Koinonia—the Greek word for Christian fellowship—is an essential quality of a
holistic congregation. Loving, welcoming, reconciling, accountable, joyous fellowship is the
cornerstone of all the other church activities (Col. 3:14). The essence of the Gospel is
uniquely embodied in the way members of a congregation treat one another.
In its first few years, Koinonia Christian Community Church learned an important
lesson about the biblical principle that gave the church its name. From the beginning,
Koinonia had emphasized active outreach. The church’s founding couple, Jerome and
Sadie Simmons, led neighborhood witnessing teams, provided food bags and hot meals
to the community, opened a thrift store, and had begun building renovations to start a day
care as the planned cornerstone of a comprehensive community development center.
Pastor Simmons spent a lot of time “out on the streets,” telling people about Jesus and
inviting them to church. The church grew slowly. But Pastor Simmons had a hard time
recruiting congregants for active participation in the church’s vision, and many new
believers were slipping out the church’s “back door.”
A series of special services surrounding the celebration of their fifth anniversary
brought the small congregation together in a new way. It was then that Pastor Simmons
realized that they needed to take a step back from all their outreach to focus on developing
loving relationships within the church. When new or renewed Christians came to Koinonia,
he did not want them to find an atmosphere of indifference, stubborn pride, or contention.
“You don’t want to bring people into a place that’s not that different from the world,” he
notes. The quality of a congregation’s relationships say to the community, “Something new
is happening here.” As Jesus told his followers, “By this everyone will know that you are my
disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
The kinds of Christians who “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22)
are those whom God can use to share His love with others. Thus by helping your
congregation to cultivate a spirit of koinonia, you are also preparing your congregation for
holistic ministry. A church’s lasting impact is not only in its structured programs of outreach
but also (and sometimes especially) in the informal relationships and ordinary, day-to-day
acts of compassion and fellowship among its members.
What are the characteristics of koinonia that mark a holistic congregation?
Meeting Internal Needs
One concrete way that the church expresses love is by striving to meet the material
and emotional needs of its members. Galatians 6:10 urges us, “Whenever we have an
opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith”
(emphasis added). The needs are not just “out there.” Many Christians are ashamed to
admit their problems to their church. Sadly, people often encounter more compassion from
a nonprofit agency than from their own church. If a congregation does not care for
members who are struggling with hunger, unemployment, or domestic abuse, how can the
church authentically say it wants to help others? If a church provides people with all kinds
of aid when it is “wooing” them, but then neglects them once they join the congregation,
won’t people see through their hypocrisy?
If members do not feel secure that the church cares about them, they are less
motivated to reach out to others. A member of an active congregation wrote to the pastor:
“While I applaud and support our growing involvement in social action issues, . . .
sometimes I think we are perceived only in terms of outreach to others while our own needs
are overlooked. I would like to be a person and not just a resource tool.” Nurturing the
holistic health of members is an investment in the church’s holistic ministry.
Churches should adopt the standard of Deuteronomy 15:4-5: “There will be no one
in need among you . . .” This is not an unrealistic goal. The early church actually achieved
it, as the book of Acts records: “All who believed were together and had all things in
common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all,
as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). The result? “There was not a needy person among them”
(4:34). Further, the story in Acts illustrates the connection between caring relationships and
evangelism: “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved”
(2:47). A caring church fellowship is not a substitute for intentional, explicit evangelism (the
apostles didn’t stop preaching!), but it offers a living demonstration of the Good News we
share. True koinonia makes the world sit up and take notice.
While churches today need not necessarily imitate the early church’s specific
methods, all must find ways of addressing members’ needs. At Life in Christ Cathedral of
Faith, aid flows through a “Blessings and Needs” ministry which provides emergency relief,
and links members’ extra goods (such as clothing or furniture) with other members’ or
neighborhood residents’ needs. The Shepherding ministry of First Presbyterian Church
ensures that each family in attendance has a trained “shepherd” looking out for them and
addressing their needs. New Covenant Church of Philadelphia fights unemployment in its
midst by asking members to report any open positions in their place of employment and
printing a “help wanted” list, among other strategies.
