As a pastor of an urban congregation, I have found myself in a conundrum about what it means to “join” or “become” a member of the Church. People are not interested in “joining” churches. Their reasons range from a lack of trust in the institution, to an inability to see its need, to reluctance in making a commitment.
Perhaps those of us who are responsible for “teaching” and “preaching” have lost our ability to speak with integrity about what “joining” actually means.
In trying to make sense of all of this, the paradigm of believing and belonging has become helpful, though equally problematic. Believing and belonging are always connected, but in this instance, Jesus makes clear that “belonging” actually precedes “believing”.
In our congregation, we’ve started talking about the notion of “membering” ourselves to the Church. Instead of “membership” being used as a noun, here we are intentionally using it as a verb. Membering one’s self back to the Body is needed in order to experience the fullness of what it means to function in the same manner that God intended for the Church. When done well, membering helps to foster the kind of culture or environment in which belonging can take place.
Recently, in a discussion about member-ing (formally known as Membership Class), one of the participants introduced himself in this way:
I am not sure why I came to this class. I should probably confess that I am not a Christian — at least not in the way that some of you describe yourselves. I am here because this church is in my community. I believe most of what I am hearing and experiencing about Jesus, and I love the people here and I felt like it was right for me to come to this class.
Of course, my question as pastor was this:
Can he join — “member” here — if he doesn’t define himself as Christian? It was crystal clear that he has a strong sense of belonging. This conversation gifted us, the Church, with a real living example of the relationship between believing and belonging. In this one person, the two are inextricably linked.
Yet, as strong believers of our faith, welcoming those into our communities whose beliefs don’t perfectly align with ours can be challenging. In a recent training with a group of urban church youth leaders, I began talking about the relationship and tension between believing and belonging. One of the participants became very irritated. Finally, he said, “I’m not comfortable with what you are suggesting. We have to make clear to people what they are supposed to believe, what it means to follow Jesus and that it requires one to give up their life. We are not here just to help people find a place to belong.” I honestly had the thought, “shouldn’t we be a community that welcomes people in the name of Christ, where those who are disconnected, disenfranchised, pushed out, etc., feel a sense of genuine belonging?”
I don’t think it is either/or. It’s both. Learning how to hold the tension between the two is a critical skill needed for our ministries.
Belonging to the Community of the Body of Christ
Our cities are full of these kinds of tension-filled conversations just waiting to be had. People are curious and hungry to talk about faith, Jesus, and God. They want to know what God has to say about their lives and communities. What does he think of their broken relationships, financial hardships, chronic illnesses, and physical pain and suffering? What would he say about the violence in their homes and community streets, the unjust and broken systems, the elections, and racism? Talking about God isn’t enough. Trying to convince people to follow Jesus isn’t enough.
Words gain their meaning when we experience a genuine sense of belonging to the community of the body of Christ. In other words, May we envision and work toward making the Church a radical place of belonging so that people will believe.