Monday, February 27, 2006

Belonging BEFORE believing: a delirious heresy?

One song left off of the American version of the "Touch" CD by Delirious is ...ironically..titled "America."

And another irony: To me it is a prophetic word to that nation.

And we as a nation/church are too quick to write off as blasphemous the following offensive lyric (Warning: don't read the quote to follow of easily's a shocker). Here it is:

"You don't have to believe to belong."


Methinx I just heard the eyes some _____ Seminary grads eyes pop out, as the owners of those eyes simultaneously pulled out their heresy detectors.

Not so fast.

As I write this, Don Knotts has just died, and one story I just heard was about his famous Deputy Barney Fife character ("Andy Griffith Show") is that he only was allowed to carry one bullet with him...and that, in his he had previously shot himself in the foot. And that's what I do anytime I don't let someone belong before believing. The only thing worse is shooting someone else in the foot...beacuse they don't believe/don't look like I do etc. Though we have a lot to learn from the police department (!), God doesn't need any more quickdraw deputy-pastors. We are not in Mayberry anymore, church.

I think I first heard the "belong and then believe" sequitur from my amazing professor George Hunter (read about what a fun guy AND scholar he is) whose specialty is, well, take his book title: "How to Reach Secular People." He deconstructed our all-American evangelical assumptions, and we came out the stronger..and the more Celtic..because of it.

But"it wasn't easy for some of us to morph. This whole giving folks room and space (literally) to 'belong" even before they "believe" (if ever) goes way against the whole ingrained (and ingrown) grain of American evangelical church culture.

Which is a good sign it may be an indispensable, vital truth.

Not to mention Jesus' unspoken and Spiritanous M.O.

A quick googling suggests how many church websites have an, written, rule that the order is exactly the opposite. Indeed in some cases it will flow that "traditional" way. But now more than ever, we need to not call it vice to vise the versa.

I am not judging any of the churches listed. (It's likely that they model ministry far better than their mottos). I am judging myself, and asking us to ask rough and tough questions about what Miraslov Volf calls "exclusion and embrace" ...and "the soft difference"

Consider this excerpt from Brian McLaren's "More Ready Than You Realize," Chapter 11 (maybe a prophetic chapter title: it's precisely where we are "Chapter eleven" in "bankrupt"): "The Idea of Playing For and Through God" (as quoted and commented on by Adam Cleaveland at this link):

"I am fortunate that the church I am privileged to serve understands something that too few churches understand: Sometimes belonging must precede believing. In other words, unless we let not-yet-Christians enter and participate in the Christian community, many of them won't becomes Christians...Many of our denominations arose or redefined themselves during the modern period (say between 1500-2000), when theological controversy and competition, combined with a penchant toward control (all in an environment where modern Christianity provided the dominant worldview), reinforced what I call "motivation by exclusion." Motivation by exclusion says something like this: We're on the inside, but you're on the outside. We're right, and you're wrong. If you want to come inside, then you need to be right. So, just believe right, think right, speak right, and act right, and we'll let you in.

Again, there were reasons why this line of thinking predominated in modern churches, but I think for those of us living and serving in a postmodern world, we need to move beyond motivation by exclusion. Our motivation by acceptance will say something like this: We are a community bound together and energized by faith, love and commitment to Jesus Christ. Even though you don't yet share that faith, love, and commitment, you are most welcome to be with us, to belong here, to experience what we're about. Then, if you are attracted and persuaded by what you see, you'll want to set down roots here long-term And if you don't, you'll always be a friend."

"If you don't, you'll always be a friend." Wow; maybe that's the promise we can't make. Which we have been taught Jesus wouldn't dare have us make. "You don't have to believe to belong."

I remember the first time I met TMac. He was already waiting at the door as I was unlocking it for a Bible Study. He said something like, "Do you accept people with tattoos?"

I smiled and said "Come on in. In fact, I specifically remember praying you in! Glad to meet an answer to prayer!"

Now Tom had been a believer for years, so this is partly a false analogy. Buthis only "problem" in "belonging" in traditional churches is..he had tattoos..which is some minds must have equated to not yet being a "believer" (at least his arms didn't look "saved").

Not a problem for me; for our church.

In fact, here is a shot of him playing guitar for one of our gatherings (and the reason he's wearing a jacket is not to cover the tattoos...more likely he was cold..or was told he looked cool in leather).

Some may be saying "Amen, you gotta catch the fish before cleaning them." That's not what I'm saying. I do not ever ask Tom to get his "tats removed." (Here's my essay on "Doesn't the Bible forbid tattoos?", if you are interested) .

By the way, TMac is a youth parole officer at juvenile hall..and his tattoos have lead people to Jesus! (Oops, don't tell God!)

So I have learned a lot from TMac. He may sound too hard on traditional church to some to call their adherents
"robots in abominational coffins". But walk a mile (literally) in his tattoos before you claim to know what it feels like to be as judged as he has been by a system I helped build. He has been glared out of pews, when he may well have been an answer to the pewsitters' prayers.

And let him challenge your borders as he offers Black Sabbath lyrics as singable in church; or ponders the gnostichurch tendency to compartmentalize and de-scaralize holy language via a flat rejection of "holy profanity".


