Last week I preached for several days at Casa del Padre, a small but growing church near San Juan, Puerto Rico. The congregation meets in a rented facility with tile floors and folding chairs. They don’t have a worship leader yet, so a CD player provides accompaniment for the singing. The pastor, a gentle guy named Luis, keeps a second job to pay his family’s bills. Up until a few weeks ago, the church’s office was in his garage.
Casa del Padre is not a fancy place. But the church’s lack of sophistication is overshadowed by an amazing level of love. When I ministered on Sunday morning, the meeting began at 10:30 a.m. yet I didn’t leave the building until 5 p.m.—not because I preached too long but because nobody wanted to go home.
“We must return to koinonia—but you can’t download it. There’s no app for it, and you can’t fake it. We will have to scrap artificial, event-driven programs if we want to return to the relational Christianity of the Book of Acts.”
You might be tempted to say: “That’s just the way Puerto Ricans are. They’re very relational.” It’s certainly true that Puerto Ricans love to party. And their food—especially the rice, beans, pork and mofongo (mashed plantains)—keep people coming back for more. But the authentic fellowship I experienced in San Juan can’t be trivialized as an expression of Latino culture. No, this Puerto Rican church understands a biblical secret many of us have forgotten.
The Book of Acts tells us that after the first disciples were baptized in the Holy Spirit, they were “continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42, emphasis added). The Greek word used for “fellowship,” koinonia, appears here for the first time in the Bible and then is used 18 times throughout the New Testament.
Koinonia, which can be translated “partnership,” is a supernatural grace that causes Christians to love each other deeply. It was not possible before Pentecost because it is a manifestation of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Just as dunamis power enables us to heal the sick or work miracles, koinonia knits our hearts and binds us together.
Christianity is the only religion on earth that invisibly connects its followers with supernatural affection. It makes us feel like a family—and our love for each other, if it is truly from the Spirit, transcends all boundaries of race, gender, age and class. It motivates us to pray for one another, bear one another’s burdens and lay our lives down for one another.
After the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2, koinonia caused the early disciples to share their possessions unselfishly (v. 44-45) and to share meals often (v. 46). Many people decided to become Christians when they saw this loving community (v. 47).
Koinonia was an essential ingredient in the New Testament church. It is what connected Paul, Timothy, Luke, Titus, Priscilla and Aquilla as a team. It is what held the early churches together in the face of persecution and caused them to lay down their lives for one another.
In many parts of the church we’ve forgotten about the essential need for fellowship and tried to build the church without it. We developed a sterile church model that is event-driven and celebrity-focused rather than genuinely relational.
We build theater-style buildings where crowds listen to one guy talk. The crowds are quickly whisked out of the sanctuary to make room for the next group. Many of these people never process with anyone else what they learned, never join a small group and never receive any form of one-on-one discipleship.
We need the apostles’ teaching of Acts 2:42, of course, but without the koinonia mentioned in the same verse, teaching can be come dry and clinical. The church is supposed to be more like a family room than a classroom.
Because we lack relationships today, we have tried to fill the void with technology. We think if we can create a wow factor with cool video clips, 3-D sermons and edgy worship bands, the crowds will scream for more. I don’t think so. Trendy can quickly become shallow.
Pastors and Christian leaders often tell me that they don’t have any friends. Close relationships are scarce. This is often because leaders felt betrayed in a previous relationship. Meanwhile, Many Christians have given up on church altogether—not because of doctrinal issues but because they were wounded by someone at church.
I am not an advocate of getting rid of church (like the spiritual arsonists who think all church buildings are outdated and irrelevant). The church is still God’s Plan A, and it will always be. Acts 2:42 contains the blueprint.
We must return to koinonia—but you can’t download it. There’s no app for it, and you can’t fake it. (If you want a concrete example to copy, I can give you the address of a church in San Juan.) We will have to scrap artificial, event-driven programs if we want to return to the relational Christianity of the Book of Acts.
J. Lee Grady is contributing editor of Charisma. He is preaching in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this week. You can follow him on Twitter at leegrady. His newest book is 10 Lies Men Believe (Charisma House)