Often in churches like the one I pastored years ago, we turned the mainstream view of “believe, then belong” upside down.
That’s because doctrine was often seen as a gatekeeper for who could enter the community. Or not. As a result, churches were often seen as dogmatic, unwelcoming places instead of somewhere people might explore the faith. A friend once told me that his co-worker didn’t like Easter at their church because “all these casually religious people show up.” Yikes. Obviously, something’s wrong with that picture. And so back in the day, in seeker-sensitive or user-friendly churches, we’d say, “Belong, then believe”, and the community became a place to explore faith. It was really about creating safe places for people to check out the claims of Jesus…and inevitably the nature of weekend services began to morph. But there is a caveat. If the process of exploring the faith becomes prolonged, the seeker may get frustrated with the level of relational connection he or she can realistically have with the community. And that’s the conundrum: we all want to belong, to be connected, but what you believe affects the depth of relationship you can have. Let me personalize this. Suppose I worked at Starbucks and had two co-workers who were dyed-in-the-wool Scientologists. After work, I enjoy having drinks with these guys; they’re funny, personable, and we share a common love of movies. But they are sincerely committed to the Church of Scientology. I could kid them about a dubious religion launched by a pulp science-fiction writer who once said, “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion,” but that would hurt their feelings and I like them too much for that. Or I could joke about the upper levels of Scientology where it’s believed seventy-five million years ago the Earth was part of a seventy-six planet Galactic Federation ruled by a malevolent overlord named Xenu who fixed the population problem on other planets by bringing people to earth and strategically placing them around volcanoes that were then blown up with hydrogen bombs. Whew. But that would destroy our relationship because they would feel burned by condescension and sarcasm. Please understand: This is not about evangelism on my part; I’m using this as an analogy for how belief would effect the depth of true community I could honestly have with them. How could I ever become a part of their community at the deepest level? Or share what they feel so intensely about? There would always be a gap in the level of intimacy we could have. It’s a bit of an overstatement to say we can belong before we believe, at least to the degree that we may want to belong. There can certainly be a range of connection, but ultimately it won’t be rich or vibrant. That’s one of the reasons a common creed can be so powerful. Certainly it’s not the only thing that creates real community (try transparency, vulnerability, kindness, servanthood, honesty, etc.), but it is certainly a major doorway to true intimacy. Have you had the conversation with your leadership team about the tension between belonging and believing…and how you wrestle with that as a church? I'm not prescribing an answer. It's simply a matter of being on the same page.
Dave Workman | Elemental Churches