Belonging or Believing…Which Comes First?

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How do you think it works?  Think people believe first and then belong?  Or do you think they act on an innate desire to belong and then believe?

What do you think?

There was an interesting flare up last week after an article by Michael McKinley on the 9marks blog outlined a wolf awareness program that prohibits small group participation until the candidate has joined the church (HT to Ben Reed for his early catch).

Somewhat like columnist Dave Barry, I feel compelled to add, “I am not making this up.”

McKinley explains:

“We don’t let people attend small groups…until they are members.  In order to join the church, a person is examined by the elders and approved by the congregation.  Once a person has been through that process, we feel reasonably comfortable that they are safe (that is to say, not a wolf).”

Seriously?  I repeat, I am not making this up.  (By the way, I gave serious consideration to titling this post, “I Almost Hurled.”)

Now…let me be quick to say, you can do anything you want.  You can exclude seekers from a small group.  You can exclude the still unbelieving spouses of believing members.  You can exclude neighbors and friends and family.  You can exclude anyone you want from the optimum environment for life-change.

You can exclude anyone you want in the interest of “protecting the flock,’ but can I tell you something?  I’m not sure you’re catching on to the innate human desire to belong before we believe.  Although your bounded set modality may provide protection for your flock…it certainly also provides a fence that keeps out the very people who need to find their way back to God from what many believe is the optimum environment.

In researching the “belong before you believe” concept, I came across this reference to teaching by Bob Roberts in an article by Jeremy Myers.

At a recent Glocalnet church planting conference, Bob Roberts talked about how churches are generally made up of three things: Believing, Belonging, and Blessing. In other words, they focus on doctrine, fellowship, and service. The typical church requires that a person believes the same way they do before they will allow that person to feel accepted in their fellowship or to get involved with service in and through the church. They require belief as a prerequisite to belonging and blessing.

Bob Roberts suggested that the biblical model, and true discipleship, allows people to enter into “church life” through any of the three areas (Note that “church life” is NOT to be equated with “eternal life.”) So in this way, if a person longs to be part of the close-knit fellowship of the church, or join the church in building homes in the community, they can do so without signing a doctrinal statement. Discipleship churches allow people to belong or be a blessing without first believing.

Joseph Myers talked about it in Search to Belong.  Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch talked about it in The Shaping of Things to Come.

You can do anything you want.  You can tightly control who can lead a group.  You can control who can be in a group.  But you’ll never convince me that your position is really about the Kingdom.  I will always be convinced that it is about “getting all you can, canning all you get…and poisoning the rest.”

It is 2011.  We are living in a post Christian era.  It is absolutely time to wake up and smell the coffee.  If you want to hear “well done,” you will not be controlling who can be in a small group.  Feel me?

What do you think? Make sense? Want to argue? Got a question? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

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  1. Ross Ramsey on March 14, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Well said, I had one comment or question, he made the comment or alluded to the fact that we should not tightly control who becomes leaders of groups. I understand where he is coming from and I understand Saddlebacks progressive leadership pathway model. However with that said do you believe in having some standards for leaders of groups that the church send people too?

  2. Ben Reed on March 14, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Great thoughts here, Mark. Couldn’t agree more!

  3. Anonymous on March 14, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Hey Ross…to clarify, the quote I included from McKinley only pertained to who could be IN a group.


  4. Anonymous on March 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Thanks Ben!

  5. Ericmetcalf on March 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    I am in full agreement Mark. Belonging is the language of our generation. Any community that reeks of inward focus only attracts the negative, sub-cultured Christian. You cited some of favorite books on this subject: Search to Belong and Shaping of Things to Come – loved those books! Since when does God require an assessment process before he includes us in the His community: Jesus, Father, Holy Spirit community? In fact, last time I checked, its an open door policy due to something we call the cross! Come one, come all!

    thanks mark,

  6. Anonymous on March 14, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Thank you for jumping in Eric! Love your heart on this important topic!


  7. Mscottboren on March 14, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    It’s hard for me to believe that someone would set up such tight boundaries in today’s post-Christian society. What does that say about how we are discipling people if we feel that we have to protect them from wolves? Shouldn’t we be equipping them to have conversations with real people and not be afraid of the wolves. Mark. Great job

  8. Anonymous on March 14, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    Yes! I love your thinking, Scott! Thank you for jumping in here!