To me, all talk of borders; and belonging and believing brings back to front and center the hugely helpful concepts of "set theory". It's all a matter of how we view people..via the intention and direction (Proverbs 23:7; Hebrews 4:12) of their heart (centered set); or merely by whether they look to fit certain criteria for "club membership" (bounded set).

Frost and Hirsch, in the landmark book "The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church" (reviewed well by Len Hjalmarson here) add a layer to "set theory":

"A useful illustration is to think of the difference between wells and fences.
In some farming communities, the farmers might build fences around their
properties to keep their livestock in and the livestock of neighboring farms
out. This is a bounded set. But in rural communities where farms or ranches
cover an enormous geographic area, fencing the property is out of the question.
In our home of Australia, ranches (called stations) are so vast that fences are
superfluous. Under these conditions a farmer has to sink a bore and create a
well, a precious water supply in the Outback. It is assumed that livestock,
though they will stray, will never roam too far from the well, lest they die.
This is a centered set. As long as there is a supply of clean water, the
livestock will remain close by."Churches that see themselves as a centered set
recognize that the gospel is so precious, so refreshing that, like a well in the
Australian Outback, lovers of Christ will not stray too far from it. It is then
a truly Christ-centered model. Rather than seeing people as Christian or
non-Christian, as in or out, we would see people by their degree of distance
from the center, Christ. In this way, the missional-incarnational church sees
people as Christian and not-yet-Christian. It acknowledges the contribution of
not-yet-Christians to Christian community and values the contribution of all
people. Jesus' faith community was clearly a centered set, with him at the
center. . . . There was a rich intersection of relationships with some nearer
the center and others further away, but all invited to join in the
kingdom-building enterprise. If the modern church followed this biblical model,
the church would be more concerned with relationships than with numbers."

Yes, there are borders in the Christian faith; ye,s there are boundaries on doctrianal statements. Believe me, I have gone to bat for sound doctrine, and though I believe in it more than ever, I would approach life, ministry, and battles differently now than in the day when I (wrongly) became a hero is some circles for keeping the "bounded set" bounded.

"You don't have any fags at your church?", someone asked years ago.

My shocking (shocking in that it was the "right" answer, even though I was in a "bounded set" context) answer: "Well, I won't use that offensive word, but the answer actually is "I hope so!"

Where else do you WANT homoexuals? Or heterosexuals? Or any humans?

What does it mean to be "in the church'? For some purposes, it is a bounded set; for others (far more than we have dared to imagine), it's a decidedly centered (or even scarier: a "fuzzy" set).

Not that I am saying God wants Christians to continue in homosexual sex. I didn't say that or imply it. All I said was, "I hope there are some homosexuals in the house on Sunday morning."

And in some senses, they may well have to feel they "belong" before they can believe. And if they do believe, it is only as a fellow "belonger" that I can walk them through their journey.

My friend Doug, the window-cleaning prophet/pastor, intoduced me to the book Fourth Turning soon after 9-11, while many were asking if 9-11 was a "fourth turning in our very day and age. No doubt 9-11 was a hinge both "changed everything" and changed nothing in our culture/church; remember the temporary spike upwards in church attendance soon after (which soon returned to an even flatter flatline as hungry pre-Christians found nothing sustantial or supernatural in our services.

Or maybe they simply didn't get a chance to belong before they fully believed.

Anyway, to come full circle to the "America" song. This song previously unreleased in America; in fact intentionally deleted from the CD as it migrated to our nation from England,was, in response to 9-11, released online and given away free in New York a word of prophetic encouragement, healing and exhortation.

Explaining the release decision, band frontman Smith said:

"We are not doing this as a 'weird' marketing ploy, but feel in light of what
has happened we are changing our short term plans so that people across the
world can participate in the sentiment of this song, written at the beginning of
last year. It will be available free and no additional marketing or promotion
will be undertaken. We are just letting this song go to where it needs to go."
'America' starts with the lyrics "America, you're too young to die" and ends
with "You don't have to believe to belong". Explaining the sentiment of the song
Smith went on to say "What happened in America yesterday has made the nations of
the world stand still. It is often when we are standing still that the God of
heaven speaks and brings us to our knees. Today as people who 'believe' or not
we know we all 'belong' and must unite to 'sing a new song' in this time of

Sometimes we aren't ready for the prophecy until we are 9/11-ed. And often even then it doesn't hit as it should.

But I can imagine God singing:

America you're too young to die...
Where can a man go, if he's fallen to his his knees?
How can a mother free her children from disease?
Where can a river run if it cannot clean itself?
Where can a man go from the curses of his wealth?
Well everybody come on.

It's time to sing a new song..

You don't have to believe to belong.

Hey, I just noticed that many (all?) online versions of the lyrics are correct up to a point..they leave that last line..the punchline/tagline/very plumbline of the song..out!? What's up with even the "secular" world being afraid of "belonging before believing??


I can't "clean myself." But I claim to belong to the Kingdom community.
Hey, now that I think of it, the main reason I was able to yield my life to Christ was I met belivers at a college and church who were daring enough to let me belong far before I believed.


"Preach faith until you have it," Zinzendorf challenged Wesley ,"and then because you have it, you'll preach it."

Delirious advice indeed.

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