The last post asked, if following is the most important thing, then what good is believing? This time we’ll ask the same question about believing and belonging.
“I would never want to belong to any organization that would have me as a member,” says the well-worn quip. That attitude notwithstanding, most of us want to belong. Many hands have been wrung of late about the numbers of young adults who no longer feel any need to belong to a church. What doesn’t get asked frequently enough is where they do want to belong. Ask them that question and they’ll tell you they want to belong with other people who value authenticity, service, and genuine engagement with one another. What they don’t want is to belong to a group that a), judges other people and b), expects everyone to believe the same thing in the same way.
And right there you have the great misconception about believing and belonging when it comes to church. I’ve been part of a lot of churches, from hard-shelled fundamentalist to touchy-feely, peace+justice liberal, and the diversity of each and every one of them would surprise and even shock their leaders (especially the fundamentalists). People both inside and outside the church think that to belong you have to agree with some list of essential beliefs. Those outside think that their failure to subscribe to the list disqualifies them from ever coming inside. Those inside think that their similar failure makes them inadequate members, and that pretty soon somebody’s going to discover their inadequacy and they’ll have to leave. Both groups believe implicitly that the list is out there somewhere even though IT DOESN’T ACTUALLY EXIST. It doesn’t actually exist. With a small number of exceptions, even the fundamentalist churches only ask if you’ve invited Jesus to save you and want to follow him before you can join. Practically no one requires you to believe before you can belong.
Now, once you belong all churches expect you to grow. For some churches that means growth in right belief, but again only a few of them actually do any checking about this. For most, belonging—and following—are enough (some mistakenly equate belonging with following, but that’s a subject for another day). Sometimes explicitly, most times implicitly, churches recognize that expecting folks to believe before they can belong is neither practical nor desirable.
So once again we’re left with the question of what good believing does; if belonging comes first, does believing have to come at all? The answer is no, but yes. No, your beliefs about God, the church, even Christ don’t have to be set in order for you to belong (if they are set, and if they significantly contradict what the Bible and Christian tradition teach, then chances aren’t good that you’re going to want to belong to a church in the first place). But yes, believing does matter, because it’s a central part of the journey we’re on together. Living as a community in the presence of the mystery we name God will inevitably lead to questions about what this all means. You can discuss, debate, and argue with yourself about those questions, but the results are neither particularly fun nor particularly illuminating. But holding that conversation with others in a community of faith is another matter entirely. Whether it’s in a Sunday School class, a weekday fellowship meal, a service project, or gathered around the Lord’s table, our belonging to one another at church is going to enrich and deepen our believing. We don’t have to believe in order to belong, but belong long enough and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be able to avoid believing.
Following and belonging are what theologians like to call first-order activities; they are the essential things, the ones that matter most. Believing is not more important than following and belonging, but it aids both of them. We’re going to want to understand and believe better in order to follow better. Likewise, we’re going to find that the attempt to better understand that in which we believe is going to draw us closer as a community that belongs to one another. In both cases, we are led to believe, not because we have to, but because we want to do so. Belief, in other words, is a joyous result of our following and belonging.