How “Belonging before Believing” Redefines the Church

Article
02.29.2012

One of the great insights of the modern world is that John Donne was right and Simon & Garfunkel was wrong: I am not a rock; I am not an island.

From who I think I am to what I believe about life and the universe, my beliefs are socially constructed. That doesn’t mean I don’t make independent decisions. It simply means that the social context in which I live largely determines the range of options I can choose from.

What’s more, culture rewards some choices and penalizes others with its approval or disapproval. Sometimes the reward is financial. But far more powerful than material reward is the social, intellectual, and emotional reward of being considered a normal, healthy, well-adjusted member of society. We’re social beings, and so we want to be included in the group.

And this means that, regardless of the objective merits of an idea, some ideas seem more plausible or attractive than others. It’s difficult to believe something that everyone we know thinks is crazy. On the other hand, it’s quite easy to believe something that everyone we know thinks is obviously true. We’re not islands in the stream, we’re a school of fish, and it just makes sense to go with the flow.

THE CHURCH SAYS, “THIS ISN’T AS CRAZY AS YOU THOUGHT”

What happens when you apply these basic insights to the local church and its task of evangelism? All of a sudden, you realize that the local church is more than a preaching station or venue for evangelistic programs. And you see that the task of evangelism is no longer confined to the professionals on staff.

Instead, the entire community becomes a crucial element in the task of commending the gospel. That community becomes the plausible alternative to unbelief. It becomes a sub-culture that demonstrates what it looks like to love and follow Jesus and so love and serve one another. And it does all this as the church body lives out its life together. From public meetings to small group Bible studies, from informal gatherings around the dinner table to purely social events, life together not only reinforces shared belief, it also communicates to a watching non-Christian world, “This isn’t as crazy as you thought, and if you make the leap from unbelief to belief, you won’t be alone.”

In other words, the church becomes a plausibility structure for faith. Make sense?

ONE STEP FURTHER: BELONGING BEFORE BELIEVING

In the last few decades, however, many churches have taken this insight a step further. If seeing a plausible alternative from the outside can help someone move from unbelief to belief, wouldn’t seeing it from the inside be even better? If we want to commend the gospel to non-Christians, what could be more effective than inviting them inside, letting them try it on before they commit to buying it? If the community is the most powerful tool we have, then let’s bring people in, not as outside observers, but as (cautious) insiders participating in our corporate life with us.

The result? “Unbelievers” become “seekers,” rather than non-Christians. They become fellow travelers on the journey with us, just at a different point.

Practically, this means letting unbelievers join everything from the worship band to the after-school tutoring ministry, from ushering to coordinating rides for seniors. Everyone is included; everyone belongs, regardless of belief.

The idea is that, before they know it, not only will they feel like they belong, they will also believe what they belong to, because belonging has made belief plausible.

WHY NOT LET THEM BELONG BEFORE THEY BELIEVE?—THREE REASONS

This is an attractive idea. This is a seemingly effective idea. But it is also a bad idea. Here are three reasons why.

It Confuses Christians

First, it confuses Christians. I pastor a church that for years practiced this idea in informal ways. The result is a collection of insiders (some are formal members, some are not) who all claim to be Christians. The problem is that some are zealous and committed, others seem more interested in being entertained, while still others can’t be bothered to contribute at all. But since they all belong to the family, they’re all nominally followers of Jesus, and we have to come up with other explanations for the differences: “he’s really busy,” “she’s just not into the music,” “their friends aren’t here anymore.” And we have to come up with extra categories like “committed Christians,” “serious Christians,” and “sacrificial Christians” in order to distinguish them from the “run-of-the-mill Christians” and “sort-of Christians.”

Surely we should expect a range of spiritual maturity in the church, and Christians will sin. But what does it really mean to be a Christian in this context? And what do we do with the awkward statements that Jesus made, like “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50) or “Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38)? Jesus talked about following him as a radical break with our former way of living. But when we begin to deliberately blur the line, we confuse Christians about what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the first place.

It Confuses Non-Christians

Second, belonging before believing confuses non-Christians. Not long after I arrived at my church, an anonymous phone call came into the office informing us that one of our leaders was “living in sin” in the old-fashioned sense of that phrase. When we investigated, it turned out to be true.

In one sense, that wasn’t the biggest problem. Again, Christians fall into sin, even grievous sin.

