I’m very happy to introduce to you The Reverend Michael Bos who is my colleague at West End Collegiate Church. He has recently written a book and I think the content of his book has some helpful thoughts for us as we navigate changing church culture. I invited him to share more about what it means to be A Church Beyond Belief.
The litmus test for church membership revolves around beliefs. We ask prospective members if they believe in God. We ask if they believe in Jesus Christ. We ask if they believe in God’s Word. Each church has its own way of doing this, from the most liturgical to those who exercise a little “pastoral freestyle” in these moments. But in the end, we all ask if they believe.
So here’s a novel question. What do we mean when we say we “believe”? And more importantly, what should we mean when we say we “believe”? We use the terms “belief” and “believe” so frequently that we may never consider the answer to these questions, yet it lies at the heart of whether or not one can belong to a church.
For most of us, “to believe” is to give intellectual assent to a set of propositions that summarize the Christian faith. But this is not always the sense in which the New Testament speaks about belief. To express belief was not about conveying the state of one’s knowledge as much as it was an expression of trust, loyalty, and commitment to a life-changing relationship. The question of belief was not to affirm facts about Jesus. It was about a relationship with God through Jesus.
This is important to remember because the journey of faith never begins with the thought, “I think I need some new literal-factual truth in my life.” It begins with a desire to give one’s life to something larger than oneself and a need for connection and belonging. What people want is to experience true belonging on the road to belief (giving their hearts to God). As for beliefs, they often come much later in the journey.
When we frontload membership with beliefs, we are letting people know what they need to do to fit in, which is very different than belonging. Brené Brown says it this way: “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order 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.” What people want is to walk through the door and be seen for who they are, with all their quirks and questions, and know there is a place for them.
If we’re honest, we have to admit that churches have a way of engendering a culture of fitting in rather than a culture of belonging. We need to know that the cost of failing to fit in is very high. When people fail to fit in and meet the expectations of others, they don’t leave thinking they need to try another church. They leave feeling there is something wrong with them and they are unworthy of love and acceptance. In the quest to assure conformity of beliefs, the church has left many in her wake who carry great shame because they didn’t fit in.
We can change this if we follow the example of Jesus. When did the first followers of Jesus become bona fide members of the nascent church? Was it when they agreed to a list of beliefs Jesus provided them? Or was it when Jesus provided a community of belonging and when they put their trust in him? From what I see in the New Testament, the disciples were embraced as members long before their beliefs were sorted out. Jesus created a community of belonging and the disciples responded with belief (trust). As for beliefs, Jesus gave the space and grace to discover them along the way.
I know that in this short blog there are gaps in my thesis, but I hope it sparks a conversation about belonging, believing and how we engage a new generation that seems to be distancing itself from the church. Younger generations are fueling the rise of the “nones” (those with no religious affiliation). From my perspective, this is not so much a rejection of faith and the church as it is a question mark about them. The “nones” are really “maybes” who wonder whether there is a community of faith who would ever accept them for who they are and where they are on their journeys of faith.
Michael Bos is Senior Minister at West End Collegiate Church and President of the Collegiate Churches of New York. He is coauthor of the recently released book, A Church Beyond Belief: The Search for Belonging and the Religious Future.