When Naysa Modi missed the word “bewusstseinslage” in the championship round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee a month ago, (she omitted an “s”) it opened the door for Karthik Nemmani to win. But he first had to spell two more words correctly. Karthik correctly spelled “haecceitas,” then came the championship word: “koinonia.”

The Bee’s official definition of “koinonia” was, “An intimate spiritual communion and participative sharing in a common religious commitment and spiritual community.” One news report describing the winning round of the Bee called “koinonia,” “an obscure word of Greek origin.”

In the weeks since the Bee, Christian writers have been trying to make sense of this. “Koinonia” is part of the routine vocabulary of many churches. There are “Koinonia” groups, “Koinonia” classes, praise bands named “Koinonia” and so on. The word is so familiar to so many Christians that it’s hard to fathom how it could be used in the championship round of the National Spelling Bee.

“Koinonia” was the word used by Luke to describe the distinctive community of the early church. Acts 2:42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship (koinonia), to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Christians tend to overuse the word “fellowship.” It gets reduced to describing the hospitality time after worship on Sunday. But “koinonia” is much more than that. It’s the intimate, interdependent set of relations among people who together are being transformed by their relationship with Jesus Christ.

So when the news describes “koinonia” as an “obscure” word, it makes me both sad and hopeful. This “obscure” thing is what the church of Jesus Christ uniquely has to offer. It’s also precisely what the world needs.

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