Over the last few weeks I’ve been pondering certain words and concepts. This began in the last meeting of the Vision Team, when one of our members (Dan Doty) wrote two sequences of words on the board. The words on the board were:
“Believe, Behave, Belong”
“Belong, Behave, Believe”
The first sequence – “Believe, Behave, Belong” – describes the manner that many churches have traditionally dealt with newcomers, at least at one time. Before new people could “belong” they needed to learn the essential beliefs of the church and be willing to profess them. During the process, they were also learning about how to behave in order to fit in at the church. Then, once they were believers and exhibiting normative behavior they could become members, and also be accepted and actually “belong” to the church.
The second sequence – “Belong, Behave, Believe” – makes more sense for a church that is living out the gospel by extending radical hospitality and extravagant welcome. It begins by finding ways to show new people that they already belong, regardless of what they do or don’t believe, or even how they behave. That’s not to say that rude or immoral behavior is acceptable, but that even when it is exhibited, the person is always accepted; the person already belongs from the very beginning. It’s another way of saying that no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.
This whole conversation may be “old news” to many of you because when I Googled the phrases, I found a long list of citations, including a third ordering of the words: “Belong, Believe, Behave” with the argument that to truly behave in accordance with the Gospel, one must believe. So obviously, this discussion has gone on for some time, but for me the thought that everything begins with “belonging” was fresh and was clearly connected to extravagant welcome.
I think that human beings are hard-wired to crave community and to respond to an invitation to belong. Perhaps this craving is a result of an emptiness that can only be filled by the Holy Spirit. This reminded me of the concept of a “God-shaped hole in all of us,” that is often attributed to Pascal. According to the internet research I did, the actual quote is longer and quite beautiful:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.” Blaise Pascal in Pensees
Belonging to a community, even a Christian community, won’t fill this abyss, but it can create openings that makes a person more able to experience the divine and ultimately for the Holy Spirit to enter inside. I’m not sure it ever made sense for the rubric to begin with “Believe,” but especially in today’s world, it churches must reach outside their walls with the assurance of belonging.
That’s what Jesus did, isn’t it? He welcomed sinners and people at the margins of society, inviting them to become part of a loving community. He didn’t wait for them to believe or even to repent of their sins before he would associate with them. An example is when Jesus invited himself to the home of Zacchaeus while the crowds muttered about him “going to the house of a sinner.” Jesus’ acceptance of him prompted Zacchaeus to repent at which Jesus declared: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19: 9-10. Zacchaeus came to belief and right behavior after Jesus showed him that he belonged. “Belonging” came first.
That’s what we are called to do…. To extend extravagant welcome to all and assure them that they truly belong, and then to continue to build loving communities where faith is nurtured, and human souls become open to the Holy Spirit.
Let it be so!
Moderator, Ohio Conference