This is the third post in a nine-part series for the SPECTRUM/re-church Summer Reading Group. The nine posts will be drawn from chapters of Deep Church, by Jim Belcher. You can find the reading schedule here.
As part of a new church plant leadership team, my husband Tommy and I went through some pretty painful conversations with our fellow leaders a couple years ago regarding “membership” in our church plant. Who were we going to talk about when we talked about “members?” This remains a challenge to this day, as we have many core participants who aren’t sure they want to be Seventh-day Adventists but who are very happy belonging to our worshiping community—even leading out in small group Bible studies and taking responsibilities for the functioning of the community. Should we be pushing them to make a more formal commitment to the denomination? If they are happy to be Christ-followers (but not Seventh-day Adventists), is that enough?
The tension regarding evangelism, as Belcher sees it, is the old “believing vs. belonging” conundrum. He argues that the emerging church emphasizes the latter while the traditional/evangelical churches have emphasized the former. Honestly, I found this chapter to be less than helpful. His stories all demonstrate the priority of belonging, although they end with the observation that belief is important, too.
He points out that Jesus asked his disciples to overtly state their belief in His Messiahship and that this sets the tone for churches today—eventually we must move from the outer ring of belonging into the inner ring of believing in Jesus. But this doesn’t solve the other issues raised in the chapter: the doctrinal and lifestyle differences. He argues that there needs to be boundaries on belief—such as insisting that those who call themselves Christians hold to the idea of the Trinity, although most of his examples are actually from behavior, not belief. But if the Scriptural injunction to monitor this comes from Jesus’ command to acknowledge belief in Him as Savior—this is pretty basic and doesn’t solve the issue for “boundaried” denominations. Not to mention that the “disciples” that Belcher is talking about here are the twelve, and the Gospels seem pretty clear that there were many others who were called “disciples” but who don’t get named as part of the twelve. We don’t know what their beliefs were or when/how they were pushed to a verbal statement of confession.
Furthermore, Belcher points out that one might not “know” when someone passes from belonging to belief, which is the concern the emerging church has been pointing out from the beginning. If one doesn’t “know” always, then pushing for a specific verbal commitment from someone at a specific time might not be the best way to make disciples of him/her. The boundaries are very fuzzy, which makes his cute little diagrams showing someone moving from the outer to the inner ring of discipleship somewhat useless. Ultimately, I don’t think Belcher is really positing a “third way” here. He doesn’t seem to be arguing for anything “thicker” than an acknowledgement of the Messiahship of Jesus.
I have found Scot McKnight’s work Turning to Jesus: A Sociology of Conversion to be much more helpful and profound regarding the work of evangelism. Ultimately, McKnight advocates learning to ask questions and listening to and watching for the Holy Spirit’s work in someone’s life as the best way to move them along that path toward full discipleship. Following Jesus takes a lifetime of practice. Honestly, I don’t know when I became a Jesus follower. I was raised in a devout family and I learned the practices of prayer and worship and walking by faith before I even really knew what they were. By the time I was conscious of myself I was a practicing Christian. McKnight would argue that this is the most natural and normal way that discipleship happens, acknowledging, of course that for many people it is also an act of free will regarding a very abrupt change in their life.
As those of us practicing community life and worship in what we can best describe as the emerging tradition try to wrestle with what it means to participate in the work of conversion, we are struggling with what the boundaries look like, with what it means to be a mature (Christ) follower and what the significance even is regarding all of that. What might work within our own small communities, our congregations, may not work at the denominational level. (And the emerging church, as I understand it, continues to value identification with a denomination—in other words, membership. A friend recently pointed out to me that when one’s religious beliefs come up against something like a military draft or an employer’s insistence on Sabbath work, “membership” in a denomination is really helpful. Just to mention one advantage to the denominational behemoth.) But to what extent should I be probing my friends regarding whether they belief in Jesus as their Savior and if they’ve ever made such a commitment? When we have fuzzy conversations about “God,” it isn’t the same thing as their deciding to become followers of Jesus. If I think they are actually learning to be His followers, but just don’t know it yet, at what point do I point this out and ask them to say so “out loud?” These are the questions the emerging church is wrestling with.
Lisa Clark Diller is a professor of early modern world history at Southern Adventist University. She and her husband Tommy enjoy living in and serving their urban Chattanooga community with their church community, The Well.
You can read the other reviews here:
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2535