Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Deep Church III: Belonging and Believing

Traditionalist churches tend to emphasize believing before belonging, and use doctrinal agreement as a gatekeeper to identify who's "in" and who is "not yet in" (also known in some circles as "out"). Emerging churches tend to emphasize "belonging before believing," partly for missional reasons (postmodern folk need to experience the reality of a community before they can embrace membership in it) and partly because they feel that this approach tracks more closely with what we see in the NT. Belcher describes an interesting situation in his own church. In the following quote, he refers to Joe, an openly gay man who has been attending Belcher's church regularly for two or three years:

So simply declaring that belonging precedes belief is not always helpful. What should I say to Joe tomorrow when he asks about membership? Can he officially join the church even if he can't subscribe to our four basic requirements for membership? What about the Lord's Supper? If he can't become a member because of his lifestyle, should he be able to participate in the Lord's Supper? How do I communicate our views? I want him to be increasingly drawn to the Well [i.e., to Jesus himself]. But I want to follow my conscience on biblical matters. I struggle with what to say. [Belcher, p. 97]

Belcher never makes clear how his subsequent conversations with Joe went. How would you have responded--or how have you in fact responded--to folks like Joe (not necessarily around the issue of homosexuality, but more broadly with a 'community member' whose life is either significantly heterodox or heteroprax [wrong belief and/or wrong living])?


John M. said...

Is this too simplistic? Make the issue not one of belief or lifestyle; make it one of following Jesus. Joe, do you want to be a follower of Jesus? Are you willing to commit your life to him and obey what he tells you? Are you willing to accept his words that are recorded in scripture and the guidance of His Spirit?

Brian Emmet said...

John, aren't your three questions implicit "belief statements"? I have no quarrel with your approach, but do think it requires "Joe" to clarify what he believes, and what he is then going to do, based on thsoe beliefs.

Joseph, I'm anticipating your clarification of the differences between "the work" and "the church"; how do you see these sorts of issues getting sorted out in the context of a "work" like your god party? By the way, has the second one gotten going?

just joe said...

ha ha ha ... you are on to me! actually, i have been slammed with papers to grade and lectures to give this week.

Yes, we have started the 2nd g-p, although since it is composed entirely of busy grad students, it has settled out to a loose schedule of once a month, while the Tuesday group (which has already added enough new participants to replace the 5 or 6 grad students) continues weekly.

neither group has communion or membership or any requirements, other than to give everyone a chance to talk. Of course, I don't consider either group to be an ekklesia, although i do consider them to be some kind of community.

I was going to point out what I always point out with this topic comes up ... the whole question that you and Belcher are asking depends on a kind of organizational paradigm of the church that assumes membership with certain responsabilities or requirements. If you just have a group of friends 'hanging out' ... there is no need to tell Joe anything other than to believe, love and follow.

I know, I know ... that leads to a whole series of other issues ... but might it be roughly similar to Peter's reaction in the house of Cornealius? or perhaps Jesus' response to Legion when he asked to follow Jesus (as a disciple persumably).... just thinking out loud here.

back to grading papers ... I have a Latin dance class tonight WITH DEBBIE!!! YAAAAAY!!!!

steve H said...

Rejoicing with you about the class, Joseph and Debbie.

I find it helpful to think of people on the journey toward... or away from.... I need to be able to encourage any movement toward Christ and the "center set" of core beliefs and values.

And along the way there is a point (or points?) where the person must make a clear decision or go the other way. Consider Jesus and the rich young ruler; consider the woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears (and the Pharisees who criticized); consider Jesus and the multitudes at points along the way -- You cannot be my disciple unless you hate...; unless you take up your cross...: unless you give up everything...;
unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood.

just joe said...

yes, of course. If a decision is like taking one step "toward, or away from", then there are probably many decisions taken along the way. The decision one of our "agnostics" who is hostile to Christianity (and to Christians), to start attending our god-party (after over a year of hesitating and arriving late). The same person's decision to begin to trust me, and to open up his pain to me, again, his decision to call me three weeks ago to ask for prayer for his father who was ill (a huge step forward for him).

I think the main difference with traditional evangelicalism is seeing a more nuanced variety of decisions rather than one single, all-encompassing decision to "receive" Christ.

There is also Zaccheus, who made the "decision" to get down from the tree, and even more important "decision" to make restitution for his embezzlement of tax money ... Jesus clearly said that salvation had come to this son of Abraham.

However, I must point out that I am not putting forth our god-parties as a model for anything, other than perhaps one possible kind of "pre-evangelism" that seems to throw out a net for young unchurched postmoderns. I am not positing this as any kind of legitimate expression of church life, whether traditional, patristic, or Pauline New Testament. I would not claim necessarily that the Spirit led me to do it, it just “feels” right to me. It is simply the result of my own journey of trial and error and elimination in my quest to find a way to influence unreached, unbelieving, unchurched secular people toward Christ. And I am not even sure yet how well it works at that… although I have to say it works better than anything else I have tried in 30 years.