During one New Covenant church service, a man asked for prayer because he was
unemployed. He had been saved while in prison. After his release he joined New Covenant
Church and reunited with his family, but he could not support them because employers
would not hire a man with a prison record. Bishop Grannum turned to another member of
the congregation and asked him to stand up. He announced, “This brother right here, Stan,
he’s a former policeman. Stan, I want you to take this man under your wing and help him
find a job.” From that day on, the ex-convict had a job laying cinder blocks. He ended up
working for the subcontractor who was constructing the new sanctuary at New Covenant.
The church helped him rebuild his life—and in turn he literally helped build the church!
A formal benevolence committee is helpful, but more important is the willingness of
people in the congregation to look out for each other. “If you are here in this community of
faith, and it hits the fan for you,” assures Rev. Marcus Pomeroy of Central Baptist Church,
“there is a group of people who are going to be there for you”—providing child care for
parents of twins, house cleaning for disabled persons, food for families with a member in
the hospital. The congregation takes it for granted that they ought to share financial
assistance, goods, services, and time with one another as a routine way of life.
Another critical feature of koinonia is racial, class, and gender reconciliation. The
church must carry on Christ’s work of breaking down the barriers between God’s children.
In the early church, the miracle of Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slave and free,
Pharisees and tax collectors, breaking bread together in the name of Christ was an
electrifying sign of the truth and power of the Gospel. The reconciled, unified church is not
only a part of our witness to the community, it bears testimony in the spiritual realms as
well. According to Ephesians 3:6–10, humankind is united in Christ “so that through the
church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and
authorities in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 3:10) (cite Guder)
Welcoming diversity within the congregation is an important feature (though not the
sum total) of reconciliation, especially when the church is located in or serves a diverse
neighborhood. It’s tough for the group that has traditionally dominated the congregation to
break free of old patterns and share power. It’s tough for Christians of a minority group to
feel at home on someone else’s turf. But when people truly love the Lord, the Bible
promises that the obstacles to unity can be overcome. “There is one body and one Spirit,
just as you were called to the one hope” (Eph 4:5). Become sensitive to anything in the
church that contradicts this fundamental truth of Christian unity by conveying an
unscriptural exclusivity. For example, images of a “white” Christ on stained glass windows
or children’s Sunday school materials, an expensive dress code, or the use of exclusively
male pronouns for humanity can be practical or symbolic barriers to reconciliation.
Welcoming the Stranger
Effective holistic congregations embrace those who are “different.” Jesus
consistently attracted followers who had been marginalized by poverty, by disabilities, or
by sinful lifestyles, yet without condoning sin. Congregations who are likewise welcoming
will hear Jesus say in praise, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35). The
“strangers” among us include those with handicaps, physical and mental; divorcees and
single parents; homosexuals; homeless people; immigrants; anyone who just doesn’t “fit
in.” Such individuals are often ignored at best, ostracized at worst. If your congregation
rarely has to deal with “strangers,” it may be because they no longer feel comfortable
coming to your church. But the Apostle Paul helps us understand that we should actually
value those who are “foolish” and “weak” as assets to the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 1:26–29).
Media Presbyterian Church’s “Ministry to Special Friends” supports people in the
church who might need extra attention. For example, single moms can have their kids
matched with a male mentor from the congregation, who takes them to soccer games and
other activities. Other volunteers befriend handicapped persons in the church, meeting
occasionally to play cards or go out to dinner. The ministry coordinator knows how it feels
on the church margins, because she herself has a family member who is mentally
challenged. “One reason I’m here in this church today is because we were greeted with
open arms over twenty years ago,” she reflects, “and that’s not always typical. If you’re
looking for help and support, and you have a special need, there’s no better feeling than
to come to a church and have them open up their arms to you.”
