“I just wanted to say that I am not religious at all,” she began with great emphasis, “but I appreciate the people here and always feel so welcomed and accepted that I just keep coming back.”
I don’t think I’ve ever received a better compliment. This woman did not believe, and yet she felt like she belonged. There is a misconception out there that says you need to be a Christian to attend church. You don’t.
In the past, many churches functioned on a model of behave, believe, belong. You first needed to behave a certain way and believe a certain set of doctrines before you were allowed to feel or say that you belonged to a church community.
This isn’t the way Jesus attracted followers, and it isn’t the way we should seek church growth, either.
Jesus’ first followers had little to draw them together. The Gospels tell us that Jews and gentiles, men and women, young and old, sick and well, religious and non-religious, all flocked to Jesus. Some immediately believed Jesus to be the promised Messiah, but most were still questioning who Jesus was when they dropped their fishing nets or tax ledgers or rose from their beggars’ mats to follow him. Was he a teacher? A prophet? They followed seeking truth and healing. They followed seeking acceptance and belonging. All began their journey before reciting a sinner’s prayer or signing a declaration of faith. Yet Jesus welcomed them and called them his disciples.
We need to do likewise. We need to allow people to come as they are to church.
Regardless of outward appearance, sexual orientation, marital status or citizenship, regardless of beliefs or doubts or whether they are even a Christian, everyone should be accepted and welcomed into the Christian community. They should feel as though they belong in church.
It is only after finding honest relationships rooted in love and witnessing the countercultural behaviour of their new Christian friends that most will be open to hearing about Jesus. Out of belonging comes believing.
And it is only after believing in Jesus and becoming open to the working of the Holy Spirit that transformation takes place. Hearts may be convicted of sin and repent. Callings to acts of service may be received. And gradually, through believing, these individuals become part of this countercultural Christian community that continues to offer a place of belonging for everyone.
Belong, believe, become. This evangelistic model, which has gained significant traction in recent years, is challenging the way we present the gospel in a post-Christian culture, and it is doing so by getting back to basics and modelling our efforts after Jesus.
The true gospel says that Jesus “did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). The true gospel says we can’t work our way into God’s kingdom through right behaviour. The true gospel says that God so loved the whole world that he gave his only Son (see John 3:16) and that Christ “died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:15).
The woman at the church event came because she was seeking a place of belonging. She found a community of compassion rather than condemnation, and because of this she heard the story of Jesus and was witness to Christian testimony month after month.
The late Rachel Held Evans, who advocated strongly for an inclusive Christian community, suggests that “this is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they said yes. And there is always room for more.”
Captain Laura Van Schaick is the women’s ministries program and resource officer.
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