“Believing and Belonging – Belonging and Believing” Those terms are often used to name two elements – the two elements? – that are involved when a person becomes part of the community of God’s people.
What we might mean by “believing” is probably pretty simple and straightforward. But maybe not quite so simple and straightforward as we might think at first. It has two important aspects, both of which are related but quite distinct. There is believing with regard to information and believing with regard to relationship.
In the Christian context, believing does involve accepting, affirming, believing that some key pieces of information about God are, in fact, true. Christians believe that there is informational content to what they believe – truths that we affirm and falsehoods that we reject. Over the centuries, Christians have wrestled together over this content and have created creeds, confessions, and catechisms, such as those contained in the Presbyterian Book of Confession , whose purpose is to lay out the informational content of our faith in a clear, organized, and convincing way.
These efforts are always at best partial and subject to errors, but they are also important and necessary, because knowing things about God enables us better to relate to him and to the world he has made. These creeds, etc. are also important because they form a stable and solid foundation on which we can build a community of people, the Church, who share a common understanding of who God is and of what he is doing in the world.
There is, however, another important aspect to believing that must not be left out. This other aspect of believing grows out of the reality that God is not merely a fact of nature like the sun or an earth worm. In the case things like these, when you know all the information about them, the various facts and figures, you know all there is to the know about them. There is, at least in a scientific sense, nothing else to be known about them.
But God isn’t just a fact of nature. He is a person, just as we are persons. In fact, being persons is a big part of what it means to be made in the “image and likeness of God.” Persons have a whole range of ways for knowing one another that are not available to non-personal things. I can know a person in all sorts of ways that are simply be meaningless and absurd if I were to try to apply them to talking about how I know the pocket knife I carry around in all the time.
In this sense, then, we can talk about believing in God in much the same way I might talk about believing in my wife or my friend. I believe in my wife in ways that go way beyond believing a set of information about her.
There’s an old preacher’s story about this sort of thing. A certain man died, and his widow called the local pastor about a funeral. The woman would occasionally attend worship at this pastor’s church. The minister went to meet with the widow. After expressing his condolences and asking after her well-being, he said, I don’t believe I ever met your husband. So, tell me a little about him. Was he a Christian?”
The widow paused to ponder then said, “Well, as you know, he didn’t get involved in any religious activities. But I do know that he did believe that God exists.”
The pastor thought to himself, “Hmm, I wonder, madam, how you would feel if your husband had ever been asked, ‘Sir, do you believe in your wife?’ and he had answered, ‘Well, I certainly believe that she exists.’”
To believe in God certainly involves believing that he exists, and as I’ve written above, it also involves believing a number of other pieces of information about him. But as my little preacher story illustrates, we mean something a good deal more than that when we speak of believing in a person. We generally mean something like trusting the person and being committed to the person and even being in a two-way relationship with them.
That, in any case, seems quite clearly to be what Jesus has in mind for us and him. “All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them.” John 14:23 [NLT] Jesus’ goal for us, as we can see here, isn’t merely that we things about him. Rather, his goal is to take us residence in us. To have Jesus make his home in us is an image of a scarcely imaginably person relationship. And yet that is precisely the nature of the relationship that the notion of believing in Jesus refers to.
So, then, “believing” should be understood to refer to this relatedness to God – to know about him and to know him personally. At the beginning of this article, I said that believing and belonging are two terms used to describe what is involved in becoming and being part of the community of God’s people.
So far I’ve been describing what I mean by “believing.” “Belonging” is something quite different and something quite rich and lovely.
Sometimes, of course, “belong” is just a simple term for possession. We say, for example, “That book ‘belongs’ to me.” By that we simply mean, “That book is mine.” There’s nothing especially rich and lovely about that.
But we can turn the sentence around and speak not of some object belonging to us but rather of us ourselves belonging. Sometimes we use the word in the negative sense. For example, I might say that my neighbor’s dog doesn’t belong in my yard. When I say that, I would probably mean that my neighbor’s dog is not allowed or not welcome in my yard.
