Belong, Believe, Become: The Importance of Christian Community for 21st Century Evangelism

Bill Fowler, YTI Church Relations and Professor of New Testament and Practical Theology

July 10, 2019

Different from What I Expected

The Spirit of God is moving today in Christian communities all around the world and it appears to me that a pattern is emerging different from the one practiced by my religious forebears. My alma mater, Howard Payne University, has a slogan of “Believe, Belong, and Become.”  I love its emphasis. It reflects my Baptist tradition which (when at its best) has emphasized “believe, belong, and become” as its model for evangelism and discipleship. The previous paradigm went like this…share the gospel and help people come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ as Lord; baptize them into the fellowship of the church where they belong to the community of faith; then teach them to practice the commands of Jesus that they may become like Him! Sounds similar to the Great Commission, doesn’t it? It has been effective when all three points have been pursued.

A Difference in Sequence

But what I observe in my world, and what seems to be fresh evidence of the Spirit of God at work, is a different sequence in how people are experiencing these three realities. I am watching people belong, believe, and become. Did you catch that? Belonging comes first! Where serious followers of Jesus are seeking to live in authentic community with each other (house churches, organic churches meeting in fire halls or tail-gating in a city park, or cell group meetings of larger, more traditional churches), non-believers are being drawn into fellowship first and coming to faith later. They first encounter a sense of acceptance and belonging. They are loved and valued. Gradually the faith of the community becomes their own faith, nurtured by a contagious awareness of Jesus’ presence. And from this new found faith, new life—transformed life—emerges. High touch, deeply relational, “walking alongside one another” expressions of the Body of Christ are seeing people belong, believe, and become in their midst!

A Case in Point

When Mosaic Chapel was birthed in Bozeman a couple of years ago, it took a different approach to church planting. Rather than gathering big crowds for an “awesome” worship experience (that would likely draw professing Christians from other churches that didn’t “rock” quite as well), Pastor Molly DuQue and her team focused on gathering curious people in safe settings to explore what faith and following Jesus might look like with some committed Christ-followers. In time there would be a monthly large gathering of the scattered smaller units. At one of the earliest “worshipping together in the temple” gatherings I listened to the testimony of a young lady on the worship team. Her story gripped me. She had seen an ad on Craigslist calling for a vocalist to serve on the worship team. Intrigued, but skeptical, she ignored it at first. Then, when it was still online two weeks later, she responded. A meeting was arranged and she was “interviewed” for the job. Despite the fact that she was NOT a professing Christian, she was welcomed to serve as a vocalist. Embraced by the small group and valued as a member of the worship team, she belonged. Prepping for large group worship, the team would go over the songs and their meaning. They would talk about how the words fit into the larger message about following Jesus. Belonging, she came to believe. Most new church starts would have insisted that she believe first, then belong and become. Mosaic Chapel is riding the wave of a different approach that the Holy Spirit seems pleased to bless.

Is This New?

Such an approach to “doing church” and sharing the good news of Jesus is actually NOT new, it’s just new to some folks who grew up thinking that believing has to come first. According to George Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism:  How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again!, using open Christian community as a means of evangelism where non-Christians can first belong, then believe and become, is at least as old as St. Patrick and his introduction of Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century. While there is some criticism of Hunter’s historical accuracy, I believe that the picture he paints of the growth of Irish Christianity under St. Patrick offers some great insight into how Christians might impact our culture in this 21st century. Our culture is technology heavy and relationship starved. Our culture is “religion” shy and yet spiritually hungry. People long for meaningful connections. Christ-followers living in open communities that welcome, respect, and value non-believers (where they are and for who they are) without imposing a religious agenda on participation, can create sanctuaries (of living flesh, not made with human hands), safe places where true belonging can lead seekers to belief and transformation.

Traditional Church Culture Is Not the Answer!

For a large and growing number of North Americans, the way we have been doing church for the past several hundred years is becoming less and less relevant. However talented our leadership and marketing teams, what we have been doing is clearly not working. Our young people are abandoning us and the world is ignoring us. Church programs can be helpful for people who have already come to believe and belong (though evidence for this being effective is getting scarcer), but reaching our broader culture with the gospel will demand some changes. I believe the answer can be found in small groups of passionate Christ-followers (seriously seeking to do Jesus-living together) who embrace co-workers, neighbors, friends, and family and welcome them into caring Christian community. When people are genuinely accepted and supported; when their stories are heard and their questions allowed; when they observe Christians living real life, honest about struggles but still filled with hope; when they taste the life of Jesus being manifest tangibly in the Body of Christ; the likelihood of them coming to believe and become increases exponentially. 

A Culture of Belonging

If ever there was one who nurtured a culture of belonging, it was Jesus! Jesus welcomed everyone in his world into his acceptance and embrace…even (or especially?) the ones at the farthest fringes of society. Outcasts, lepers, prostitutes, tax-collectors, children, bandits, fishermen, Samaritans, Canaanites, Greeks, Romans, the poor, and the demon possessed—all found acceptance in the presence of Jesus. It was only the self-righteous religious leaders of his day that excluded themselves from the community of Jesus. Jesus’ rules to follow? Love God with all your being, love your neighbor as you love yourself, and love each other as Jesus himself had loved them. I think it is time that the Christian Church recaptured the essence of being Christ’s presence in the world in communities of Christ-followers that welcome people to belong, believe, and become!

For further reading…

Stanley Grenz and Jay Smith, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

George Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again! 10th edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010).