world what God is like. Jesus became to God what words are to thoughts. Jesus put God into tangible form—a form we can begin to understand. "The Word became flesh." Jesus came with a specific mission. John 3:17 says, "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." And in Jesus' last prayer before His death, He says, "As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world" 0ohn 17:18). He was talking about all of His followers. That includes you and me.

You and I have a role not altogether different from Christ's. We have to ensure that the Word becomes flesh. And we do it by the way we live. Our lives are the main reference point from which others will derive their under standing of God.

Not long ago I was asked to talk about the relationship between fellowship and witnessing. As I pondered what to say, it suddenly struck me that fellowship is the witness. Jesus said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" 0ohn 13:35).That's the acid test! That's the proof. That's the unassailable argument. In fact, 1 John 3:14 says that "we know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers."

Honest, down-to-earth fellowship is the greatest witness we can give.

John makes the point even more strongly: "For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother" (1 John 4:20, 21).

We can present truths with crystal clarity, but if we have no love, we are "only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1). Our greatest witness isn't the words we say—although we need to say the right words. It's not the perfection of our theology—although our theology needs to be right. Rather, it's how we let that theology work in our lives, manifested in the relation ship we have with each other.

Our fellowship needs to embrace more than just our own little circle. It needs to include other Christians and other denominations. We may not have the same level of intimacy with other denominations that we have within our own. But when we shut out other denominations or ride roughshod over them, we're not allowing the gospel to work as it should. And when we exclude the down-and-outers, when we shut out people who don't live up to our standards, we miss out on a great blessing—not to mention the chance to be a great blessing. A tightly knit fellow ship that doesn't reach out to others isn't truly fellowship; it's a clique.

Club Adventist?

Our view of the church to a great degree determines the nature of our fellowship. And the nature of our fellowship determines how effectively we witness to the world. Is the church a club for saints, fraternity for the perfect? Or is it a hospital for sinners, a rehab facility for the failing and faltering?

The saints' club welcomes those who are spiritually good. The rehab facility welcomes those who are spiritually needy. The question we need to ask is not, "How can we justify admit ting this person to our fellowship?" Rather, it's, "How could we possibly keep this person out of our fellowship?" We're not talking about church membership, but about drawing people in and including them in the life and blessing of the congregation.

A few years ago I was standing in the foyer of a church when a young woman walked in wearing tight blue jeans, heavy makeup, a lot of jewelry, and a leather jacket. As she stood timidly, unsure what to do next, an elderly greeter walked over to her and asked, "Are you a man or a woman?" The girl looked at the greeter and stammered, "I'm .. . I'm a woman." "Then why don't you dress like one?" the greeter asked. The girl turned and headed for the door. I never saw her again.

"Some rash, impulsive, yet honest souls... will accost those who are not with us in a very abrupt manner, and make the truth, which we desire them to receive, repulsive to them."1 For too many of us, there's no sense of fellowship. Our sense of what's wrong about the person almost eclipses our sense of love for people and any desire to have the kind of fellowship with them that God longs for.

There's sometimes little recognition that here's a person who, for whatever reason, has come through the door of our church. Now we should take advantage of the opportunity to reach out in love. In great measure we react as we do because our concept of fellowship doesn't include the down-and-outers, the strugglers, those who haven't yet arrived at the standards demanded by our religious club. We want to protect our "fraternity for the perfect."

Law and grace

I remember sitting in a church business meeting discussing the case of a retired pastor who had committed adultery. He had written a letter to the church saying, "Please take my name off the roll."

Raising my hand, I asked the chairman of the meeting, "Do you believe that this man truly doesn't want to be a Seventh-day Adventist? Or do you believe that he wrote the letter because he knows we're going to throw him out anyway, and he feels that his letter of resignation will make it a lot less messy?"

"I'm absolutely certain he wants to be an Adventist," the chairman said.

"Do you believe he's repentant for what he has done?" I asked. The chair man then described the steps the fallen pastor had taken to demonstrate his repentance. And he described the humiliation the pastor felt because of the shame and pain brought on himself, his family, and the church. The man had been stripped of his credentials. Never again would he baptize anyone. Never again would he perform a marriage. Most of the things that had given meaning to his life for the past 45 years were gone. Now the final blow was that we would disfellowship him.

"Wouldn't it be possible for us just to put him under a vote of censure?" I asked. "He's done something terribly wrong. And he's going to pay for it the rest of his life. But don't we have a place in our church for people who've messed up their lives?"

"I'm sympathetic to your concerns," the chairman said. "But the Church Manual says that even if the person shows true repentance, if the sin is grievous, we may need to disfellowship to preserve the fair name of the church. What this man did certainly tarnished the church's image."

By a two-vote margin, the group opted for disfellowshipping.

I'm not saying that the pastor was not guilty. And I have no problem with a vote of censure to officially put our disapproval on record. But when a person comes in tears and says he's sorry and that what he did was terribly wrong and that his life is falling apart because of his sin—that's when he most needs the church. It's vital to ask how we think God is looking at such a person, and what Jesus might, in fact, do with them.

As a group of church leaders, we have it within our power to effect some change. That power may not be as great as we would like. But we need to use what influence we have to create a culture of fellowship that will enhance the witness of the church.

Ellen White makes an important observation: "There is a vast amount of rubbish brought forward by pro fessed believers in Christ, which blocks the way to the cross. Not withstanding all this, there are some who are so deeply convicted that they will come through every discouragement and will surmount every obstacle in order to gain the truth."2

No matter how many mistakes we make, there are some people who, like bulldozers, will come on through. But let's not force people to become bulldozers in order to become a part of our church. Let's reach out, help them grow, and watch them become everything that God has in mind for them to be.

