Koinonitis and the bubble diagnosis

I heard the bubble diagnosis again the other day. A friend told me they needed more time outside the “Circle bubble.” I did not pursue the thought too much so I am still wondering, “Did they feel like Pauly Shore in Biodome? They seemed to be taking an anthropologist’s view of the church and decided they needed some breathing room from the subject tribe.

Whether they were just inspecting us or not, I think they mostly make sense. If your congregation becomes a bubble and you are relationally stuck in it, something needs to change. Worse, if the rules of your religious social system are strangling your relationships with people outside of it, that could be toxic to you and to it. It could be “koinonitis.”

The leading cause of death among organic, relationship-based churches is koinonitis. The word is a spin-off from the Greek word koinonia, which means “fellowship,” or life in common. Fortunately, koinonitis has become a popular topic among us for the last few months. If we don’t see it lurking around every bush, it should do us some good to think about it.

Luke reports that the first church, “Continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship [koinonia], in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42, NKJV). Koinonia is the corporate experience of God in the midst of the body of Christ. It’s the common sharing of the Lord’s life, the shared life of the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is primarily a shared experience. We often think of the Holy Spirit as someone we encounter as an individual (perhaps in our beloved contemplative prayer). But in the New Testament, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is almost always given in the context of a shared-life community where other believers are actively involved. There are, for sure, individual spiritual experiences. But the highest spiritual encounters are those that we receive with and in the Body of Christ. This is the meaning of koinonia.

Circle of Hope is blessed with deep understanding of the rare experience of koinonia. You could see it at our Love Feast last Saturday and hear about it in so many of the stories new covenant members told about why they want to take what has become the strange step of making a covenant.

When koinonia becomes koinonitis

Koinonia, however, can devolve into something quite pathological and poisonous. It can develop the disease: koinonitis. Koinonitis sets in when koinonia is ruled by the group’s processes rather than by Jesus. When the processes strangle the presence of Jesus the church dies.

In some places devolution happens when the community emphasizes being a community so much that the church turns insular, ingrown, and self-absorbed. For them, koinonitis is too much of a good thing. It is “fellowship inflammation.” Like high blood pressure, koinonitis is a symptomless disease. The church is typically unaware of it until it suffers a stroke.

Well, maybe not everything…

In other places (and I think among Circle of Hope) koinonitis can set in when the family system develops unhealthy patterns of relating. For instance, among us, there are people who protect others from relational or spiritual pain and impose a “niceness” or tolerance that keeps anyone from saying, “The Emperor has no clothes.” Jesus does not rule, the rule that you are not supposed to say anything that could spoil our sense that “everything is copacetic” or maybe “everything is awesome rules. Koinonitis can set in when there is no reconciliation needed because people who cause “problems” are the ones who need to reconcile. They are bad because they violated the appearance of koinonia.

Like high blood pressure and dysfunctional family rules, koinonitis is hard to spot by the person experiencing it, but it is easy for outsiders to see. Here are some characteristics of this disease:

  • The church lives in a bubble. It has unwittingly built a barrier of difference around itself, not built of its vision, necessarily, but built of relational habits. Relationships get deified to the point where the members don’t feel comfortable having anyone else included who differs in mindset, beliefs, or jargon.
  • Even though the church desires to grow, in reality, it has an “us-four-and-no-more” mentality. The group has devolved into an ingrown toenail—an exclusive huddle of navel-gazers who are shortsighted by the view of their own bellies. (Have to give Frank Viola credit for that description :))
  • There is little to no numerical growth in the church over the long haul. People who visit feel awkward and out of place. More people leave than stay. The church can go on for years with little to no growth, yet few members wince. The thought never occurs to them that they may have something to do with the low volume. They say they don’t want to be about “numbers.”
  • A sense of cliquishness is noticeable by those on the outside. Visitors feel welcome to attend the meetings, but they don’t feel wanted. The church views them as intruders that may fracture the group’s warmhearted fellowship.
  • The church has little impact on the surrounding culture. Because the members are so absorbed with one another, they seldom reach outside their four walls.

How to be healed if the diagnosis fits

I don’t think we, generally, fall into most of these descriptions. But what should we watch out for? As an organic, communal people, we are prone to the disease. (And at least one person feels like they need to get out of the “Circle bubble.”). So try these things:

  1. Keep looking in the mirror. Some of us can’t help being a mirror; thank God we have not broken all of them, yet! Koinonitis is like acne. You can’t see it unless you look in the mirror. It is a kindness if someone shows us our reflection – if they do it kindly, and persistently so we will actually listen.
  1. Get an infusion of new blood. In John 15, Jesus pictures Himself and the church as a vine tree. If you look at any vine, the branches extend outward as the tree grows. So long as the tree is growing outwardly, it will live and continue to grow. Jesus Christ is the Vine, and we are the branches. His nature is to grow outwardly. When a church suffers from koinonitis, it becomes a vine that stops growing outward, even perversely grows inward (an “unvine”). For that reason, the prognosis of koinonitis is living death Revelation 3:1. A new-blood infusion can reverse the symptoms.
  1. Get out there. When Paul planted a few churches in the major cities of a province, he considered the entire province to be evangelized (implied in Romans 16:18-27). Why? Because he planted churches in strategic centers and expected them to naturally evangelize their surrounding districts. Paul had built into the foundation of the church God’s heart for the world. The best thing we can do to prevent koinonitis is to explore ways to naturally develop relationships with people “outside the bubble” so to speak, and to find fresh ways of telling our story to them, including showing it to them acts of compassion and healing.

If getting out of the bubble means the vine is growing, that’s great. But if getting out of the bubble means you despise the miracle of being part of the community God has formed, that’s not so good. If getting out of the bubble means you want to be free of being in covenant with both the bad-rule-makers and discomforting mirrors, that’s not so good, either. Living within the constraints of love might feel like being in a bubble some of us want to pop. But every act of love or feeling of obligation is not “creeping koinonitis.” Neither thinking something is “awesome” nor saying something is “not of the Lord” is always bad just because one is not cool and the other is too hot.

We’re an organism of diverse parts enlivened by the Spirit. We are a work of God in progress. Like all organisms we can get a disease and die; we can wander into an environment that starves us and could kill us. We need to keep listening and obeying as God keeps us safe, renewed and useful in the cause of redemption.

About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

2 thoughts on “Koinonitis and the bubble diagnosis

  1. This is good advice for staying out or recovering from koinonitis. I too wonder about the person wanting to be away from the circle bubble (as they called us), if they are retreating into an even smaller and less porous bubble of individual isolation, which just isn’t healthy. We’re humans, we need God and friends.

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