When I got into church planting, I wanted to do evangelism differently.
Most of the churches I’ve been a part of had a “believe then belong” paradigm for evangelism. In other words, after a person believes in the gospel and gives their life to Jesus then they can belong to the church – that is, participate in ministry, be a full-fledged member of the community, etc.
Even if this paradigm isn’t voiced in churches, non-Christian newcomers can sense it. One doesn’t fully belong until one becomes a Christian. Which makes sense to a certain degree – it is a Christian community, after all.
Practically speaking, evangelistic Bible studies are the front door of interaction with non-Christians in this paradigm. A couple years ago one Christian participant of Storyline observed all the non-Christians hanging out with us at parties and gatherings and asked me why we didn’t have more Bible studies going on with them. She had grown up in the “believe then belong” paradigm.
I was, however, smitten with an alternative paradigm to evangelism – “belong then believe” – articulated by people like George Hunter, Brian McLaren, Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas. Non-Christians come to faith by belonging first to a community of believers – participating in ministry, knowing others deeply and being known deeply – and then discover that in the midst of it all they believe!
This approach to evangelism assumes that the Christian community is the primary apologetic (defense) of the gospel. The church is the embodied demonstration of the gospel in action. Willimon and Hauerwas develop this thought well in their book Resident Aliens. Incidentally this is why I don’t lean very heavily on what is traditionally labeled Christian Apologetics in my relationships with non-Christians (represented, for example, by a book like The Case for Christ by Lee Stobel).
Fascinating sidebar: In 1 Corinthians 11:26, Paul tells the church in Corinth that when they share the Eucharist meal justly as a community, they proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. The word “proclaim” can also be translated “evangelize.” Paul is saying that the good life of the community is evangelism or witness to the world.
In practice, the life of the Christian community is the front door of interaction with non-Christians in this paradigm rather than a Bible study. Belief in the gospel becomes tenable for non-Christians after they have had an experience in a community of people where such belief is professed and lived out.
As a result, we made it our mission from day one in the Storyline Community to provide a lot of opportunities to belong. We say often that we want to be known for throwing good parties where lots of diverse people can come together and have fun. We’ve put lots of resources into doing just that. Many non-Christians have started walking with us because of those parties. My assumption was that as they belonged to our community – participated in service, attended house church gatherings, prayed with us – they would naturally decide to believe. All of the sudden people would start saying, “I want to be a Christian!” “I’ve seen it in action, and I want to give my life to that!”
One small hiccup: we’ve haven’t seen a lot of people come to faith in the past four years as we’ve lived out this paradigm. Sure we’ve seen a few. But we’ve seen just as many non-Christians walk with us for a season (some as long as 18-24 months) and then just flake out.
We’ve found the “belong then believe” paradigm lacking – at least as we have understood it.
Granted – seeing people come to the Lord in a post-Christian context does take a while (even in Dallas!). Hugh Halter says at least two years. I get that. But I think this is something else. The results we’re seeing aren’t because we’re not waiting long enough to let the relationships develop. We are spinning our wheels. Something is missing.
In my assessment, we have left out two fundamental ingredients in the conversion process for non-Christians because we swung too far toward “belonging” to the neglect of “believing”:
- The opportunity to examine the Christian Scriptures in depth for the purpose of discovering more about God.
- The training and opportunity to listen for God’s voice through Scripture and decide what to do about it.
In other words, there is still a place for Bible study in someone’s journey to faith, even within the “belong to believe” paradigm. But not just any kind of Bible study. Not the Bible study that many experience in the typical Sunday school class. Many such classes get stuck in observation and interpretation of Scripture. What we’ve failed to do is create an opportunity for non-Christians to practice application of the Scriptures – to discern God’s voice for themselves and how they are going to respond to it.
Interestingly, as I reflect back on those who have come to faith in the Storyline Community, most all of them did have significant interaction with Scripture as part of their journey – either through an informal Bible study or personal reading.
None of what I’m saying here is really an indictment on the writers above who introduced me to the “belong to believe” paradigm. I’m sure they would not disagree with what I’m saying. I’m only admitting that I have over-reacted and jumped from one ditch to another in leaving out intentional, application-oriented Bible study with my non-Christian friends.
In my follow-up post, I’ll talk more about how we’re responding to this discovery about our evangelism paradigm in the Storyline Community.
Where does evangelism get stuck in your church or life?
What role does application-oriented Scripture reading play in your approach to evangelism?