Michael Whitmer’s book, Don’t Stop Believing ( Why Living Like Jesus is Not Enough) helps us to pause and reflect on the relationship of Belonging, Becoming and Believing. For as long as I can remember being part of a Bible-believing church the order for newcomers has been clear. Believe then you can belong and then become what you are supposed to be.
In order to believe, we were instructed to pray a prayer – confessing our sin, accepting what Jesus did on our behalf and embracing a relationship with God. Belonging meant getting baptized so we could join the church so we could be held accountable for our spiritual growth. Becoming meant staying obedient, pure and resisting temptation.
Many postmodern churches think that belonging should be the first step in our relationship with the church. Being missional is considered most important and we should be embracing others rather than condemning them.
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch illustrate by saying that conservatives love to build fences to show who is in and who is out while missional churches dig wells and invite all to come and partake. “Rather than seeing people as Christian or non-Christian, as in or out, we would see people by their degree of distance from the center, Christ. In this way, the missional-incarnational church sees people as Christian and not-yet-Christian. It acknowledges the contribution of not-yet-Christians to Christian community and values the contribution of all people.” (p.101)
Some people have gone further in saying it isn’t how close you are to Jesus but in which direction you’re headed. They want the church to feel like a safe, hospitable community where they can belong. The believe that faith is a pilgrimage which we are all on.
In this later framework, we belong first, become and then learn to believe. “Evangelism or mission… is no longer about persuading people to believe what I believe … It is about shared experiences and encounters. It is about walking the journey of life and faith together, each distinct to his or her own tradition and culture but with the possibility of encountering God and truth from one another.”
Conservatives tend to focus on believe, belong, become because they emphasize the impact of the fall and so define us as sinners who need to repent. Our condition is that of fallen sinners; our goal is to convert; our means is to find answers and discover truth; our ministry is to confidently declare the authoritative truth and our church tends to cater to people who believe like us.
Missional churches see our condition as that of created seekers on a spiritual journey who are asking questions, wondering about truth. Believers humbly invite others to participate in the journey and welcome community members to join the larger faith family as they explore. We would love to see all of us engaged with Jesus, bringing truth, grace and love to those around us. (This is our vision statement).
Each of us might have a clear preference for one or the other option but Whitmer sees both options as inadequate. The missional church is too permissive – allowing a wide diversity of beliefs as long as one is inclusive and tolerant. The conservative view is seen as stifling and oppressive when one has to believe all the right things before being accepted.
Whitmer sees the missional view as positive for those on their journey toward faith and the conservative view as strengthening for those who have embraced the faith and what it stands for. He summarizes his teaching as follows (p. 108)
“When we combine both models in the way we do church, we will gladly admit that Christian and non-Christian alike are on a journey, but we will emphasize the turning point of repentance and faith to get on track. We will clasp the clear, life-giving answer of Christianity in one hand and raise a hand for questions with the other. We will expect new Christians to grow in love and righteousness, and we will compassionately embrace those who struggle. We will limit membership in the body of Christ to those who believe but welcome and make room for those who do not.”
Where do you think Faith’s family falls in helping believe to belong, believe and become? Regardless of where you fall, realized that you are loved more than you can ask or imagine. Pastor Jack