Our Problem with the “Belong then Believe” Approach to Evangelism

Charles Kiser —  September 4, 2012 — 8 Comments

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”:

  1. The opportunity to examine the Christian Scriptures in depth for the purpose of discovering more about God.
  2. 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?

Charles Kiser

Posts

Dallas, TX. Church Planter with Storyline Christian Community. Equipper and Coach with Mission Alive.

8 responses to Our Problem with the “Belong then Believe” Approach to Evangelism

  1. 

    Charles, good post. I appreciate what you have had to say.

    As a minister who had been on the “believe then belong” end of church for so many years, and now having the “belong then believe” perspective I would say that much of what you describe happens on both ends.

    1. We really weren’t discipling people in the older paradigm. We really weren’t teaching many lost people (other than teens) and using the excuse that they wouldn’t believe so that is why they didn’t join us. It became convenient and continued the belief that we only associate with the saved, or those who believed like us.
    2. We felt that because we offered classes and sermons, we were effectively instructing new people. People actually just sat in class and dissasociated. We saw this in the test scores of incoming freshman on the bible. Very low.
    3. I find that the belong then believe has given us ample opportunities to teach the Bible to people in our community. We forget that those who come from no Bible teaching, and a negative view of church, are more cautious about what they learn. However what we see is that there is a very high view of God and adoption of our Biblical values. In the end I ask if our goal is to baptize people or get people to glorify God/Jesus and restore a positive view of the church? If they choose not to be baptized is it better than they never experienced a body of Christians or that they continue with a positive view of Jesus and his church? Which one will one day turn to God.

    Just my thoughts.

    • 

      Great reply, Ron. Thanks for chiming in.

      “Much of what you describe happens on both ends.” I think you’re probably right. Discipleship (or listening to God’s voice and acting upon what is heard) wasn’t adequately practiced in most of the “believe then belong” paradigms I’ve been part of either.

      And I love that you’ve found opportunities to teach the Bible to people in your community and that they’ve responded to it so positively. That gives me hope for ways we’re growing toward that as well. Bible study and the “belong then believe” paradigm are certainly not mutually exclusive; I just unwittingly made them so!

  2. 

    Great message for me to hear Mr. Kiser!

    I often shy away from scripture with people, I think partly because I’m unconsciously afraid it will run them off and partly because it’s rarely “organic” to say, “Could I show you a scripture?”

    I’m always seeking discussion opportunities because that’s the way I’ve experienced discipleship best. I invite a small diverse group to read a portion together and bring up what they see God doing there in scripture and in them. I often feel a great tension in this even if it is not there. One night I felt stressed during a Bible discussion because it was I was afraid there were too many Christians in the room trying to help a lone agnostic to believe. I asked him about it privately and he didn’t feel that way at all. He felt he had more common ground with us than with a lot of people and he appreciated talking about the death of Christ (as we were reading about it) because death is significant to him. Scripture doesn’t, in itself, make people not belong so I suppose we shouldn’t be afraid of it.

    I think it’s counter-cultural and awkward to invite someone to read the Bible with you. It’s not as difficult to invite someone to belong. But I don’t need to worry whether someone likes the scriptures or not, whether they are baptised or not (although I certainly want both). Like what Ron said, what matters is God’s glory and honour.

    I think inviting people both to belong and to hear God’s word through the scriptures is part of that and I thank you so much for reminding me with your own story. I think if I attended more to God in every moment and read Scripture for myself more seriously, I’d have a more “organic” experience in sharing God and the scriptures with non-believers.

    What do you think of texting a verse every now and then? Somehow these days everyone seems to be reading their phones so why not put the scriptures there for people of peace and then ask them about it when we’re “going down the road” or busy “belonging together.”

    • 

      Thanks for your comment, Jason! I want to say: I still want to lead with belonging. I think that is a better paradigm theologically and contextually than believe then belong. That said, we’ll still hang out with people on their turf, throw good parties, and give people lots of opportunities to belong. But what we’re adding to our process is a piece after they’ve experienced belonging where we invite them into a deeper conversation with God through Scripture. It’s a specific vehicle / group experience with a specific format. I’ll describe this in more detail in the next post.

  3. 

    Several thoughts for consideration. First, I haven’t been around long enough to say whether there is a problem to be solved. But if there is, is there only one solution, or even one best solution? That approach seems to assume a kind of “franchise” approach to community, ie. what works there will work here.

    Second, is this “gap” really like a puzzle to be solved, and if you get all the right pieces, then the result will be more conversions? Don’t authentic relationships call for a different approach entirely? Can loving your neighbor as yourself really be analyzed, broken down into phases and categories, reduced to a process?

    Third, isn’t the basic strategy for evangelism simply making Jesus known, truthfully and lovingly, in our words, deeds, individual lives and community gatherings? I’m wondering if the “belonging” versus “believing” paradigms are really two poles of a paradox that cannot be “solved.” If so, then we should have opportunities both to belong and believe as regular aspects of our life together.

    Gary

    • 

      Gary – thanks for commenting. Your comments always make me think.

      To your first thought – certainly there are several different ways that people come to faith. What I am considering here is an intentional process that fits our community and approach to evangelism.

      To your second thought – I don’t know. I’m in the midst of trying to figure that one out. 🙂 I certainly don’t want to say that we can create a process that effectively works God out of the equation. I simply want to be available for him to work through me and Storyline.

      To your third thought – I agree.

      I sense in your comments some resistance to process and intentionality. Perhaps you’re wary of an over-reliance on human effort? I do think that is a common abuse in the church. What I’m trying to do here is live in the paradox – speaking of paradoxes – that God is sovereign and all powerful and yet he expects us to participate in his mission and have responsibility as junior partners in creation.

  4. 

    I’m all for asking God to help us find ways of making Jesus known that are authentic experessions of the Storyline community. I find the Bible an incredible guide for my life and like to dialogue with others about its message and application.

    I’m not wary of intentionality, unless it gets linked too closely with tangible results. I am wary of the Western tendency to seek the “one best solution” to a problem, as that comes from a mechanical view of organizations that doesn’t honor humans well. I know that’s not what you believe and so I’m probably reacting and need to own that.

    On a practical note, I spoke with Ryan about their relationship to an Irish man and wife whom they befriended three years ago. That couple hung around and were influenced by the Walker’s witness to Christ, but haven’t taken the step of faith. As I listened, I was reminded that this is often what happened when people met Jesus and liked parts of his mission, but didn’t join up.

    Thanks for the dialogue.

    • 

      I am with you about the “one best solution” tendency that doesn’t honor humans well. That is an important caution in a discussion like this. It needs to be emphasized that this is one way of many, many ways people come to faith, not the only way. This is one approach, but not the only approach. And it is contextual – so it will need to look different based on the setting.

      I like the story you shared about Ryan. It reminds me of the parable of the soils – that one soil responds well to seed but others do not. We need to scatter seed regardless of the return. It may be true, too, that Ryan’s friend is indeed good soil – but that it takes a lot of time for it to grow and come to fruition.

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