Just Don’t Call it “Fellowship”

(Donna Linnemeyer) As the Program Administrator for a large congregation, I find myself organizing many “fellowship” activities throughout the year.   After many years I have to admit that I really enjoy this facet of my job.   I love the planning and the shopping and the moment when the members enter a room decorated for a special theme and start looking for the beginning of the serving line.   I enjoy seeing the members mix and mingle and linger near the end of the event in friendly or earnest conversations. I especially look forward to those last few minutes in the kitchen when the trash has been taken out and the last few dishes are being put away and all of the volunteers are thanking each other for helping with this or that.   Usually our “fellowship” event was a success and we are weary, but very pleased as we take our leftovers and our soiled dish towels and go home.   The next day, there are usually more affirmations of the success of the “fellowship” event and the good time that was had by all who participated.


So why would Pastor balk at my continual push for more of these “fellowship” events?   It’s not so much that he balks at the events but at my use of the word “fellowship.”


Well I don’t know Greek but I suspect the explanation is going to involve the Greek word for “fellowship”.  Maybe it is too broad or maybe it is too specific but what seems like a nice, friendly word is apparently going to need a second look.  


Sure enough, the New Testament use of the word is not really about the church potluck.   “The Word of Life…that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3) and “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)  


Do our Lenten suppers, and dinner auctions and wine tasting parties and elder omelet breakfasts and catechumenate dinners and Oktoberfest celebrations fall short of the biblical fellowship that God wants for us?  Yes they do!   Does that mean we need to curtail these wonderful gatherings out of respect for the biblical meaning of fellowship?   Of course not!   We just need to make sure our true fellowship, in and with Christ is first and foremost. Then we can use these events as opportunities to live out our new life in the body of Christ, rather than thinking of them as constituting that new life.


And let’s find a better word for gathering for food and fun and conversation.   Open the Thesaurus and look up fellowship.   “Congregational comradeship” anyone?


Donna Linnemeyer has served as Pastor Rossow’s assistant and the Parish Program Administrator for nearly fifteen years at Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, Illinois. Her regular column will be both tongue in cheek and serious thought for how the confessional church ought to be organized and the frustrations of serving one of those crazy confessional pastors.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Just Don’t Call it “Fellowship” — 11 Comments

  1. Donna, I’m impressed you’re both his assistant and the Parish Program administrator for such a large church. You must not sleep much!

    BTW, koinonia is a (the?) greek word for fellowship. (koi – no – nee – a ) Our “young” adults group goes by that name. I like it.

    But I side with you, nothing wrong with the word fellowship… besides, it has an alliteration to it (food, fun & fellowship). No other word I can think of does that except maybe fraternity and to me that is men only.

  2. We should be cognizant that words tend to get mutated in their meaning and in their usage in English.
    koinonia (?????????) is indeed the word used the cited scriptural examples. In more modern Latin dialects (eg French, Spanish, Italian, etc), the word is…drum roll please…communion. We are not in communion with those with whom we do not commune. The English language dumbs down the term and the speakers confuse it, much like the words marriage, love or gospel.
    Some people will balk about it, but they are of the mindset of C.S.Lewis. See Abolition of Man. When we get sloppy with our words, we hasten the evolution to say absolutely nothing about anything.

  3. I would say “anonymous” has evened the score: one for team “Pastor/The Truth” and one for team “Pastor’s Assistant/Popular Usage.” 🙂

    Pastor Rossow

  4. anonymous “1138” for proper distinction. “1138” after one who has faced oppression.
    (?????????) apparently means that this blog doesn’t take Greek script.

  5. Something’s wrong when most church’s have a “fellowship hall” for fun and a “worship center” for the Sacrament.

    Just two cents…

  6. Maybe just ‘dinner’?
    A potluck dinner, maybe. Maybe sometimes, a potluck is just a potluck. 🙂
    We do seem determined to grant some sort of religion-tinged term to a church-related/church-hosted event that’s not in and of itself church (not related to meeting in worship). Maybe to set them apart from such occasions occurring apart from church, like a neighborhood barbecue (though I’ve never lived in one of those neighborhoods!)
    Our potluck dinners sound very much like those described by Donna. Must be a universal.
    I imagine we’re stuck with the term Fellowship Hall. There are worse terms, I suppose. The Gathering Room is what a local Protestant church calls their ‘space’. Yuck. ‘Gathering’ has taken on a religious connotation these days, that’s supposed to sound warm and welcoming, but to my ears, it’s a little too inclusive; too broadly ‘Christian;’ sort of smug, not to mention a little clumsy, with less meaning attached to it than ‘fellowship’.
    So which is worse: using truly religious words like ‘fellowship’ incorrectly, or granting religious significance to words that have none, like ‘gathering’?

