Belonging Before Believing

By Luke Midena, Canberra Community Leader, first published in Compass Winter 2021 edition

You may have heard the phrase, ‘belong before believe’. It was the catchcry of some within the Emerging Church Movement of the last few decades. Driven by a desire to share Christ with the world, allowing people to ‘belong’ to God’s people before they ‘believe’ in Christ was a way of erasing the distinction between Christians and non-Christians.[1]

Of course, the obvious problem of including all people among the saved (universalism) is that it is at odds with Jesus’ clear teaching that those without faith in him will be excluded from the kingdom (Matt. 25:31-46). So, can people belong before they believe? Or should we abandon the phrase altogether?

The short answer is … not necessarily! We shouldn’t abandon this notion, but we do need to have a gospel focus.

If you’ve made it a practice to read the bible with non-Christian friends for some time, you might be able to relate to a scenario wherein I’ve often found myself. We meet regularly at a café on campus, or near their work, and read and discuss one of the gospels. The conversations are fun and satisfying, and over time, we become good friends. They seem to ask the right questions – ‘What does Jesus mean? What’s he doing?’ – and they seem to find the right answers – ‘he’s highlighting the problem with the world’, ‘he’s solving it through his death on the cross’. But it never goes further than comprehension. They are never quite ready to ‘believe’ in Jesus. As the months roll on I sense their interest in the gospel waning and I become increasingly direct: ‘Not making a decision is a decision’, I say. They seem not to hear me as they smile and commend my sincerity. ‘What stimulating conversations we have’, they politely say. They assure me that it’s only Christianity they are rejecting, not me – as if that provides some kind of comfort. But of course, it’s their salvation which is of the utmost importance. So where to from here?

Have you had a similar experience? How can the people we meet one-on-one come face-to-face with the gospel, yet remain ambivalent? This is where ‘belong before believe’ has practical value.

Mutua Mahiaini, the International President of the Navigators, recently wrote that “many Navigators around the world are joyfully discovering the secret of working together among the lost, as opposed to serving as ‘lone rangers’”. This is true of us, both on campus and among workers. We’re finding that people are more willing to ‘believe’ in Christ if they first feel like they ‘belong’ to our group, and have a friendship with us.

…relationships are a part of what gives our lives a sense of meaning.

There’s nothing revolutionary about this – cynically, sometimes evangelism training in western culture amounts to nothing more than friendship training. The principles are simple, but admittedly, quite challenging for people with hyper-individualistic priorities, who treat time as the ultimate treasure to be spent carefully and sparingly. I myself am guilty of behaving like this at times. But humans are social beings, and relationships are part of what gives our lives a sense of meaning.

So, how can our communities offer friendship? How can we be good friends?

In Romans 12 Paul puts it quite simply – ‘Let love be genuine’ (v. 9). Friendship is, after all, love of another. Paul states that this involves being affectionate (v. 9), respectful (v. 10), patient (v. 12), generous (v. 13), hospitable (v. 13), kind to adversaries (vv. 14, 20-21), empathetic (v. 15), congenial (v. 16), humble (v. 16), peaceable (vv. 17-18)… Are you in a community of believers characterised by these traits?

Again and again, we find that when our friends who are investigating Christianity experience the richness of the gospel through a communal embrace, it is impossible for them to dismiss the gospel as just a nice idea.

Earlier this year, a student who was almost completely disinterested in Christianity – who had no interest in reading or discussing the bible or going to church, but who had been enjoying the friendship of our weekly Nav student night – approached me. ‘I’m not like everyone else’, he said. At first, I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. Then he said, ‘Everyone is so sincere in their belief, I’m not like that’, implying this was a major problem. The penny dropped: he wanted whatever it was that the Christians around him had; he just wasn’t sure what that was. In the following weeks I had the opportunity to share the gospel, and he received Christ.

Like many others, he belonged before he believed. God’s Spirit uses friendship within communities of believers to soften hearts and open minds to the gospel. In 1 Peter 2:12 (MSG), Paul encourages: ‘Live an exemplary life in your neighbourhood so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives.’

What might it look like for your Christian community to befriend those in your neighbourhood?

I pray that we would all be more like Paul, who let love be genuine …And ultimately like Jesus, who laid his life down for his friends (Jn. 15:13).

[1] See, for example, Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 25-26, 306-307.

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