Over the past few Sunday mornings we’ve been moving through a series of messages on ‘the Church’ at Hobart Baptist. A number of times I’ve made mention of the increasing numbers of people in our community who “believe without belonging”. These are people who somewhere along the way have dropped out of attending church but nonetheless would still claim to be believers. No doubt many of us are still friends with some who have done just this. They may even be part of our own families.
I’m sure you, like me are asking, why has this happened? What are the causes behind so many leaving the church over the past four decades? Most likely there are a number of contributing factors including the following “-isms”—consumerism, individualism, privatism, relativism, and pluralism.
One other “-ism” I would like to focus on is anti-institutionalism. Many in our community feel alienated from the institutions of our society. Since the 1960s there has been growing cynic-ism toward public institutions so that today people are more inclined to make their own decisions irrespective of conventional traditions or social mores. Because we are seen as one of the institutions of our society, the Church has been caught up in the disillusionment and alienation, and has had difficult time over the past four decades.
It’s not that people are less interested in the religious dimension of life, it’s just that they are wary of the church suspecting it is more likely to hinder their search than help it. Not surprisingly they rarely come to the Church looking for answers. They have moved away from what some call a “spirituality of dwelling,” where God is associated with places, to a “spirituality of seeking” where they prefer to navigate their own spiritual journey.
Their spiritual search is perhaps best captured by hit song of the 1990s by Irish band U2 (three of the four members claim to be Christians). Their song, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” captures the mood of the “spiritual search” which is also reflected in films such The Matrix and Sixth Sense, and TV programmes such as Touched by an Angel and The X Files.
Today the Church struggles to find relevance in a world where many earnestly seek spirituality and a meaning for life, but reject the Church’s offering. So what should we do?
Perhaps one important step is to change our expectations. In contrast to most of our evangelism in the 20th Century where we tried to convinced people to believe and behave so they can eventually belong, perhaps we should begin by finding was to include people in our community life before they believe. Here they can “belong without believing.” It’s not really a radical idea, in fact it is exactly what Jesus did. He chose his disciples before they believed he was the Messiah, before his death and resurrection and before they believed he was the Son of God.
So while there are some in our community who choose to “believe without belonging” there is also the possibility of a different group of people might “belong without believing”. These are people who prefer to think things through for themselves and welcome the opportunity to dialogue with others. They are in the middle of a journey to belief and need the freedom to explore without having a pre-packaged belief system imposed.
By giving people the opportunity to “belong without believing” we offer them an invitation to explore God together and see where the journey takes us. In other words they can participate in church life, volunteer their services and begin to belong while they journey to believe. I’m not talking about church membership, but about belonging to a community that is welcoming, accepting and loving.
In our series on the Church we have been reflecting on the type of Church Jesus would want us to be. What would it mean for us mimic Jesus and accept people as his disciples before they believed in him? ‘Belonging before believing’ is an interesting idea worth thinking about.
Stephen L Baxter