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Belong Before You Believe?

The church has it all backwards.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the church. I am personally invested in the church. But I’m pretty sure that the church needs to change directions.

Of course I’m talking about the visible church, the one found in physical locations, not the invisible church, also known as the body of Christ. The invisible church is doing just fine, thank you very much. It’s the visible church that needs to rethink its strategy.

The strategy I’m referring to comes in a lot of different forms and formats, but mostly it can be summarized in one little phrase: “Belong before you believe.” The strategy behind the phrase is quite simple. If a church can attract people through its preaching and music and programs—all presented by cheerful, friendly, successful people—then visitors to that church will be compelled to keep coming and eventually believe what the preacher and the music and the programs are talking about.

There’s just one problem with this strategy: it treats visitors like consumers. By asking people to belong before they believe, the church has to appeal to their likes and dislikes. The assumption is that people will belong to a particular church if that church delivers a positive experience week after week, meeting people “where they are at.”

But how do you meet people where they are at when the people in any given church aren’t at the same place? And how do you keep up with their likes and dislikes when they change, as they inevitably do? You can’t, at least not without constantly changing your marketing strategy to adapt to your customers’ changing preferences. You know, like consumer products companies do.

So what’s the answer? How does the church change directions? As always, when we find ourselves going the wrong direction, the answer is Jesus. In a perceptive article, “The Danger of Church Shopping,” Brett McCracken sums it up this way: "By shifting the focus away from the fixed point of Jesus and to the fickle, frequently diverging “paths” of individual churchgoers, churches lose their bearings and become inherently unstable."

The way this happens is when churches try to fit the preferences of people rather than asking people to fit the preferences of Jesus.

Oh, we love to say we love Jesus, but how many of us desire to do what he says, to truly follow him as his disciples? It’s not a natural inclination. It goes against our inherent preferences.

At the risk of going against our natural preferences, what if the church were to talk about what Jesus requires of us through its preaching, music, and programs? What would happen? If the primary message of the church was focused on repentance, surrender, forgiveness of sins, loving enemies, denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus—how would people respond? Would they stick around? Or would they look for another place to belong, a place that suits their preferences?

These are questions worth considering. For his part, McCracken is convinced that churches emphasizing Jesus and the Bible will be more sustainable than churches that focus on belonging as the most important value. For sure we need to know there is a place for us in the family of God, but belief in what God has done for us through Jesus should always lead the way. As McCracken says, “The lordship of Christ, not the lordship of consumers, should always be central.”

That’s not backwards. It’s the way it’s supposed to be.

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Stan's entire life has been wrapped in content: selling, writing and publishing books and resources that help ordinary people capture a glimpse of extraordinary things.