Koinonia is commonly defined as fellowship. This fellowship is with God but more commonly with other believers. In the twenty-first century the word fellowship is associated with spending time with others. You can have a Sunday School fellowship, which is usually a potluck dinner in someone’s home. There are usually games and lots of laughter.
Fellowship could be a night at the bowling alley. Laughter, conversation, maybe a beer and a hot dog, and even a little harmless competition can make a bowling fellowship one to remember.
Fellowship often refers to the church members. People are invited and encouraged to become a part of the fellowship, as if joining the church in membership indicates actual fellowship. Singing in the church choir was a slice of fellowship. In this case, it is more of a camaraderie between people working together to create beautiful music to add to the worship experience. Gathering in the sanctuary or worship center is a kind of fellowship. Families and friends congregate for a common experience of sitting, standing, singing, sitting, standing, praying, taking up the offering, hearing special music, a sermon, and the announcements.
For the record, I am in no way minimizing the value of these types of activities in church life. Some of my best memories involve being at church and participating. I have stood in front of hundreds of people over the years as a preacher and speaker. I treasure those moments with brothers and sisters in Christ. We didn’t always know each other, but our belief in Jesus united us in a spirit of fellowship.
However, none of what I’ve just described is anywhere near authentic koinonia. Koinonia represents so much more than that. So much more than joint association, community, communion, joint participation, sharing your stuff, or contribution. To be sure, all those things fall under the umbrella of koinonia, but they still don’t quite capture the actual meaning of the word.
Well, is there actually an English word that truly captures the original meaning of koinonia? It is a word one would never associate with fellowship in the church setting.
Yes, my friend, you read that correctly. The closest word that captures the true essence of koinonia is intercourse. I am not referring to the physical act of having sexual intercourse. Sex is not the only type of intercourse one can have. There is a lesser acknowledged aspect of intercourse, and that is intimacy.
In the Old Testament, Jewish men had to be circumcised. A popular way to insult someone was to call them uncircumcised (1 Samuel 17:26). Men are still circumcised at birth today for health, not faith reasons. Some choose not to be circumcised. Why does it matter?
The Old Testament intention with circumcision was very spiritual. Boys are born with a hood of skin, called the foreskin, covering the head (also called the glans) of the penis. In circumcision, the foreskin is surgically removed, exposing the end of the penis. The spiritual trait of circumcision is related to intimacy. Sexually speaking, when a circumcised penis enters the vagina, there is pure skin to skin contact. The foreskin is not a barrier to the intimacy. Symbolically, this was the Hebrew way of demonstrating that there shouldn’t be anything in our lives that hinders our intimacy with the divine.
Koinonia is another demonstration of intimacy between believers. No, we are not referring to orgies or any such thing. There should be no barriers between us and our fellow believers. That is intimacy. That is koinonia. Here are 10 things that hinder intimacy among believers today.
- Avoidance. Think about how we engage each other in a typical church setting. We walk right past one another for the most part. Or we use shallow conversation. How is your family? How is work? How is your health? Okay, see you next week! Avoiding each other leads to isolation which leads to loneliness which leads to depression which can lead to suicide in extreme cases.
- Mental health issues. There are instances where people have an actual physiological problem in their brain. This mental barrier can present as autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or other types of neurological social disorders. There is no known single cause for autism spectrum disorder, but it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. Brain scans show differences in the shape and structure of the brain in children with autism compared to in “neurotypical” children.
- Germaphobia. Some individuals have genuine anxiety about touching others and catching sickness from them. You will see these precious people frequently washing their hands or using hand sanitizer. As I said earlier, there is a global virus that we are experiencing in real time. COVID19 is spread through human contact, so it is acceptable to have a little germaphobia when it is for unfortunate safety reasons due to pandemic.
- Personal privacy. In the twenty first century, we have privacy fences, caller ID, texting, email, virtual chatting, social media, and tinted windows at home and on the car. All of these are tools used to avoid human contact. There are some who just prefer to keep to themselves and avoid human interaction outside of their immediate family and friends. When I was a boy, I knew all our neighbors. Today, I don’t know my neighbors. I say hello in passing, but I don’t even know their names. I am an introvert and an Enneagram 4. It is harder for me to make the first move. Harder, not impossible. I can’t share the love of Jesus with others if I don’t interact with them.
- Culture. Prejudice in some form has existed for centuries. In church growth meetings years ago, I was taught that people tend to flock toward those who are most like them. Dr. Tony Evans once said that Sunday morning at 11:00 am is the most segregated hour of the week. Serving on the mission field taught me a lot about prejudice. Mainly because I was on the receiving end of it. I was the person of color (or no color in my case). My mission partner and I had our lives threatened by locals in another country because of the color of our skin. I must admit that I wasn’t prepared for that at all. Cultural differences can be a huge barrier to intimacy, be they from racial, religious, or financial status.
