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The Value of a Caring Community:
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
the benefits of Christian fellowship
Dr. Rene Spitz observes and ponders. Overworked nurses prop up feeding bottles. Babies aren't held or played with. The answer dawns on him: these babies were dying from lack of just plain mothering. Babies need a loving touch to thrive.
Fellowship among believers is the kind of touch necessary to keep Christians healthy and growing.
"Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds," we read in Hebrews. "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 approaching" (10:24- 25). Too often Christians are tempted to drop out. "Nobody will miss me," they say. "Besides, you can be a Christian without going to church." But faith atrophies, love wanes.
Why is Christian fellowship so important? Fellowship provides four components which are essential to spiritual health. The first of these elements is an environment which nurtures faith.
The New Society
In order to maintain Christian values in the midst of a culture which laughs at them, we must be part of a deliberate society, a distinctly Christian community. Together we reinforce the values we hold dear. Together we stand against the tide. We share our struggles. We organize ourselves for strength. We teach the faith. We train our children. We share the life-changing good news.
Every society communicates its values. The secular media is unrelenting in its pressures. Images flash across our screens which challenge our faith--perfumes and obsessions, cars and cash, tanned bodies sunning on a resort beach, Reebocks™ and Calvin Kleins™. Values are transmitted by films and the novels which spawn them, by magazines as well as TV soaps. How do we protect ourselves from a gradual washing out of our values?
We know how the peer group dominates the teen years. What mom and dad say doesn't mean much. It's what "everybody's doing" that really matters. The teen subculture is powerful, with its own beliefs, its own jargon, its own cruel means of commanding conformity.
Parents, too, are deeply influenced by culture. Earn as much as you can. Try to be honest, especially in the important things. Sex is okay so long as it is between "consenting adults." If you think we aren't affected, just compare divorce statistics in the evangelical community to those of the dominant culture.
As part of a clear-cut Christian community we and our children have a chance to resist the pressures of a secular world. As part of a Christian counterculture can we maintain the cutting edge of our faith.
But building this Christian society, the church, requires a continuing commitment. When we're gone, we are missed. Perhaps, in a larger group, not by name, but by face, by our empty seat. The sparsely attended gathering sends a message of defeat which demoralizes our brothers and sisters. Maintaining a strong Christian community is up to us.
Christian fellowship reinforces our values in the face of a hostile society. But there are times, too, when we are hurt and need healing. That's where the second vital ingredient of fellowship comes in: spiritual gifts.
Gifts Which Build
Wherever I go in my car I take along my tool box. I've got a hammer and a variety of screw-drivers, assorted wrenches, needle- nose pliers, Channel-locks, and three nine-piece socket sets--1/4- inch, 3/8-inch, and 1/2-inch. I have files and rasps, wire strippers and a circuit tester, along with odds and ends of screws and nails, refugees from some past project. If the car falters I can usually fix it with something from the red box in my trunk.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit are God's tool kit. To keep us spiritually healthy, God gives various members of the body specific tools, specific gifts. There are times we just can't fix ourselves. We need someone whom God has specially equipped.
When we've hit bottom, we need a listening ear, a word of loving counsel, a friend who will affirm God's forgiveness. These are the spiritual gifts of mercy, exhortation, a word of wisdom. When our faith is ebbing, we need someone who possesses a gift of faith to pray for us. When we are confused, we need the gifts of a teacher or a pastor.
These gifts seldom operate in isolation. The fellowship of believers is the context where the gifts flourish. "Therefore," Paul writes, "encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing" (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
In a Christian fellowship we find the gifts necessary to heal and build our lives. Yet there is third important function of fellowship: to provide examples for us to follow.
Last year my wife and I went looking at new houses. At the head of a street of vacant lots stood four model homes. We toured two-, three- and four-bedroom varieties, some with the house and garage on the same level, and one with a second story. Model homes help buyers imagine how their new house might look. The vision inspires them to put their money down so their new house can be a- building. For the same reason, God places "demonstration model" believers in His church.
I remember the first time I met Joe Parriott. His open smile and the way his great, warm hand gripped mine made me feel like I had been hugged by a big teddy bear. His genuine interest and caring smile let me know he loved me. Ever since, I've wanted to love like he does.
