I've been in the church a long time. All my life, actually, which makes it sometimes difficult to think about what it's like to be someone from the outside breaking in, or being invited in. I work hard at thinking through what the church looks like, feels like, and is like for the person on the outside so that they can find a home with their heavenly Father.
Years ago when I was serving a church in Ann Arbor, I read a book that has reshaped my thinking on this by George Hunter called The Celtic Way of Evangelism. This unassuming man is brilliant, and his missional insights are amazing. I brought him to our church a couple of years ago, and in his unassuming manner delivered some powerful insights into evangelism for the emerging culture that blew me away. I'll get back to him in a moment.
So, growing up in the church I originally grew up in, there was a pretty clear order to how you found your way into the church. It went something like this:
- Step One: Become the right kind of person.
- Step Two: Believe the right kinds of things.
- Step Three: Possibly be invited to belong to the community of faith.
Hunter, in his study of St. Patrick and evangelism to the Celts (back when they were considered barbarians) took a different approach. It began with Patrick and his friends moving into the neighborhood. This reminds me of the CCDA value of "relocation," of Eugene Peterson's translation of John 1:14, "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood," and Shane Claiborne's Ordinary Radicals. Patrick and his friends moved into the neighborhood, set up missional communities, and just starting loving people and blessing the neighbors. They set up little open families that invited people in no matter what their stage in faith or non-faith. They did life with the barbarians. As they did, they found that as they showed the love of Jesus, as they modeled a different way of living, and as they included the neighbors in this life, those neighbors lives began to change. They began to change their attitudes, their actions, and eventually even their beliefs. In fact, it was not long before these neighbors began to give their lives to God in amazing ways. What Patrick did, according to Hunter, was flip the tradition order on its head. Instead of making a person become the right kind of person and believe the right things in order to possibly belong to the club, they started with belonging. When they started with belonging, they saw the barbarians begin to become along the way, and it wasn't long before belief was merely the tipping point of a life already being transformed. It went more like this:
- Step 1: Invite others to Belong to a new type of community
- Step 2: Watch as they begin to Become new people as the Spirit works in and through the community life
- Step 3: Help them to Believe in the One who has already begun to reshape their lives
I've personally had this experience a number of times in which someone that I have befriended and invited into the belonging of loving and accepting community has begun to see life change, and when I've finally asked them, "Hey... have you thought about responding to Jesus and stepping into his Kingdom," they say, "I think I already have. I already believe, but I'm not sure when it happened." I usually follow up by then saying, "That's awesome! Honestly, I've noticed, and I think this is important. Let's mark this moment and say thanks to God and tell him you're ready to jump in all the way." Is it possible that God asks us to be his body in this world, and to invite his lost children into the family where He can work more powerful through his Spirit in their lives? Is it possible that the community of faith is the bosom of transformation, and that one of the reasons we often see so little transformation is that we will not allow outsiders in until they've figured out the secret codes of the Christian faith - including what clothes to wear on a Sunday morning?
You see, if we focus on "cleaning the fish before we catch them," - or getting them to become what we think they should become before helping them to belong to the family, we short change their process. Honestly, without a safe place to be loved and cared for and to stretch our character, it's difficult to make a mental or even heart assent to something we a) don't understand or b) have never experienced. Were the disciples cleaned up before they were invited into Jesus' inner circle, and did the believe in him already?
- What would happen if we invited our unbelieving friends and neighbors into true community and relationships of deep love and acceptance?
- What would happen if we took the posture of "love first" instead of "judge first?"
- What if we set aside our desire to make sure someone sees their sin and need for a Savior, and let the Holy Spirit do that revelatory work within the safety of a loving community?
- What if we took the words of 1 John seriously, and loved first? Creating belonging first?
- What if we embraced the broken, invited the sick, included the outcasts, and gave grace to the enemy?
Honestly, this has radical implications for the praxis of our faith. It would mean doing some of the things Jesus did - like eating with tax collectors, drunkards, and sinners - and being accused of being one due to common company. It would mean being willing to lay our reputation on the line because we helped a brother or sister belong that our communities of faith are scared of.
So, let me get extremely practical - and I am sure I'll be accused of being theological liberal, but the truth is (despite what everyone seems to tell you) that you can have a conservative biblical theology and a loving, accepting, embracing, community of belonging that doesn't begin with judgment, but begins with love and lets the Spirit do His work.
Implications? Simple questions with challenging answers.
- What does invitation into loving and belonging community look like in our relationship with the Muslim family that moved in down the street?
- When was the last time we invited the couple down the street who are living together into our home for a meal?
- What does it look like to include into the community of faith someone who cheated on his wife, stole money from his business, and continues to participate in unethical business practices?
- What does it look like to embrace someone who identifies himself as "gay" in a community of loving and belonging?
- How would we respond to a single, teenage girl that just decided to end the pregnancy for which she isn't sure who the father is?
- How do we embrace the mom who has been left alone to fend for herself and her children?
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