A member of our congregation, Jeff, began his fight with cancer almost four years ago. He started to write a diary of his reactions at various stages, posting them on a website. He writes:
“I am not sure that I am in the eye of the storm now and will see the storm winds of cancer begin to howl again, or if I am coming out of this storm altogether. We all face storms in our life and it is amazing that God uses those storms to bring us closer to him.”
Jeff says, if you are flying like an eagle, thank God for today and the blessing that it is. If you are in a storm now, understand that God stands with you today to brace against the winds for you and to love you unconditionally, and that now is the time you will become closer to God. Give thanks for that.
Do you, the reader, find these words encouraging? I do and think this is a great example of a Christian fellowship at work. Here is the mutual conversation and encouragement that Martin Luther called a means of grace.
Note Jeff’s twice-made observation that he has been drawn closer to God through his personal storm. What does such closeness look and feel like? In his other entries over the years he describes his thankfulness for care providers, his heightened appreciation for the gift of life, his renewed sense of love for family and friends, his sense of peace during the howling storm.
My goal is to make such personal encouragement more available to believers through fellowships of the Spirit. Fellowship (koinonia) means sharing something with somebody. The Spirit does his work through a community of believers sharing insights from God’s Word. Bible promises are basic. How those promises are experienced by other believers adds persuasiveness.
Such personal sharing happens more routinely in congregations other than those in mainline churches. We have a centuries-long tradition of spiritual matters being handled by the pastor, who typically relies on Bible promises to offer encouragement. Confidentiality is highly regarded. Pastors don’t tell stories about the personal spiritual experiences of others. They can, however, ask permission to tell some encouraging parts of that person’s story. In my experience most are willing to give this.
To tell a story takes some skill. In previous centuries such skills were not widely spread. Today half the U.S. population started college and one quarter finished. Many believers today are able to give a good account of a spiritual experience, once they know what to look for.
Personal faith stories can get long and complicated. The attention span of those hearing or reading such an account is limited. How can a fellowship make faith-affirming stories available without expecting full attention for a lengthy account? Where could these stories be available?
The internet age is now upon us. This new technology offers a great venue for sharing experiences. On a website, stories can be headlined and then clicked on to read the larger account. Or videos telling that story can be shared in a worship service and accessed by the internet.
The stories most persuasive are by people near you that you can get to know. Ideally, these stories will be told within a congregation. Imagine the faith-affirming fellowship interaction that can emerge among participants who share similar backgrounds and experiences.