The following is a guest column by John E. Wagner, an attorney and Episcopal layman in Oklahoma City.

Loneliness is ever more endemic in our urbanized and automated society. The growth of the cities and the loss of neighborhood ties so dear in the days when American life was centered in the small towns have enhanced the psychological and spiritual loneliness of Americans.

Loneliness is not confined to the over-thirty crowd. It also afflicts the young, and married couples as well as singles.

The return to the suburbs and the regrowth of small towns surrounding the cities is in part due to the pervasive desire to return to a simpler existence where neighborliness can once again be found. All too often, in the cities, both homeowners and apartment dwellers do not know even the names of their next-door neighbors.

The merry-go-round of social events and the cocktail circuits of suburbia are often desperate attempts to break down the walls of isolation among adults. The youth subculture has devised its own means, legitimate and illegitimate, to fulfill the deep-seated needs for identity, fellowship, and relationships. The rise of the sensitivity groups is related to these same needs.

The establishment of thousands of nursing homes in the past fifteen years is a mixed blessing. Many of the aged sorely need normal social contacts, and the loving relationships of family and friends, rather than isolation and institutionalization.

The problem is not confined to secular society. It has invaded the churches. Time was when church members knew one another, prayed together, helped one another in need, and truly shared in the fellowship of the Gospel. Their love, too, reached beyond the church, in concern for those outside the fellowship of God.

For many urban congregations, some of whose members assemble only for Sunday-morning worship, the problem of isolation and personal loneliness is very real. In churches that hold more than one service on Sunday morning members never even see some of their fellow members, much less really know them.

How different all this is from the New Testament pattern where the Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

As an informed and sympathetic friend of some of the smaller fundamental churches, I venture the opinion that they have captured more of the apostolic pattern in their congregational life than many of the mainstream churches whose doors are closed for the day after 11 o’clock worship service on Sunday.

Article continues below

However, the trend may be reversing itself. The small home prayer and Bible-study groups of the 1960s are now becoming more integrated into the life and ministry of the mainstream churches. This is also true of the lay witnessing movement, whose meetings were by and large outside the churches at their inception. Now witnessing is becoming an accepted mode of fellowship and ministry within many denominations.

Moreover, the familiar Wednesday-night church dinner (the substitute for the Wednesday-night prayer meeting) is regaining in many places its spiritual orientation, with Bible study, prayer, and hymn singing replacing what used to be a time of small talk and superficial congeniality. The true meaning of “fellowship” (koinonia in New Testament Greek) has become diluted in mainstream Protestant practice but is, it seems to me, regaining its apostolic content in many settings.

The Bible makes it clear that it is God’s intention that we have true fellowship: “God is faithful,” writes Paul, “by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9).

Our fellowship with Christ, through the new birth, is the source of our fellowship within the body of believers. In that dual fellowship, loneliness can often be cured, or at least alleviated.

Paul’s own testimony tells us that when the apostles “perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9).

New Testament fellowship encompasses the idea of mutual sharing—of ourselves, our prayers, our concerns, and our love for one another. But it begins with fellowship with Christ. The vertical leads to the horizontal.

Paul likens his fellowship with the believers at Philippi to a partnership in the Gospel. All share in responsibilities and in the spiritual benefits of God’s love, forgiveness, guidance, and empowerment.

These are made available, first through the atoning death on the cross, and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and second by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.

It should not be overlooked that the believing fellowship is called to share in the sufferings of Christ, becoming like him in his death, so that all may ultimately participate in his resurrection and glory (Phil. 3:10).

The essence of Christian fellowship is self-denial (not self-hate), love for God, and love for one another.

Article continues below

“Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above,” wrote the hymnist John Fawcett.

The Apostle John sums this up with brevity and the word of power: “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). In that short declaration he sums up the gospel mandate and the mystery of the redeemed life.

That a great many independent evangelical ministries have been richly blessed by God, and that “conservative churches are growing,” can in part be explained by the fact that they have manifested true New Testament fellowship in their institutional life. Jesus has become real in them; and in that Reality, true fellowship is found.

Paradoxically, in a land of rapid transportation and instant communication, people feel isolated and lonely. But God has spoken to us, saying, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb. 5:8; Deut. 31:6, 8). He offers us never-failing fellowship through his Son.

Laymen should work and pray that churches devoid of real koinonia will, by God’s sovereign grace and guiding Spirit, return to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. In that we all have a responsibility.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.