The end of summer is always bitter sweet for me. It means my daughter’s return to university, but my consolation is a long drive there, together, filled with conversation. One of the things she mentioned this time stood out to me:
‘I think one of the main things God used to establish my faith was people’s testimonies. Growing up, I heard so many powerful stories of God at work in people’s lives that I couldn’t deny that Jesus was alive.’
It was interesting that she mentioned that because I knew right away where she had heard all of those testimonies. It was at an annual retreat where we gathered with other churches for an overnight event.
The ironic part is that this retreat was one of the toughest things we did all year. There were hours of planning. The logistics in getting together with a dozen other small churches were tough. After church on Sunday we had to travel for four hours to a large government-run youth centre and attend meetings from mid-afternoon into the night with 300 to 400 people. Once the program for the first day was complete, we were all divided up into rooms by age and gender and slept eight people to a room. When morning came, we all had assigned cleaning chores to complete before breakfast. And then the meetings started again and lasted until lunchtime, at which point we loaded back into our cars and buses and made the four-hour return trip back.
Many years, we returned feeling exhausted from the whirlwind trip. But we had done it for the exact reason that my daughter had pointed out. In a setting where churches are so small and connection with other believers is so scarce, we had to make time for fellowship or the only experience of the body of Christ that our children and the believers we were trying to disciple would get would be us – and two people don’t make a body!
A number of lessons stand out to me from this experience:
1. Fellowship is seldom convenient. Those annual retreats were really difficult. Sharing a room with seven strangers isn’t a recipe for a good night’s rest. But we made connections through those times that inspired and encouraged us. Fellowship in Canada is a lot easier than we experienced in Japan, but it’s still a challenge. When your week already feels too full, setting aside time each week for a life group or youth group involvement just doesn’t feel practical. And joining a group can feel a little bit like sharing a bedroom with a group of people who might snore. But we all need the power that God gives through spiritual encouragement in the body of Christ.
2. Fellowship requires planning. We saw these combined fellowship events as so important that we debriefed once they were done to ask what could have been done differently. Speakers and themes and testimonies were planned months in advance. Again, back in Canada, fellowship takes less work. But as a church we invest a lot of energy into planning fellowship opportunities for people. A lot of time each week goes into a detailed message outline and small group discussion questions to make our groups as effective as possible. Even still, organizing your time and schedule around opportunities for fellowship takes some planning.
3. Hearing God’s work through other believers is powerful. I love to study the Bible. God ministers to me as I pray to Him. But there’s something different that happens as I open my life to other believers with our Bibles open. I can still remember questions that I’ve been asked, thoughts that have been shared, and personal testimonies of God’s work that I’ve heard in the context of small group fellowship. I remember those things because they’ve been so formative in my faith. They still challenge me, inspire me and encourage me. And it’s God’s plan that we would all grow through this kind of biblical fellowship.
If you haven’t yet set aside time for weekly small group fellowship for yourself, or Sunday School and Youth involvement for your kids, can I encourage you that I know it’s not convenient. It may take planning and compromise to make time for, but I know the potential impact it can make in your family. I know because my daughter just reminded me. It’s one of the big reasons that she’s a Christian today.
In awe of Him,