March 8, 2017

Koinonia: Don’t be Fooled by More Expensive Imitations

A tag line from a decades-old infomercial still makes me chuckle: [announcer voice] “This ____ can be yours. Do not be fooled by more expensive imitations!” There is something so deliciously ironic (and just plain wrong) about that phrase. The first time I heard it I said, “What???” Then I heard it again and again and again—promoting some piece of indispensable Americana plastica that could be “. . . yours for the low, low price of . . .”

All imitations aside for the moment, what I’m about to attempt to describe is the real deal. If you have experienced it, you’ll know immediately what I’m talking about (and why I’m struggling with descriptive words!) If you haven’t experienced it yet, this post may give you encouragement that “it” is still “out there.”

The “it” to which I’m referring is Koinonia — a Greek word that can be translated community, or fellowship, or communion, with God and with other followers of Jesus. Koinonia is a biblical ideal—Paul refers to it in many different ways. Koinonia is one of those churchly goals that is frequently articulated, often imitated, sometimes exaggerated, but true fellowship / community / communion can never be duplicated apart from the power and initiative of the Holy Spirit.

I experienced true Koinonia last night at our Ash Wednesday liturgy. This was not entirely surprising. My whole experience of this new pastoral call has been building toward a moment like this. For the past seven months my wife and I have been welcomed and embraced, enmeshed and encouraged by these wonderful brothers and sisters in Christ. We have been invited joyfully and regularly into their homes and into their hearts. Last night, at a service that marked both the beginning of Lent the start of (only) my eighth month of ministry here, I was expecting to experience earnest worship. I was overwhelmed by the inescapable reality of Koinonia.

While it was a good liturgy, the worship was nothing too far out of the ordinary. The readings were those appointed for Ash Wednesday. The hymns were predictable as was the flow of the penitential rite. But there was an unquantifiable sense of holiness in our 90 year old sanctuary as saints gathered; young and old and many in between, some under their own power and some (even young adults) with assistive devices, some who were baptized decades earlier in that same room and others who will be joining the congregation before Easter. We came, not as five-score individuals, but as one holy congregation—a true community of followers of Jesus—to sing and pray, confess and be assured, to receive bread and wine and ashes, and then to be sent out into the darkness of “just another Wednesday night in Chicago” to resume our roles in the greater mission of God.

But there was something unique last night—a Spirit-nurtured electricity in the air that intensified the prayers and enlivened the singing, that drew us closer to one another’s realities and subverted our well-practiced North-American individualism. It was a daunting joy to speak to each individual (calling 90% of them by name) knowing at least the contemporary chapters of many of their stories after a relatively brief journey together. Particularly touching were a couple of people who may have received the ashes for the final time in this life. Equally poignant were moments with the children who looked up in moderate apprehension at my ash-smudged thumb until I stooped down to their level and reminded them how much Jesus loves them.

This was the real deal—the “thing” to which many pastors refer when they have heard the call of God and discover they “can’t do anything else but respond.” This was Koinonia—believers united by the One who holds creation itself together.

True Koinonia is costly—there is no getting around that. It takes the unreserved investment of heart, soul, mind, will, energy, imagination, joy, and love. It takes real time in the real lives of real people to build the shared ministry of worship leaders, deacons, and elders, and to gain an honest hearing by people who are longing to know you really do care. It takes the commitment of significant amounts of time over meals and board games, making hospital visits and welcoming impromptu conversations. It takes a deep personal investment in Scripture and prayer, in preaching and in teaching with the lasting discipleship and measureable spiritual growth of harried, distracted, sometimes dysfunctional people as the only significant goal. It takes patience, love, and irrepressibly optimistic joy. But when you experience it, when you realize you are standing in the midst of living, breathing, Koinonia—you’re ready to do it all again.

Ministry of any kind, for elders, deacons, staff, or clergy, is not for the faint of heart or for those who simply want to dabble at something. And let’s be honest; not every congregation is primed for (or even desirous of) true Koinonia. This is a dangerous reality. It seems counter intuitive, but the imitations of Koinonia are, in the long run, far more costly than the real thing. These are the moments of “I probably should have, but . . .” or “I won’t!” or “what do you want from me now??” or “it’s probably good enough” that the Enemy can use to lure us into the death spiral of playing at church, putting on a good show, checking off the boxes, showing up . . . and at some point burning out.

Last night was a gift of grace for me. At the end of a decade-long sojourn as a distance pastor in para-church ministry, it reminded me just how important local pastoral ministry is in the life of a community, how beautiful Koinonia can be, and why I, for one, can’t imagine ever doing anything else again. If you as an elder, deacon, musician, educator, administrator, janitor, or pastor, have experienced this type of blessing, include it in your prayers of thanksgiving. If you are yearning for Koinonia and not experiencing it just now, yearn aloud to God. Sing the psalms of yearning. Seek the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Set Koinonia as your goal—for yourself and, even more so, for the people in your care. Whether it’s a congregation or a choir, a small group or a worship team, you can experience the joy of true Koinonia. Don’t be fooled by more expensive imitations!

Rev. Dr. Paul Detterman is an author, composer, and conference speaker who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of River Forest, Illinois, and a blogger at He is a former associate for worship on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church (USA).