”The kingdom of God is a party,” says Tony Campolo. Descriptions of the early
church give the impression that the first Christians had a great time just being with one
another: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at
home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). A holistic church is a
busy church. Members can easily be swept up in the ministry maelstrom and lose the joy
of simple fellowship. Just as busy households have to guard precious family time, churches
must set aside “family time” where there is no agenda other than enjoying one another’s
To sustain a commitment to holistic ministry, people must share a sense of humor
and a spirit of gratifying companionship. In other words, people have to know how to have
fun together. That is almost impossible if they do not know one another well, or worse, just
don’t get along. At the same time, doing ministry together can also strengthen members’
bonds with one another. Leaders can promote holistic ministry as an opportunity for people
to “let down their hair” outside a more formal worship setting, and to get to know one
another on a deeper level in a “real world” context. “In a Sunday morning relationship, you
can choose to be involved with people as much or as little as you want,” says Bishop Dickie
Robbins. “But when you’re forced to work with people hand-to-hand and heart-to-heart,
there’s a prolonged time where you’re exposed to one another.”
The final characteristic of koinonia to be considered here is accountable fellowship.
“People today desperately need a church that functions as the church—a body of believers
who accept liability for one another, are available to one another, and make themselves
accountable to one another,” wrote Ron in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. If church
members are not able or willing to hold one another accountable, they cannot imitate Christ
in ministry. The only way to mature in Christ, according to Ephesians 4:15, is by “speaking
the truth in love.” For holistic ministry to take root in a congregation, it must be a place
where members can challenge and correct one another in love. Sin must be confronted in
a loving way, without rancor, coercion, or self-righteous condemnation. As Paul says in
Galatians 6:1–2, “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have
received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. . . . Bear one
another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” The purpose of
accountability and discipline within the church is not to weed out sinners (there would be
no one left in the pews!), but to help the whole congregation grow together in holiness and
Believers must hold one another accountable when there are blatant, grievous sins
that infect the whole church body (1 Corinthians 5). No less important is holding one
another accountable for the “smaller” or hidden sins that hinder personal spiritual growth.
People who are involved in outreach ministry, in particular, need help in discerning whether
their lives match the message of God’s holy love that they preach and model. A focus on
effective outcomes must never obscure the imperative of personal and institutional integrity.
Without accountability, ministries may be tempted to gain results at the expense of moral
compromise. Moreover, a church that has healthy internal accountability is better able to
walk alongside people from the community who are struggling to make better moral
choices—for example, by helping an ex-convict to reconcile with his family, develop
productive work habits, and avoid slipping back into substance abuse.
As the church grows in holistic ministry, members should also gently help one
another overcome the personal obstacles that conflict with the church’s mission, such as
a crippling fear of evangelism or degrading stereotypes about poor persons. “In good
relationships, priorities get challenged,” writes David Mann. “One may need to challenge
an apparently too-busy person to invest some time in action about something in which he
or she believes. A cynical person may need to be encouraged to persevere as an agent of
change.” David Apple notes that part of his ministry at economically diverse Tenth
Presbyterian Church has been to “convert” well-off Christians to a new perspective on
social action: “The affluent must desire a change of attitude, to come to a point in their
spiritual pilgrimages where they understand that the heart of God goes out in a special way
to the widow, the orphan, the beggar, and the sojourner and that God desperately wants
these church members to share that concern.”
Churches should hold members accountable for their economic choices as well.
Imagine how it would transform the lives of Christians today if we truly believed Paul’s
warning that economic greed is just as terrible as sexual sin. For most American Christians,
truly letting Christ be Lord of our pocketbooks does not come naturally. Central Baptist
Church offered a series of classes called “Your Money or Your Life.” The classes used a
biblically-based study guide on economic justice and simple living. Almost a third of the
congregation attended. People in the class shared openly about the implications of the
subject matter for their lives. One of the fruits of the class has been the creation of a
directory of items belonging to households in the church that are available for others to
borrow, rather than buying their own.
Ultimately, the church’s leadership is accountable for dealing with sin in the body of
Christ. However, members have a role in holding one another accountable as well. Often
this is best done through small fellowship groups where members can be transparent with
one another. In a small group setting, members can encourage, challenge and guide one
another about lifestyle choices, ministry struggles, evangelism, theological questions, and
responses to social issues.
Adapted from Ronald J. Sider, Philip N. Olson and Heidi Rolland Unruh, Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching
Your Community with Good News and Good Works, chapter 8. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker
Book House Company, copyright (c) 2002.