  9. Bill J. on March 15, 2011 at 3:55 am

    I am in agreement with you on this whole topic, but we also have to deal with a whole generation that was raised in modernity, who doesn’t know any better (or another way), and are steeped in their past traditions. While most raised in post-modernity can adapt and turn directions like paddling a kayak, the generations of the modern era are still floating in battleships and those ships turn very slowly. This has (and still continues to be) been a painful transition, but a necessary one if we as Christians are to be engaged with our culture and opening up the level ground at the foot of the cross. Everyone needs to feel welcome there and they need to know that they also belong there.

  10. Joshwalters on March 15, 2011 at 5:35 am

    This is a great post Mark. I totally agree with you, the idea of ‘controlling who we let into groups’ suggests that some people aren’t suitable for community when in reality we were all created to live in it. The Church should model an openness to relationship/community/belonging that far exceeds any rec-center, club or cause. Jesus lived in community with people that wouldn’t make it to the ‘congregational vote once examined by an elder’ and then called the disciples to go and do likewise. The concern or question is more about love than belonging. Does your church love people well? If so, you will calibrate both invitation and challenge in community. People who are far from God and/or don’t believe are only dangerous to the body in small group settings when they are not challenged. Typically most church’s/people are strong at one or the other, invitation or challenge. Biblically both of these draw us back to a willingness, more so a burden to live in community with people who are far from God. Significant life change takes place in the context of relationships. An unwillingness to allow people to belong sounds more like a cult than a church.

    We do, however, need to remember that:

    1. In creating an environment of low control and high accountability where people can get connected/belong through a variety of on ramps (weekend service, SG, MC or missional opportunities) it is important that we have identified and discipled leaders. Because…

    2. We are all being transformed. There are no neutral influences relationally. We are either looking more like the image of Christ or we are looking more like this world.

    If you are not discipling leaders that are capable of shepherding/leading a community of people and loving them well, than whether you allow those who are far from God into community or not i think it’s only a matter of time until you burn out, give up or die off.

    Good stuff Mark! Thankful for you.

  11. Anonymous on March 15, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks for jumping in here, Bill! I like your kayak metaphor! And I agree that there are some who are stuck in the past and governed by tradition. May all who are stuck…drop by and read this article!


  12. Anonymous on March 15, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Thanks for this Josh! Great insights, again. I love your call to invitation and challenge. Very helpful!


  13. Joanne on March 16, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Small groups are an added door to the Church! Open your small group door and your church will grow.

  14. Anonymous on March 16, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Well put Joanne!


  15. Anonymous on March 16, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Well put Joanne!


  16. BrianH. on March 22, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    Hey, Mark. Thanks for this post. I agree with what you’re saying, but I think a bit of context may be in order here. I spent some time at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (the church from which 9Marks Ministries originated, though I’m not sure this is the church to which he is referring) for a seminary class I was doing back in 2003. They had that same policy in place, but the way they explained it at the time was that they had “closed” groups made of members only for intimacy and to make sure everyone was pulling in the same direction for discipleship, etc. However, they also had group for seekers and folks new to the church but not yet members. Maybe that’s the same here? Granted, that sounds a bit different from the blog posting. Again, I’m not saying their way (either how I perceived it or how it actually was/is) is right or wrong (no problem free, right?), but I do want the issue to be clear.

    Thanks again for your work, Mark. May the Lord bless you for your labors!

  17. Anonymous on March 22, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    Thanks for commenting Brian! There definitely are some other possible explanations for what they have going on. I hope they do have something in place that helps unconnected people belong. You can see from most of the comments, the idea that community happens only after you join…just didn’t go over well


  18. Nathan Creitz on April 5, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    I definitely like the idea of open groups but I can understand McKinley’s position. I think what he is saying is that there are different kinds of groups for different purposes. Seeker groups can be a place for people to explore the idea of Christian community and every Christian ought to include their neighbors and friends in their lives. Sharing life with unbelievers is a strong apologetic.

    On the other hand, there are some groups that go much deeper with accountability, counseling, and shepherding one another. We can’t expect these groups to have an open door policy at all times. We certainly can’t expect the introverted ones in a group like that to be able to share deep aspects of their spirituality if there are new people who may not be committed to the Christian concept of koinonia. Mark, I’m sure you understand this from your experience in small groups. I’ve definitely seen this over and over again. I think McKinley is talking about these groups rather than seeker groups, though I think his church has both kinds.

