The standard pattern of church membership has been that we expect people to believe before we accept them as belonging. We see this in the usual way Presbyterian churches receive members. Part of the process of becoming a member is making a reaffirmation of faith. We assume that the active members of a church are all people who have made this statement of what they believe. We are a gathering of people who believe in Jesus.
I wonder if this whole way of behaving isn’t wrong, or at least very unhelpful. Isn’t it kind of like expecting someone to know calculus before they take a calculus class? Or to play the trumpet, or speak Italian, or knit a sweater, before being allowed to participate in the group where those skills are learned?
Isn’t it rather presumptuous of us to somehow expect people to be Christians before we welcome them into the church? Isn’t the gathered community a place where we learn together how to follow Jesus? Is there anyone in our church (or any church) who is willing to say they have it all together and don’t have anything left to learn about this? Doesn’t requiring that people already believe/trust in Jesus before we will deign to make them a member exclude people from membership who may be on the way to becoming disciples?
I am coming more and more to the view that people need to belong first. We need to welcome and embrace people into our fellowship whether they are “Christians” right now or not. The church that allows itself to become a closed club of people who already believe is not going to grow very easily. First of all because even the people who have come to believe are not completed and finished as Christians. Secondly, a lot of people have learned that they have to say they believe in order to be included… but really don’t trust in Jesus just yet. Thirdly, often it is the ones who have the most trouble believing who end up with the stronger faith when they do develop a relationship with Jesus.
When Jesus calls his disciples, he does not have them make complete statements of faith in him. Peter does not make his confession of who Jesus is until deep into his relationship as a disciple. Thomas doesn’t make the kind of confession we require of new members until after Jesus’ resurrection! Jesus does not require anyone of his disciples or wider entourage to sign on to specific beliefs about him. Indeed, he welcomes sinners of all kinds, and people will all kinds of diseases, without regard for what they do or don’t believe. It is their relationship with Jesus, and the community gathered around him, that brings people to faith in him.
Neither did Jesus bother with keeping detailed membership rolls, or deciding who was or wasn’t welcome at his Table. Everybody was welcome: Pharisees, Roman soldiers, women, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, working people, children, and so on. He knew that faith in him was not based on what their opinion was about him, but on what kind of relationship he had with them.
Church, in other words, is not just for Christians. I hope no one avoids gathering for worship with us because they “don’t believe all that stuff.” I’ve got news: some of us who do gather also have serious questions about “all that stuff.” And some of us who do accept it, do so in very different ways.
The church is not a gathering of people who already believe. It is a gathering of people who are open to a relationship with Jesus, through his followers. In our life together, we are developing this relationship with Jesus and his followers, and anyone interested enough in hearing what Jesus is about to get themselves to a church on Sunday morning. The people of the world are not divided into believers and non-believers. Rather, there are people who are in different places in their relationship with him. And those who say they “believe” are not necessarily “ahead” of those who are able to give the most orthodox opinions. I have known atheists who were better followers of Jesus than some Christians.
My point is that the church needs to be a place where people feel welcome and know they belong. Then we can show each other the love of Jesus, and grow in it together. We can build each other up, learn forgiveness, practice encouragement, pray with and heal each other. After all, every week we’ve been singing, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” We don’t sing that they will know we are Christians by the correctness of our theological opinions.
The “they” in the song are the people we meet in the world. Our little fellowship must be so welcoming, and our love for each other, and for the world, so apparent, that “they” will want to be a part of it. We have to be a part of that love first, before we can talk intelligibly about it. We have to be doing it before we can say we believe it.