We’ve all heard the expression “the tail is wagging the dog.” In an organization it implies that something secondary, that should be responding to the primary thing, has taken over and now controls in a way that has displaced what is primary. This kind of situation can arise suddenly, but more often there is a slow drift from the primary mission.
Churches can easily find themselves in situations like this. Many churches started off intentionally – evangelistically engaged and missionally focused. As church plants they needed to be in order to survive. But once the church grew to a comfortable level, once there were so many people that needed to become connected, it just seemed to make sense to pull back a bit on reaching out and focus more on assimilating and fellowship. “After all,” we rationalized, “isn’t fellowship one of the purposes of the church?”
It seemed to make sense at the time, but that inward pull of fellowship soon becomes the tail wagging the dog. It isn’t long before people who are not part of the fellowship get the clear impression that they are outsiders who are intruding. And the fellowship of the church, which is meant to serve the mission by drawing people in, now begins to repel. Fellowship is meant to serve more like a rest stop along the highway. A place where we fuel and rest, but only so we can be refreshed for the journey ahead, as we continue to engage in the mission of God.
Fellowship can soon become an end in itself and much of the calendar is filled with “fellowship events” which compete for the limited time that believers might have to be with and among their community and neighbours.
To equip a congregation evangelistically requires that the purpose of fellowship is clearly presented as serving the mission. This does not necessarily mean an end to fellowship; it simply requires a reorientation. Extend the invitation of fellowship to take place in gathering places and activities outside the church building. Join community book clubs and bowling leagues with other followers so that the warmth of your fellowship is turned outward. Extend the use of your building to community organizations and encourage your people to participate.
The truth is that the foundation of fellowship is not potlucks and game nights. The Spirit of God leads us out into the world together. The strongest bonds of fellowship are forged as we serve side by side in the mission. Fellowship is indeed a purpose of the church, but its purpose is to serve the mission. When the desire for fellowship has weakened the mission, it is not the kind of fellowship God had in mind.