I have been meeting with the Intervarsity staff person at FIU: she told me that Intervarsity does something called "GIGS" (Groups investigating God) in which they try to get a good mix of believing and unbelieving students with an open agenda.

I am still open to seeing a church community, celebrating the table of the Lord, emerge from this net full of good and bad fish … but it would have to be very, very clearly the result of the Spirit’s initiation rather than just one of my good ideas. I’m trying to make disciples as he told us, and as far I’m concerned, “building the church” is his primary responsibility.

But we digress ….

steve H said...

As a church elder I am caught between two desires (spiritual instincts?). One is church meetings as described by 1 Corinthians 14:26 -- which seems to be close to where the Lord has us right now. (Kent Ostrander's son Grant (in his mid-20s) has been coming after several years away from "church"; it's amazing to see his excited response to these meetings whether on Sunday or at men's meeting.)

On the other hand, I know there is a need for a "track" to run on at times -- some sort of liturgy -- which brings me toward the "Great Tradition" and that the Lord's Supper should be a culmination of worship.

steve H said...

As a church elder I am caught between two desires (spiritual instincts?). One is church meetings as described by 1 Corinthians 14:26 -- which seems to be close to where the Lord has us right now. (Kent Ostrander's son Grant (in his mid-20s) has been coming after several years away from "church"; it's amazing to see his excited response to these meetings whether on Sunday or at men's meeting.)

On the other hand, I know there is a need for a "track" to run on at times -- some sort of liturgy -- which brings me toward the "Great Tradition" and that the Lord's Supper should be a culmination of worship.

Brian Emmet said...

Jose, I love and treasure the image of you and Debbie dancing, dancing, dancing! Hope you have/had fun!

Belcher doesn't really seem to answer his own question here. I'm not finding fault, and not pressing for "the answer," just observing that he seems, at this particular point, to be more bounded-set than centered-set... and I'm not saying that's good or bad. So here's my real question: what is "a third way" between "belieivng before belonging" and "belonging before (or in order to) believe"? Or is that a false way of putting the question?

just joe said...

I really don't know. I went to his web site, and it appears that his church has a membership process and obviously from his book, they do emphasize the table of the Lord.

So, what he must be refering to with "belonging" must be the freedom to come to worship meetings and 'hang out' to use the vineyard phrase ... but perhaps not full membership and access to communion.

I personally don't like the idea of structuring a church body like an organization with a membershp process ... it seems to me that 1 Cor. 12 indicates that we do not join the body, but that we are joined to the body by the Spirit ... not a membershp class. It seems articifical to me.

However, neither do I have much confidence in my alternative theories about organic church. I guess that is why I am not a pastor ... I am much more confortable in evangelism, or at least pre-evangelism.

I really don't to set the tone for the discussion ... if anyone else has any thoughts in response to Brian's original topic, please weigh in...

just joe said...

Steve: I didn't mean to ignore your comment. I understand. I am myself inclined toward the 1 Cor. 14 model (and it is certainly scriptural). The Corinthian church obviously did not have a "bible" or a detailed liturgy other than perhaps the table of the Lord. Paul did not even mention 'elders' in 1 Cor. 14 -- the onus for keeping order seemed to be upon the 'gifted' people responding to the Spirit (Watchman Nee).

One thing I have been trying to do is to post scriptures and devotional thoughts on a web site ...

... and making them available to our groups for reflection and to stimulate possible discussion on Tuesday (or Sunday) ... but then I encourage spontaneous flexibility on Tuesday nights (and Sundays--party #2 meets tomorrow night) and we often go off in a different direction depending on what the homeboys (and homegirls) bring to the table ...

steve H said...

I know Scripture itself does not mention a liturgy as such.

As you know, however, early converts were Jews and there were "liturgies" for the Passover meal and Sabbath meals (which took place in homes rather than the temple, of course).

It is clear from the earliest writings such as the "Didache" (which almost certainly began to circulate among the churches while John was still living), that the churches early on (perhaps with no break at all) adapted those "Jewish home liturgies" to the celebration of Eucharist.

So there is very early evidence of a pattern of worship. The descriptions of meetings in the "Didache" and also in Justin Martyr's apology (about 150) describe meetings that had freedom within a pattern.

And we all develop our pattern's, don't we -- even in 1 Cor 14 type meetings? The primary question is which patterns that develop or have developed serve best to help us keep the Lord central in worship and to reinforce the core elements of the faith in us.

steve H said...

I realized that I failed to finish the last entry.

The reason "Deep Church" appeals to me is that Belcher is looking back to what were effective forms that can help us pass on the faith that has been entrusted to us and yet he seeks to allow for the work of the Spirit and the applications needed in our day.