Even more intense, image this scene. It’s a county jail visiting room. An irate and humiliated father faces his son through the thick glass panel. The son is accused of selling drugs. In a voice thick with emotion, the father spits out the words, “I am so ashamed of you. You no longer belong to my family. I want nothing more to do with you.”
Such dreadful words! Can a father disown his son or daughter? Well, it has been known to happen. But what could be a more nature and secure place to belong than in our own family? To be disowned by one’s own family is a dreadful and really unnatural event.
And yet, in modern Western societies people more and more travel through life with a sense of being lone individuals, unconnected with others and not truly belonging anywhere. There is a deep and deepening sense of isolation among modern Americans. We have become very transient, pulling up roots and moving often. We are busy with programmed activities that leave little room in their structure for informal friendships to slowly grow. We stay in our houses and watch television or play on the computer, and so we know far fewer of our neighbors than our grandparents did. As our society has changed in some of these ways, the general sense of belonging to any place or group of people has diminished among Americans in recent decades.
Lately students of the church has noticed that there is trend among some folks who have never been or have not been for a long time related to a church to begin to drift in the doors. These are people who are not mainly looking for a belief system to adopt, nor are they mostly seeking out a moral code to live by, nor even are many of them looking for a place to meet God. A large number of people are beginning to tentatively step through the doors of a church because they are looking for and longing for some decent, kind, caring people to connect with. They are looking for a place where they will be welcomed into friendship – a place where they can belong.
In past generations, the typical pattern was for people to come to believe first, and then to come join the fellowship of the church and begin to belong. Believing, first, then belonging. People joined the fellowship of the church because they had come to believe in Jesus.
In more recent times, that pattern has begun more and more to reverse. It is much less unusual for people to begin to attend a church and develop friendships with the people of the church, attending worship and other activities, volunteering for work projects, devoting time, energy, and money to the life and work of the church, all before they have become convinced of the truth of the gospel and the reality of Jesus Christ.
Over time these folks who have come looking for a place to belong very often find that they begin to believe, too. As they live and work among the believing members of the church, they are able to see the truth of the gospel and the reality of the living Jesus Christ, and through that faith blossoms in their lives. Belonging precedes believing. And believing grows out of the experience of belonging. The lives and faith and love of the believing members of the church become the means by which those who have come to belong learn also to believe.
In one of my previous churches, a guy a little older than me named Bill happened into the church. He like many urban Americans with tenuous ties to their families felt a longing for some kind of connectedness to others who would care about him and about whom he could come to care. He found that in our little fellowship. But his background made belief in the gospel
challenging. He had been an ardent hippie in the late sixties. In the seventies and eighties, he had embraced the New Age movement and various alternative lifestyles with gusto. These life choices had alienated him from his family over the years. By the nineties, several chronic health problems had begun to take a serious toll on his sense of well-being, and whatever friendships he had developed in earlier years had begun to disintegrate.
The day I met Bill, he had just been laid off from his job as a telephone psychic. He hadn’t seen the layoff coming, I guess. (Look, you were thinking it. I just put it into words.) The congregation quickly embraced Bill and adopted him into our fellowship. He believed the strangest mix of weird fables, bizarre science, and wacky mythology you ever want to hear. And he persisted in those beliefs for a long time after we first met. Even after he eventually did make a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, he still held onto some rather odd ideas. Needless to say, we did not set him up to teach Sunday school classes or to lead Bible studies or to participate in making leadership decisions for the ministries of the church. But Bill became a valued and loved member of the church community.
If we hadn’t been willing to allow Bill to belong before he believed, I suspect he would still be working some psychic phone line or selling magical trinkets out of one of the New Age/Witchcraft stores there in town. Instead, he found a family of Christians who welcomed him and came to love him, who helped him get to know Jesus over time so that eventually Bill came to believe.
Here in Elmira, just like everywhere else in America, there are lots of people – regular looking folks and folks from way out on the fringe – who need and long for a place to belong. We can be that place, in the name of Jesus.
© 2010 Gary A. Chorpenning