The real problem, from a pastoral standpoint, occurred when this person was confronted. The response was striking: “I didn’t sign up for this! If I’d known this is what would happen, I would never have joined in the first place.” (Ironically, you can have a culture of belonging before believing and still have formal membership, as we did.)

Apparently, for this individual, being a Christian wasn’t about obeying Jesus. And the gospel wasn’t about repenting and believing. Instead, it was about belonging to our family, being accepted, and having the opportunity to express your own gifts and interests. Accountability certainly didn’t enter into the equation, and neither did commitment. Before we could even talk about it, that leader had left.

When non-Christians are never told that they are non-Christians, but are instead taught to think of themselves as “fellow travelers,” “seekers,” or “people at different stages of the same journey,” it’s easy for them to become confused about what it really means to be a Christian, and what it looks like to trust in the gospel. The desire to belong to a wonderful family of people can too easily lead someone to sign up for Jesus’ community, but never really sign on to Jesus’ command to repent and believe.

It Fundamentally Redefines the Local Church

Third, belonging before believing fundamentally redefines the local church. The local church is a community, and at the end of the day, a community is defined, not by its documents, buildings, or programs, but by its people—and a people whose lives participate in new creation realities of love and holiness, thereby creating new plausibility structures.

That’s what Jesus taught. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

That’s what Paul taught. “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:6-7). And elsewhere: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14).

That’s what Peter taught. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Pet. 2:12).

That’s what John taught. “This is how we know we are in him. Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:5-6).

This is the power of the church’s witness to Christ, according to the New Testament. When the world looks at the church, of course it sees sinners. But that’s not all it sees. It sees sinners whose lives are being radically transformed by the good news of the gospel. It sees sinners whose love for one another cannot be explained by anything other than the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It sees sinners who not only love each other, but who love God through Jesus Christ, and whose lives display that love in holiness and truth.

To return to where we began, the church can be a plausibility structure for faith only if consists of people who have faith.

All of that changes when the church becomes the community of those who are merely on a journey together. For many, the outcome of the journey is unclear and uncertain. For others, the journey has come to a halt before the final destination is reached. For still others, the goal of salvation has been found. But the community itself is not a witness to the truth of Jesus Christ and his gospel. It can’t be if you can belong before you believe.

Instead, the community is merely a witness to itself, its warmth, openness, and inclusiveness. But what, in the end, is so unique and compelling about that? There are many warm and open communities, sub-cultures if you will, within the city of Portland, where I live. But they don’t testify to Jesus. Only the local church can do that. And even then, the church can do that only if you must believe in order to belong.

In short, the philosophy of belonging before belief fundamentally redefines the church, which in the long run undermines the power of the church’s witness.

A BETTER IDEA

Belonging before believing is a bad idea. A better idea is what Jesus described in John 13: a community that profoundly believes the gospel so that its life is marked by a love for one another. Such a community, he said, will provoke those on the outside not only to recognize they are outside, but to desire to come in.

The image that comes to mind is of a bakery on a cold, snowy day. Whiffs of delicious bread and hot chocolate occasionally waft outside. And a child has his nose pressed against the window pane. That glass is a barrier. Without it, the warmth and delicious smells would soon disperse in the cold wind, and no one would know there was anything good to be found there. But it’s a transparent barrier, allowing that child to see the good things inside and invite him in. And there is a way in, a narrow door that he must walk through. Until he does, he can see and appreciate what’s inside, but it’s not his to enjoy. Once he walks through, it’s his for the asking.

When non-Christians encounter your church it should be like standing at that window, not staring blankly at a brick wall. They should feel the warmth of your love, as you welcome them and engage them as people made in the image of God. They should see the depth of relationships, as they witness people who have no reason to care for one another go out of their way to serve. They should taste the richness of the gospel, as God’s word is preached and taught in a manner that connects with their lives. And they should hear the inviting sounds of a joyful community, as they listen to the praises and prayers of a people who worship our crucified and risen Lord.

So go out of your way to create a community that welcomes the outsider. Give thought to the language you use. Be deliberate in your hospitality. And be strategic in your transparency. Like a bakery that pumps the delicious smell of its bread outside, publicly celebrate the stories of grace and transformation that are happening in your midst. And then, when you’ve done all else, make the gospel clear and invite people to respond to it in repentance and faith. Call them, not to walk an aisle, but to enter through the narrow door, and join with you in the riches of faith in the gospel.

If the church is to display the good things of the gospel, the barrier of belief must not be removed, for it is that shared belief on display that works most powerfully to invite people in.