People need a place to belong before they are willing to believe. For most of my life, I have thought about disciple making in exactly the opposite way.
First, I thought, people must come to accept Jesus as the son of God, their savior. Only then can they really understand who Christians are or feel at home in the church.
In other words, I believed the church was for insiders only.
Without much thought I had come to see life transformation in two distinct and totally separate stages: evangelism, followed by discipleship; justification followed by sanctification. People first had to profess faith, only then could they be indoctrinated into the faith, taught to think like a Christian, and incorporated into the church.
I wasn’t alone in this. Nearly every church I know of conceived of the church’s mission in this way, and most still do.
The problem is that this isn’t the way life works.
People don’t make life-altering decisions based on intellect alone. They make decisions experientially and relationally.
Nobody buys the full version of a software without first downloading the free trial version or reading a host of positive consumer reviews. People don’t buy a car without taking a test drive. And, sorry to throw this out there, most people don’t get married without first experiencing intimacy.
For better or worse, this is simply how people make important decisions. They live with them for awhile before making a commitment. Experience first, decision second. Belonging before believing.
Yet we persist in thinking that people will change their religion based on a single coffee shop conversation or one really good sermon. We expect unchurched people essentially to “buy” Christianity sight unseen—beliefs, lifestyle, culture, and all.
They won’t do it. And that’s the reason most churches fail to make converts. They insist that people accept Christ without first experiencing the life, worship, mission, and fellowship of Christian people.
What’s more, we design everything from our building to our worship experience around the needs and wants of churched people rather than creating a space where unchurched people can belong.
We treat them as visitors who can’t possibly understand what we’re doing rather than as participants who can enter in, follow along, and be transformed by the same good news that is transforming us.
Include unchurched people in your church, and it will transform them.
Look carefully at the ministry of Jesus, and you’ll see that principle at work. Many people followed (belonged) long before they professed faith (believed). They watched. They listened. They hung around the edges. Even Peter had been a follower for more than two years before declaring “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”
Belonging leads to believing, not in every case but always in that order.
So every Christian leader needs to find an answer to this question:
In my time (now, not 200 years ago), in this place (my community, not the hometown of the last author I read), surrounded by this culture (suburban, Hispanic, inner city, Anglo, rural, or whatever describes your context), how do I give unchurched people the experience of belonging so they can come to believe?
Does your church think of unchurched people as visitors or as participants?