"Deep Church" seems to me to be a good example (or "movement toward" anyway) of the "Ancient-Future" paradigm that Robert Webber (d. 2007) developed so well in at least four of his later books.

just joe said...

yes, it appeals to me too in many ways. I am sure I have already pointed this out, but our god-parties are not designed for worship. who knows? Perhaps that will come down the road. I agree that in Christian worship, Christ should be central.

I've got ideas about reaching unbeleiving people with faith ... but regarding "the church", I'm fresh out of ideas. I pretty much agree with whatever you guys are doing. Belcher's approach sounds better to me than most others.

You might enjoy visiting his church web site.

just joe said...

wow ... we don't seem very talkative on this topic. I have two questions, one for all of you, and one for Brian and Steve (and any other pastor who is leading a church).

1) what do you think about Belcher's clear affirmation of post-foundationalism? Do you agree?

2) Brian and Steve: what are you thinking about changing or incorporating in your own churches as a result of reading his book?

Brian Emmet said...

Good questions! More coming... I'm on the road today, at least till later this afternoon...

steve H said...

#1 If the definition of foundationalism is "the view that can be based on self-evident truths that don't need any backing from religion or any other authority, that is, knowledge has 'invincible certainty,'" then I have been a postfoundationalist for quite a while. That's why I usually find presuppositional apologetics to be more valuable than classical apologetics.

We start with faith based on Revelation (both objective in Scripture and subjective in the working of the Holy Spirit) and are able to reason out from there. Our certainties can be reasonable (that is, they fit the way we know reality to be and are testable in experience) but some cannot not be proven in the scientific sense and they are not self-evident unless one starts with certain presuppositions.

#2 I will gradually feed some of his ideas in through the teaching I do and the discussions I have. Frankly, most of the people in our church who are over 40 would be foundationalists (without knowing it) and are not going to change substantially in the way they think or practice the faith or do church.

So, for the most part, I will be working more directly to shape these ways of thinking into the under 30 group. My hope for substantive change in thinking and practice is with the younger people.

Belcher's book pulled together some things that I had been thinking and in many cases he said what I have long "sensed" or had been coming to more clearly than I could have done. Most of it wasn't new to me, but I appreciate what he has been trying to do with what he sees.

However, I am not inclined to join a denomination like he did.

just joe said...

I thought you already had joined a denomination? (wry smile and a wink)

Brian Emmet said...

I liked Belcher's position that we can be postfoundationalist, yet also be "realist", that is, believe/understand that there is a "real reality" "out there" that is not the mere construction of our minds or language. I think this makes for the right kind of blending of confidence and humility.

Brian Emmet said...

In response to J's second question, we have incorporated the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds into our celebrations of the Lord's Supper; I have been attempting to preach and teach a "wider" view of salvation than all-that-matters-is-that-your-soul-gets-to-heaven; I'm not sure what to do with/about belonging before believing, but am not attempting to nail anything down in that regard; don't know what to say about the emerging church's critique of traditionalism's "weak and ineffective preaching!"

just joe said...

I like Belcher’s approach to breaking down the “post-modern” boogie man into its component parts and discerning the unspoken (and mutually exclusive) definitions being used by the parties in conflict over tradition and emerging. Instead of using one all-encompassing word with several different possible definitions, he uses post-foundational, hyper-modernism, anti-realism and defines them. I have felt for a long time that one could critique the Enlightenment idolatry of “Reason” without being an “anti-realist.” Somewhere in his book, he points out that post-modernism can be very helpful faith in its “negative” work of tearing down modern rationalism, but is not so good a tool in doing the positive work of constructing an alternative—that where the Great Tradition comes in.

That being said, if I were to pastor again (which ain’t gonna ever happen formally), I think I would organize my teaching and preaching around the Anglican lectionary, and really work on getting committed followers to read along the scriptural calendar in their own private devotions. In the last few years I was a pastor, I became increasingly dissatisfied with “topical” preaching – to easy to ride a hobby horse. I also like the sense of connection with the history of the faith.

In terms of belonging before believing, Paul Petrie taught years ago (at least 10 or 12) that we should not invite people to church, but rather invite them into our relationships. I think he was right on. When Gary Henley was pastoring the church in Dallas, his evangelistic strategy was to get the church heavily involved in the surrounding community and community organizations, and to get his church members rubbing shoulders with unchurched people.

I think one could have light “membership” requirements that are focused on faith in Christ and a commitment to follow him that might involve the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene creed without demanding intellectual adherence to a long and detailed “statement of faith” … and still invite all kinds of people to hang out with the community. One would just primarily draw leadership from the ranks of the committed, without ostracizing the uncommitted ‘belonging’ seekers.

I also have some thoughts on the supper of the Lord, but this post is getting too long.

steve H said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts...

John M. said...

Joseph, for a season you were emphasizing the "commands of Christ". Do you see those fitting in someplace either in what you're currently doing or what you would do if you were pastoring in a more structured situation like you described in your post?

just joe said...

I'm not sure John ... let me think about it. The people I am hanging out with now would not like the word "command". Maybe that would be a topic for another discussion.