- Emotionally closed off. Continuing from number two above, there are people who either refuse or are unable to connect with their feelings. They put on their mask and pretend everything is good, so they don’t have to feel their feelings. Feelings and emotions are a significant factor in intimacy.
- Bitterness or unforgiveness. In The Renewing of Your Mind, I dedicated an entire chapter to the subject of forgiveness. When someone harbors ill will towards themselves, God, or others, it impedes intimacy or social connection. It is vital to your overall health to confront unforgiveness.
- Politics and religion. We must learn to disagree agreeably, and to engage in meaningful dialogue as it pertains to one’s political or religious views. Both topics are called hot button issues because there is so much passion beneath one’s cognition. The easiest thing to do, it seems, is to just avoid those conversations. We need to do better here.
- No transformation. When people see us in church on Sunday and cussing out the cashier at the grocery store on Monday, they become disillusioned. If Jesus can’t change your life, how can he change mine? Renewing and reconstructing our minds creates transformation from the inside out. Transformation opens many doors to koinonia and intimacy.
- Lack of understanding. Some people have a diluted understanding of what true, authentic intimacy looks like. This misunderstanding can begin in childhood. If your parents are closed off and don’t show their feelings, you can become closed off as well. If one is sexually abused at a young age, it hardens the sections of the brain that trigger healthy emotions. That is why I have spent so much time on this chapter. I desire to know what intimacy is because I want it in my life. My word for 2019 was My 2020 word is intimacy.
After leaving the ministry, I stopped attending church anywhere for a long time. A couple of sporadic visits to local churches only reinforced my desire to stay away from it. One day in late 2019, I received a LinkedIn message from a pastor I was friends with but had lost touch. This message got my attention in a couple of ways. First, I rarely check my LinkedIn page especially for the message feature. Second, Kevin and I were not close friends. We were acquainted through one of my former coworkers and my curiosity about his campus ministry at the University of South Carolina. We lost touch, and that was that. To hear from Kevin out of the clear blue made me consider that this may have been providential.
We met for coffee one day and I shared how I left the ministry, the church, my beliefs, and my faith behind. We talked about deconstruction. He understood. He listened. He got me. We really connected in that Starbuck’s that day. I couldn’t remember the last time I had that deep of a connection with someone, especially another pastor. During this time, I had also just finished reading Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans. That book helped me learn to love the body of Christ again.
Laura and I decided to visit his church, Kinetic Church, one Sunday. I felt ready. It was a small group of people in a big auditorium at one of the local colleges. The worship leader/associate pastor sang horribly off key. Kevin’s message was not flashy, but it had substance and I took a lot of notes, which I seldom do. I loved it! I had discovered authenticity in a local church of all places. I loved that the singer was off key! He was real. He wasn’t putting on a show, He was making a joyful noise. I couldn’t believe how moved I was by the service.
After church, Kevin invited us to take part in their Life Group, held at his parents, Sam, and Becky’s home. We attended the group every week for several weeks. It was intimate. People were able to share their struggles openly in a safe place.
One night, Laura and I attended Life Group with heavy hearts and minds. We had some serious financial troubles and were facing eviction. We had no money and no solution. I shared this with the group, and something wonderful happened. As I shared my sad story, I noticed that everyone in the group was listening intently. The look on their faces indicated that they were empathetic to our struggle. They were in it with us. I don’t like to share my stuff and be vulnerable like that, but I was so glad I did.
Early the next morning, after a sleepless night, I got a text message from Kevin, stating that he had been awake most of the night thinking about and praying for us. Kevin is an extremely generous and giving man. I know if he had a wad of cash on him, he would have gladly given it to us. That’s not the best part of that story.
Kevin and our life group had joined Laura and I in our problem and sat there with us. We were not alone in our struggle. We had their love and support without judgment. Our problem was their problem. It was koinonia. I had never experienced it that profoundly before. I no longer cared if we were evicted or not. We had koinonia with a group of believers. It was magical. Our money problem was solved that very day in a completely unexpected way. For the first time in a long time, I felt connected with God and fellow believers. Deeply connected. I want that for you too, my friend. More than you can imagine.
The early believers in Acts showed us what koinonia looked like. They ate together. They shared their stuff with everyone else. Most importantly, there was intimate intercourse. Connection. Intimacy. Koinonia.
They had it then, and we can have it now. First, we must deconstruct our current mindset about community, and then reconstruct it with true, authentic, and intimate understanding of koinonia. My friend, if you can catch hold of this wonderful harmony, you will never be the same. As more of us realize true koinonia, the terrain of church will never be the same. If we can spread koinonia with the same fury as the COVID19 virus or common cold, the world will never be the same.
I never want to be the same again. I have had decades of the same old, same old. I’m so tired of it. Christianity from a distance no longer appeals to me. I’m ready for more koinonia!