Thursday, September 24, 2009

Belief vs. Belonging

So there is a lot going on in my head these days and it isn’t really fully formed yet but since this blog exists to share those thoughts with you, I’m going to go ahead and do a brain dump here so I can get some extra space between my ears to think about other things.

I was reading another blog by Trevin Wax that I read regularly. Check it out at:

I’m thinking about how and why we do church and I’m thinking about the collision between two predominate and colliding philosophies: believing and belonging.

Belonging has to do with community and is therefore very people focused. We want people to feel connected to our church body. We talk a lot about our “church family.” It’s important that people feel welcomed, safe, and comfortable when we are together. These are all really good points. We wouldn’t want to attend a church where we felt constantly threatened. We wouldn’t want to attend a church where we didn’t think that somebody cared about us.

The downside to emphasizing belonging is that you probably don’t emphasize teaching what Jesus wants you to believe because it will make people uncomfortable. I know that sounds weird to some of you but it’s true: Jesus makes people uncomfortable. Many times, Jesus himself destroys community. He himself admits it: Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law - a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. (Mt 10:35-36)

So that leads us to believing. More than anything else, Jesus taught about himself and who he was. He said we must believe in him. He said we had to leave family and friends and preconceptions and possessions for him. In other words, our relationship with Jesus is predicated upon belief. Shouldn’t the reason we do church, stay church together, bring people into the church, everything we do as a church, be because we want ourselves and other people to know Jesus and grow in their belief in him? (In other words, shouldn’t our beliefs be the reason we gather, the reason we do mission?) Shouldn’t our association with a church be determined by whether or not we believe the same things about Jesus?

I was reading about a division in one of America’s premier churches, Coral Ridge Presbyterian in Florida. They have a new senior pastor after 50 years of following their founding pastor. Read about it at this link:

The long time members were upset with the new members and the new pastor because they didn’t “pay their dues.” They just walked in a took possession of something other people had built. The ones complaining have put tradition, belonging, membership, history, above what they as an evangelical church are supposed to believe: that everyone needs to come and meet Jesus and believe in him.
Check out the senior pastor’s op ed piece in a local paper to apologize for the bad witness all this was creating:,0,6104431.story

I think this conflict between believing and belonging is played out everyday in many churches. I think pastors wimp out because they don’t want to deliver a message that people don’t want to hear. They don’t want to tell their churches what to believe because that will somehow violate community. What that means is that their churches are built on a foundation of belonging and not believing. Keeping people happy and together is more important than teaching them what they need to believe. It means that whenever some big issue that God has something to say about comes roaring in from the world, these churches are silent.

I think what this means overall is that instead of influencing and changing the world for Christ, many churches allow themselves to be changed by the agenda of the world. They bow to a membership that demands: “You must change what you believe in order to accommodate me and make me feel like I belong.”

Does the church of Jesus Christ exist to make people feel good or to tell them the truth about Jesus, themselves, life and eternity?

Jesus himself has been the one who always issued the invitation:  come to me and be changed.  We teach what it is that has been handed down for centuries by the saints who have gone before us - we call it the apostolic teaching.  The church has been the place that changes the world and its beliefs.  Where the church has been changed by the beliefs of the world and has changed to accommodate the world, reformation and revival breaks out, led by the Holy Spirit, to take the church back to the Bible and the apostolic teaching.  I believe very strongly that the result of the ELCA churchwide assembly will be reformation and revival in the Lutheran church.  I doubt the ELCA will survive as an institution, but Biblically faithful Lutheranism will thrive and grow and perhaps even fully take root in the soil of America.  

Here’s what we don’t want to happen: we don’t want our desire for community to trump doctrine (what we believe). Why? Because community that isn’t built on true doctrine won’t survive anyway. But community that is built upon a shared belief system will flourish and thrive. Look at China, Vietnam and North Korea where the church is exploding. Those Christians are brought together by shared beliefs and truly enjoy a type of community that is an authentic community of those who could be arrested, tortured or killed at any moment. It’s biblical community. They come from different social and economic positions, different backgrounds, different politics, but the thing that makes them a community together is what they believe about Jesus.

I guess I’m saying that believing (what we believe) must form our community and not vice versa. A community that has no doctrine or determines doctrine by consensus of the community is really nothing more than a mob.

Where do we get this “doctrine” in which we are to believe? The Bible. That’s where we learn about Jesus, life, ourselves and eternity.

So what does this mean for us and the way we do evangelism and welcome guests? It means that we proclaim what it is that we believe and teach and it means that we’re certain that when people join our church they understand and recognize that these beliefs are not negotiable, even if they bring discomfort. It means that we must make sure that our desire to create community never trumps our desire to share what we believe with others. What we believe (about Jesus) has to be what holds us together. Not our fear of people leaving.

The ELCA made a decision to elevate making a segment of it’s community feel comfortable over and above what it professed to believe (biblical doctrine). A community that violates it’s own doctrine is no community at all and will factionalize over every issue imaginable. Without belief being the reason for community, community is never sustainable.


  1. "The ELCA made a decision to elevate making a segment of it’s community feel comfortable over and above what it professed to believe (biblical doctrine). A community that violates it’s own doctrine is no community at all and will factionalize over every issue imaginable."

    Pastor John, the ELCA did not violate its own doctrine when the resolutions were passed. Nor did it violate Biblical doctrine, either.

    A number of churches have used passages about women remaining silent in church to argue that women should not be ordained pastors. The Bible has also been used to justify slavery as well.

    We have to examine the texts through the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. We need to accept LGBT Christians and love them for who God created to be.

    I am someone who is perfectly comfortable with Scripture, but methinks that the good people of Zion need to step back and examine their homophobia and discomfort with God's children who happen to be sexual minorities. Quite simply, some of us are right-handed, and some of us are left-handed.

    Pastor John, what exactly are gay people doing to hurt you or your parishioners?

  2. "Quite simply, some of us are right-handed, and some of us are left-handed."

    I don't think that is a valid analogy. The reasons some are left-handed vs right, can be explained medically by how the brain functions differently in some to provide them a dominant side that differs from the majority. The same can't be said for homosexuality (unless I've missed this documented and proven somewhere.)