I’m a fan of the principle ‘belong before you believe’. In my church community, I want anyone to be able to turn up on a Sunday and feel in the loop and part of the family. During the week, the hope is that our community is naturally hanging out with and inviting in, more and more people yet to know Jesus. Because that’s just authentic friendship.
As a student, one of the deciding reasons that made me stay and commit to the church I now help lead, was that it was a place and atmosphere that my housemates would be comfortable to join me in. During our uni years, myself and many of my uni mates did things with the church family like babysit, have dinner, compete in a sponsored a charity run, go to the pub, perform theatre, be part of open mic nights... No exclusivity because some of us were Christians and some weren’t. All were welcome, all were invited, you could belong in the group of friends without having to believe the same things.
Whilst in conversation with my student worker friend Andrew about why ‘belong before you believe’ is so powerful and important, I stumbled across the realisation that what it models, is the gospel. It models Jesus’ act of dying for us on the cross, because it was whilst we were still choosing not to follow God that Jesus died for us: Romans 5. God said, “you are invited” before we said “can I come?”, God said “I forgive you” before we had said “I’m sorry”. Jesus made a way for us to belong, before we believed.
Last Monday, the students at my church threw an open mic night in an upstairs bar in our city centre. We reckon over a hundred guests passed through the doors that night and when I turned up I could genuinely only recognise about a third of the people in the room. That was the most encouraging thing about the night for me. On the mic were as many acts who weren’t actively following Jesus in our church as those who were, and we had guests who’d been invited by students in our church then bringing their mates along too. Community is contagious.
If the very act of Jesus saving us was generous and open for all, even whilst humanity turned the other way from him, I reckon there is serious power in how me model this in our communities. If you have a bunch of close mates who all know Jesus, who are you inviting in to your group to belong before they might one day believe? When you gather as church, how easy is it for new people to feel part of the family and encounter our Father by the way his kids love one another?
This is indispensable for us. My student years saw friends find a place to belong in the church and then they believed in Jesus. It happens, it works and it’s good news. So how are you opening up the family of God to be a place your friends can belong and do they know about it?