  7. Susan R –

    You make a good point about just calling it “dinner” or “get-together,” etc. Just calling a thing what it is, is always a good way to keep language straight.

    BTW – I owe nearly all of my insights on the use of language to Dr. Norman Nagel from the St. Louis seminary.

    Pastor Rossow

  8. Do we need an etymological dictionary to assist us in understanding the origin of all this words????
    Over time, our language and the meanings of words change.
    • Are we going to be criticized by the church if we use words such as call, missionary, ministry and now fellowship in the wrong context!?
    • How is all this significant in everyday Christianity?
    • Are we afraid that by using a word incorrectly it will somehow affect our beliefs?
    In the case of “the words” described above, I believe that there are two different distinct connotations. The words have additional meanings apart from the literal or main meaning. The meanings of these words are not exactly “fixed” as I see it and may be subjective to some extent. Why, why, why are we focusing so much on verbiage? Let’s focus more on the true Word of God.


  9. “Do we need an etymological dictionary to assist us in understanding the origin of all this words????
    Over time, our language and the meanings of words change.”
    I vote yes.
    Otherwise, we do as the churchgrowth’rs do: We play at worship and worship at play; but essentially do neither. We draw worshippers to a place where they will never worship and draw players to a place where they should not be playing. Jesus calls that misleading His little ones. And when we start giving ourselves credit for what the Holy Spirit does, we tread on dangerous ground.
    Think about the phrase “What does this mean?” Despite the way our culture is going, when we are at the gates of hell, it’s not about “What does this mean ‘to me’?”

  10. While I would also vote for an etymological dictionary, I can see NE’s point that it’s not significant in everyday Christianity. But I would suggest that it is a part of the everyday Christianity… it is in my everyday church life and I would venture to say to Donna’s too. We put these announcements in the bulletins, we make the flyers, etc. So it may not be part of yours, but as our vocation, we are producing these things for the benefit of our congregations and sometimes the community at large.

    And yes, a word incorrectly used just might affect our beliefs. It certainly can affect another person’s belief. Let’s take the example of ministry that you just used. How is crocheting blankets for a nursing home a ministry? Is there Word and Sacrament in that blanket? When we start calling all service organizations or service opportunities a ministry, we are putting them at the level of the deliverance of Word and Sacrament. Even in the secular world, minister is a position of authority. What that term does is speak to the general public that you too are an authoritative figure, you too can deliver Word and Sacrament. That’s not true and that’s not good.

    And just so I’m not contradicting myself, when I support the word fellowship used in such, I wouldn’t be using it as the title of an event. I would use it within the description of the event. A dinner would be a dinner. A pot-luck a pot-luck. A picnic a picnic. And so on.

    As for Fellowship Hall… it was years before I knew anyone else called theirs something other than Parish Hall. Now I’m wondering about that name! It makes sense in our context. Originally that building was the sanctuary and then in the 60s our current sanctuary was built and this became the activities center and it was called Parish Hall. It has been completely remodeled, but it remained on the same spot, so we continue to call it Parish Hall. My theory is that if a congregation is a parish, then the place congregational activities occur could very well be a Parish Hall.

    Sorry for babbling on too long.

  11. Love your article Donna. Believe it or not, I sat in Lutheran pews for many years with a harden heart before the Holy Spirit was able to pierce it. Looking back, I view the old parish I attended, as so many, a social congregation transformed into a center that was not only opened for worship but also mostly available for nameless other activities in the name of false fellowship. I’m in favor of our weekly gathering in fellowship around His Holy Eucharist. But like any typical North American Lutheran, I love molded green Jell-O and Macaroni N Cheese. So I have to agree with Susan R’s novel idea of just calling the thing it is – coffee coffee, dinners dinners, recognition celebrations recognition celebrations. We just need to be reminded to keep it out of Liturgical Worship and don’t blend them.

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