Barbara Forrest was a short, plump lady who bubbled when she talked. She was so on fire to do God's work that she enrolled in Bible school at the age of 52. Her example of joy in the midst of adversity, her determination, her faithfulness, and her caring touched scores of people. Many began to model their lives after Barbara's.
When we're around people who clearly portray Christ's character we are stimulated to grow. When we see the fruit of the Spirit fleshed out before us we are eager to try it out ourselves. The writer of Hebrews urges us, "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith" (13:7).
Being around Joe and Barbara inspires me to emulate their strengths. Being part of a whole body of believers keeps me balanced. In a church I discover a well-balanced menu of role models who protect me from developing flat spots in my character.
Emulation changes lives and congregations. Look at the chain reaction at Thessalonica. "You became imitators of us and of the Lord...." Paul wrote. "And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia" (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7).
Fellowship gives us exemplars in the faith to spur us to growth. The fourth vital function of Christian fellowship is to provide brothers and sisters to carry us when life gets rugged.
Bearing Each Other's Burdens
When we moved into our neighborhood we met the elderly lady across the street. Mrs. Prescott knows all the neighbors' comings and goings, and she looks out for all their homes when they are gone. She's a one-woman patrol. If there's a dog missing or a burglary, Mrs. Prescott is the one to ask about something unusual on the block.
Our is still a "neighborly" community. I'm comfortable asking George Torres, who lives kitty-corner from us, to watch our house while we are away on vacation. The Trasters next door will water for us. The Sedys pick up the newspaper. Mrs. Prescott gets the mail. And we do the same for them.
The "Neighborhood Watch" signs posted all around our suburban community are based on the same principle: we watch out for one another. If we see a suspicious person we'll call the police. We unite against our common enemy.
The fellowship of a church at its best is people watching out for people--not in criticism but with love. We help one another through the unpredictable turns of life.
When Mrs. Shivlar, a widow in our church, gets sick, we rally behind her. When Don falls into depression, his brothers don't let him lose touch. They make sure he knows they care. When Susan, a middle-aged divorcee starts going with Robert, her friends encourage her to stand against the temptation to sexual intimacy that doomed a former relationship.
Paul writes, "Brethren, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:1).
We are all needy at times. You've been lonely, discouraged, or depressed. There are times you've longed for somebody to show he or she cared. Jesus said, "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31). The help we give to members of His body is, after all, given to Jesus Himself. "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40). In the fellowship of Christians we work out Jesus' command to love one another.
The writer of Ecclesiastes wisely observes,
"Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken" (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12). The Christian fellowship is a mutual aid society of believers pledged to build each other up, to watch out for each other's good. The fellowship is even designed to help the hapless and the careless- -especially the careless. Paul urges, "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up" (Romans 15:1).
And then, we Christian sheep have a perverse trait. When we are depressed or bummed out, when we have sinned and are pressed down with guilt, when we most need encouragement and fellowship, we seem to avoid fellow Christians like the plague. It's as if the wolf is just waiting for us to drop away from the flock so he can pick us off one by one. The fellowship of believers cares for the straying sheep.
Yes, Christian fellowship is indispensable. The community reinforces our faith. Its spiritual gifts heal and build us. The body's godly members serve as role models. And our Christian family supports us in time of need.
Like babies at the Foundling Home who lack cuddling and a loving touch, believers can curl up and die without fellowship. At best they become stunted, retarded, never growing to full, healthy adulthood. But it's amazing what can happen when we reach out and touch someone.
 Dr. Rene Spitz, The First Year of Life(New York: International
Universities Press, 1965), pp. 27-31. Original study was published by Dr. Spitz
as "Hospitalism: An Inquiry into the Genesis of Psychiatric Conditions in Early
Childhood," in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, vol. 1 (1945),
and "Hospitalism: A Follow-Up Report," in The Psychoanalytic Study of the
Child, vol. 2 (1946).
All scripture references are quoted from the New International Version.
 Dr. Rene Spitz, The First Year of Life(New York: International Universities Press, 1965), pp. 27-31. Original study was published by Dr. Spitz as "Hospitalism: An Inquiry into the Genesis of Psychiatric Conditions in Early Childhood," in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, vol. 1 (1945), and "Hospitalism: A Follow-Up Report," in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, vol. 2 (1946).
All scripture references are quoted from the New International Version.
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