What about people who believe differently?

Too often our sanctuaries have become a place where we've declared open season on other faith systems. Shortly before I arrived in my current congregation, a visiting speaker wreaked havoc one Sabbath. One of the members was married to a Roman Catholic. However, she attended church regularly with her husband. Soon she became involved in the children's Sabbath School. Though she wasn't officially a Seventh-day Adventist, she became increasingly attached to the church. This was her congregation, the place where she found spiritual nurture.

The week the guest speaker came, a member of this woman's family was getting married, and all of her Catholic relatives from around the country were coming for the festivities. So she invited them all to visit "her" church. Nearly 20 of them came with her that day.

Sadly, the guest speaker decided to have open season on the papacy that day. As nearly 20 visiting Catholics sat in front of him, he tore into the pope. And then he tore into him some more. And still more. Midway through the sermon, the Catholics all got up and walked out. And about 40 Adventists walked out as well—in protest that their church pulpit would be used to annihilate another organization in such a way and with such a spirit. Such events aren't easily forgot ten. Their impact lingers for years.

A safe zone

I pastor a congregation made up largely of Adventist professionals. Yet when I arrived I found they were frightened to invite their professional colleagues to church because they never knew what would be said from the pulpit.

I immediately promised that the church would be a "no-put-down zone," (We actually have signs in some areas of the building declaring it such.) We don't put each other down. And we don't put down other organizations. We try to look to Jesus and keep our eyes focused on Him. There are other times and other ways to deal with these kinds of differences.

So deeply did professionals in my congregation fear what might be said that it took seven years before I began to see a significant change in the culture of our church. Seven years before people truly began to believe that it was indeed safe to invite their friends and business associates. Now, every Sabbath about 10 percent of those sit ting in our congregation are not Seventh-day Adventists. But that did n't develop overnight.

I'm not, of course, suggesting that we don't disagree with other denominations theologically or that we should never talk about those dis agreements. But we can limit the venue. For me, it makes sense to restrict such discussion to situations that include few people, allow face-to-face interaction, and encourage questions and clarification. In short, such negatives should never be addressed in a monologue setting, but only when dialogue is possible.

Fortunately, I pastor a congregation that instinctively does much of what I've been describing. It has been wonderful to see people welcomed, loved, nurtured, and just absorbed into the church family. Evangelism by osmosis, we might call it.

The power of open arms

In one case, a young woman was actually a member of our congregation but hadn't been to church for about 12 years. She married outside the church. They had children. As is often the case, as she looked at her little ones, she suddenly realized that they needed spiritual nurture. She thought, We need to go to church.

Her husband, who had no Seventh-day Adventist background, agreed to go with her. With his earrings, ponytail, and casual dress, he didn't look like what we think of as a typical Adventist. Unfortunately, he didn't feel welcome in the congregation they visited, so he refused to attend again. But his wife wanted her family to go to church.

Telling her neighbor the story, she discovered that her neighbor was an Adventist. "Come to my church," the neighbor said. "My husband's not an Adventist, either. Yet he goes with me every week. He feels right at home and is very active in the life of the church. Your husband will like it, too. I guarantee it."

So they came to church—earrings, ponytail, casual clothes, and all. Taking his children to Sabbath School, the man sat and watched. After about eight weeks, he said to the Sabbath School leader, "I'd be happy to lead out at one of the activities tables."

Now, what should church leaders do? This man has come along. He likes what he sees. He feels at home (despite his differences). And he's saying, "Here I am, use me!" Do you say "Well, you wear those earrings and long hair. Maybe you should just wait a while. When you come up to our dress code, we'll let you get involved."

The Sabbath School leader said she was delighted to let him help. And he did a tremendous job. The kids loved him. He was animated and interesting. A few more weeks passed, and he said, "I've noticed that the people who lead out in front do it on a roster basis. I'd be happy to be put on the roster." So he started taking his turn up front.

About that time we put a notice in the bulletin calling for guitar players to make themselves known so we could use their skills on Pathfinder campouts. The next Sabbath he told me, "I bought a guitar last week. I've never played one. But if you need a guitar player, then I'll learn to play it." And he did—just so he could help in youth activities.

Looking around, he realized that the culture of the congregation wasn't into dressing as he did. So his appearance began to change. Then one day he was out in the parking lot talking to the associate pastor. "You know," he said as he lit up a cigarette, "I need to be baptized and join this church."

"Wonderful!" the associate said. "In fact, I'd like to have you read an article the senior pastor has written."

The article obliquely addressed tobacco use. But it addressed it directly enough that the young man got the idea. And the next week he said to the associate pastor, "I get it. I'm not supposed to smoke."

The young man was baptized in a crystal-clear spring early one Sabbath morning during our annual church retreat. He gave a testimony in which he told about his spiritual journey and the fellowship he had experienced in our congregation. "The Bible says that Christians are to be the salt of the earth," he said, "and this is the saltiest group of people I've ever encountered."

In emphasizing fellowship as our most critical witness, I'm not trying to belittle organized witnessing. I'm just saying that until we create a culture of fellowship, all our organized witnessing is seriously limited. The two need to go together. But fellowship is absolutely imperative.

Admittedly, what I've written here isn't totally balanced. But it's a corrective to a problem we have all too often. As a corrective, it leans one way.

And perhaps having a bias is what we need when it comes to this concern.

So I'd like to conclude with a succinct passage from the apostle Paul that gives the balance. In 1 Corinthians 16:13 we read: "Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love."

That last phrase bears repeating: Do everything in love

1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1885), 4:68.

2 Ibid.

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James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods Seventh-day Adventist Church in Longwood, Florida.

April 2004

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