When Believing Means Fitting In

The title of the article I am about to share is “Believing Means Belonging: Why Jesus Commands Church Membership” by John Stonestreet.

The title right away sent off bells. I am a big fan of the researcher Brene Brown. She researches shame and vulnerability and a large part of those topics is talking about belonging. The author of this article seems to think belonging is simply being a member of something, but that is not true belonging and its the reason so many don’t go to church because churches lack giving its congregants a true sense of belonging.The type of belonging church offers today is a shallow check box.

Brene Brown says this about belonging in her book, Daring Greatly:

“Fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are”.

And we know most churches are not of the mindset of letting you be who you are. No, to belong, to have membership with the church you have to change and become the type of person they want as a member. Essentially, the type of person they could show off or be proud you are a member. This often means no single moms, no divorced, no gays, no quirks or eccentricities. You have to be wholesome and on the straight and arrow. People are fleeing the church because their lives are too messy (often by no fault of their own) to belong in the sense where they can be their true selves and they know well enough that they aren’t really welcomed. A better title for the article would have been “Believing Means Fitting In”. However, its obvious that doesn’t sound so good. Not very PRish.

Onwards to the text of the article…

What is the central practice of the Christian life—that most crucial habit which no believer should ever endeavor to do without? It’s not personal devotions or Bible reading, as important as those are. It’s not even private prayer or attending Christian conferences. It’s not even catching BreakPoint every day.

The central practice of the Christian life, at least biblically speaking, is gathering together as Christ’s body for corporate worship, for hearing the Word, and for participating in the sacraments. “Going to church” as we say somewhat inaccurately, is the means that God has designed and determined to feed us spiritually, and to allow us to participate in that kingdom where God’s will is done on earth as in Heaven.

But just attending church isn’t enough either. Each Sunday, Christians declare not only that God’s kingdom has arrived in Christ Jesus, but that it’s being established in our lives, our families, and our congregations. That’s why no Christian is called to only a one-on-one relationship with Jesus, but to a communion that belongs both to and with one another. In other words, we’re not called to mere attendance.

What is ever enough? Its not enough to go to church you also have to be a member of the church and then its not good enough to be simply a member, you have to a member that fits in (this last part isn’t stated by very much implied). There is always one more hoop to be deemed a “true Christian” or “good Christian”.

Back in December, I had the honor, privilege, and joy of being ordained as a deacon in my church in Colorado Springs. As a deacon, I’m charged with serving a particular family of believers—namely, the congregation where I am a member and the larger communion of believers to which my church belongs. I’m also a member of the universal church, just like all Christians. Therefore, I often find myself worshiping and serving others who also believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life but with whom I’ll differ on secondary matters. But just as it is impossible to love people in general without ever loving actual neighbors, it’s impossible to be a member of the universal church without also becoming part of a local church.

This is a bit of fear mongering to drive up church membership. You can’t be in true Christian fellowship unless you are a church member. Its a threat and that is what people find so off-putting with the church today.

There is a dangerous and unfortunately popular line of thinking these days that dismisses church membership and even the church itself in favor of “a personal relationship with Jesus.” To make that choice is to embrace a false dilemma, one that resonates with countless professing Christians.

Yeah, that would be me.

There are, of course, geographical, theological and even vocational reasons to leave one local church for another. But there’s not a reason to not seek out a local church at all. Typically, the thinking goes like this: The church is full of hypocrites and fakes and too much church politics, and we don’t need organized religion to have profound spiritual experiences with Jesus. For many, their Bible and maybe a Christian radio station are better substitutes for the drama and awkwardness of belonging to a local church. I get the impulse; but it’s just wrong.

No excuses! These are legitimate reasons not to go and how about we address these reasons rather than just shame people into church membership. In a church full of hypocrites and fakes you absolutely will have to fit in before you can be accepted. This is not a church where you can belong. But the problem isn’t with the church its with the potential congregants for not just pushing forward and going. They don’t seem to get why people are uncomfortable in an environment where you have to fit in. They yearn for a deeper sense of belonging, something the church is suppose to offer but more often than not people find church just be another branch of their dysfunctional family.

In a recent column at BreakPoint.org, our senior writer Shane Morris lists the five most common reasons why Christians decide not to join a church, and then he responds to each. For example, he addresses the idea that all we need is a Bible and Jesus, by pointing out that Jesus and the Bible both agree that the organized church body is vital. Take Matthew 18, where Jesus instructs the disciples to bring unrepentant sin before the church. This parallels other passages in the New Testament that clearly instruct believers not to forsake gathering together, to submit to our pastors and elders as those keeping watch over our souls, and even offers instructions on purging from the church those who persist in immorality—something that is impossible unless they first belonged to that church.

I realize churches aren’t perfect. Sometimes, they’re downright messed up. But so are we, and ultimately, that’s why Jesus gave us one another and told us to live in communion as His sheep, not as lone wolves.

But when the wolves wear sheep’s clothing…..

The churches that understand the truest sense of belonging are churches that are labeled “liberal”. The ones that advertise “come as you are”. I applaud those churches. They have a chance of obtaining members who feel true belonging, not just belonging as members.


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