    Now, the only thing I disagreed with McKinley on was his terminology. I wouldn’t call an unbeliever a wolf. A wolf is one who claims to be a Christian but is divisive and destructive to the rest of the flock and needs to be disciplined. An unbeliever, in New Testament terminology, is a goat. So, I think there are a lot of aspects of Christianity where sheep and goats can graze together. Isn’t that the point of Jesus’ parables on the sheep and the goats and the wheat and the weeds? Let them come to weekly gatherings. Let them share life with Christians. Find ways of encouraging the goats to become sheep but recognize that there are times when the sheep need to be with sheep to be encouraged, held accountable, and exhorted to live a holy life. Goats aren’t going to get that.

    If your group allows sheep and goats to graze together in all aspects of the Christian life, fine. But realize that there are some churches and some groups that are organized to care for and encourage sheep and not goats. This is a difference of vision and I’m personally not opposed to a small group of Christians to get together for Christian koinonia as long as they are encouraging one another to be missional and not simply be stagnate.

    Am I making any sense?

  19. Anonymous on April 5, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Thanks for jumping in here Nathan. You are making sense and I appreciate your thinking, but the issue many of us had with McKinley’s blog post is that it clearly described a believing before belonging approach. It is not clear from his post that he’s describing a multi-tiered approach. In fact, he makes no provision for including anyone but members (whether believers or seekers).

    As I pointed out, “you can do anything.” However, I believe you can’t exclude and be about the Kingdom. In my mind, those two tenets are mutually exclusive.


  20. Mark Howell on April 5, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks for jumping in here Nathan. You are making sense and I appreciate your thinking, but the issue many of us had with McKinley’s blog post is that it clearly described a believing before belonging approach. It is not clear from his post that he’s describing a multi-tiered approach. In fact, he makes no provision for including anyone but members (whether believers or seekers).

    As I pointed out, “you can do anything.” However, I believe you can’t exclude and be about the Kingdom. In my mind, those two tenets are mutually exclusive.


  21. Ben Reed on June 2, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    I know I commented already, but this issue just presses my buttons.

    I’m preaching on Mark 2:13-17 this Sunday.  This is a great example of both ‘believe first’ and ‘experience community’ first.  It seems that Jesus was hanging out with (aka ‘doing life with’) people who weren’t yet ‘members’ of a local church.

    To take a stance that says you have to be a member before joining a small group seems to go against this passage.

  22. Anonymous on June 2, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    Great passage!  I love the Matthew 9 reference to the same event.  Clearly, there are countless examples in the Gospels when Jesus welcomed outsiders.  There’s not one instance where He carded anyone.

    Hope it goes well on Sunday!mark

  23. Wendy McCaig on December 24, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Had a similar conversation with a minister whose church would not allow the women to start a study because the curriculum was not approved by the denomination. So the women started it in their homes and opened it up to their neighbors and it was wildly successful. Our need to control things will never stop the movement of God…we will simply be cut off from the blessing.

  24. Anonymous on December 26, 2011 at 6:38 am

    So true! Thanks for jumping in here, Wendy! Love the story!


  25. Larry Baxter on May 17, 2012 at 8:29 am

    I like your alternate title Mark 😉  “Belong Before Believe” was an eye-opening concept to this modern thinker when I read ‘Evangelism Outside the Box’ by Richardson. He notes it’s not a new concept- Wesley (talk about old-school) said evangelism is about helping people belong so that they can believe.” It’s almost a given in post-modern society (as it was with the Celts – see also ‘The Celtic Way of Evangelism’ by Hunter – great book).

    The premise of excluding a non-believer (much less a non-member) from a small group is insane. Epic Fail. Seriously – could Jesus’ example be any clearer?

    On a more conciliatory note, some of the arguing about ‘Belong Before Believe’ is tied to the meaning of ‘belong’. If belong = unconditional acceptance of a person and their worthiness to be loved by God and live among us as they explore who this Jesus is… absolutely. If people think belong means absolutely anyone can be a member of the church, or that by saying people ‘belong’ it blurs the understanding of biblical concepts of regeneration or justification, that’s where people start to argue (and rightly so).

    Discipleship is messy. If you’re going to reach the unconnected (which you champion), you’re going to have to put up with messy people and less than ideal curriculum choices. So I’m no fan of tight control on either – you’re better off having a solid spiritually mature coach walking alongside a group that’s on the edge, than no group at all and potential members or seekers feeling turned away once again by the organized church. Great post! Thanks 🙂

  26. Anonymous on May 17, 2012 at 8:32 am

    Thanks for jumping in here, Larry! I liked my alternate title too!

    You’ve hit on several great insights. I believe this understanding is one of the real keys to connecting beyond the usual suspects.