Believing, Behaving and Belonging

Yme Woensdregt writes on the importance of community.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the difference between bounded–set groups and centre–set movements.

A bounded–set group is concerned with setting and keeping strict boundaries: who’s in and who’s out. What this has meant for the church is that many churches make sure you believe the right things, behave the right way, and then you can belong.

On the other hand, a centre–set movement focusses on the relation of people in the group to the centre. For the church this begins with the deep understanding that we belong from the get–go, and what is important is how we relate with the centre who is Jesus.

I believe that the congregation I serve, Christ Church Anglican, is such an open, accepting and welcoming congregation. We invite people to come with their doubts and questions. We welcome people who are trying to figure things out for themselves. We talk and listen together as we seek to live more faithfully as followers of Jesus.

We don’t require people to believe the right things. It’s okay with us to struggle with questions of faith. It’s perfectly fine to have doubts. It’s acceptable to wonder. In fact, we encourage that kind of questioning. We want to be together in community, trying to work out together what a relationship with God looks like.

For us, it’s a matter of trying to “motivate by acceptance”, which is Brian McLaren’s felicitous phrase. We try to practice a radical hospitality which welcomes everyone. We want to foster a church community where Christians and not–yet–Christians can come together. We strive to cultivate an atmosphere in which believers and seekers and questioners and people who want to be in love with God, but aren’t quite sure about all the baggage that comes along with “church” all feel welcome and treasured.

Why? Because the church community I serve seems to understand that for many people today, belonging must precede believing.

It seems to us that this was Jesus’ way of doing things. Contrary to what some people believe and some churches preach, Jesus didn’t tell people that if they didn’t believe in him, they would go to hell. Rather, he invited everyone to join him “on the way”. Jesus invites us to “Follow me.” That’s it. Hang out with me. Walk with me. Travel through the world and your life with me.

God graciously invites us to be part of a community, to be part of a group of people who are growing in faith and learning what it means to live with each other with grace and compassion. Jesus calls us to be companions with one another on a journey. The gospel encourages us to live together as we try to figure out what’s important in life.

In such a community, we recognize that none of us will ever “believe right”. We are growing … learning … changing together. We make mistakes, and that’s all right. We have doubts, and that’s ok. The important thing is to grow and learn and love. We journey together in this world as people who want to be faithful to God in all that we do.

This may seem obvious to many, but unfortunately it’s not so obvious to other Christians. Most of our present church denominations arose as a result of conflict and controversy. As a result, they tried to define carefully who was in and who was out. But when the controversies died, the fences remained standing, and churches thought they were called to tend the fences as carefully as possible. The result was an environment of control, which was reinforced by what Brian McLaren calls “motivation by exclusion”.

These churches control carefully who is in and who is out. Motivation by exclusion says, “We’re right and you’re wrong. If you want to belong, you have to be right. So, if you believe right, think right, speak right and act right, we’ll let you in.”

I would rather live another way. Instead of trying to exclude people and maintain fences, I would rather be more accepting of all God’s precious people. I want to be part of a community with such a passionate desire to be faithful to God, and which wants to share that with as many others as possible by being as open as possible. I would rather have people join us on this journey, to explore their own vision of faithful living. Some will decide that the way we live it out works for them. Wonderful. Others will decide it is not their way. That’s fine as well. You’ll still be our friends.

As I read the gospels, this was Jesus’ way. He was criticized for being a friend of sinners, for being a glutton and a drunkard, for not doing religion the way everyone else did it. Jesus befriended the outsiders — the Samaritans, the tax collectors, people who were just “wrong”. They didn’t “believe right, think right, speak right or act right”.

But faith isn’t just a head trip. Faith is not just a set of right beliefs, right doctrines, right dogmas. Faith does not mean “thinking the right way” or “saying the right prayers” or “believing the right set of beliefs”.

Faith is a way of life. Faith is a journey of trust in God, and living in the world with hope. Faith has to do with how we live together with our neighbours — all our neighbours in this world. Faith means to learn to live in a community, showing authentic love for others.

And I’m convinced that as we motivate by acceptance, others will recognize authentic love for what it is, and want to be part of a community that tries to live it out day by day.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican.