Belonging Before Believing – A Recipe for a Dying Church
The Daily Mail carried an interesting report on an article written by Rt Rev John Chalmers, moderator of the Church of Scotland, in that denomination's magazine, Life and Work. The headline was 'You don't have to be a Christian to be here (but it helps)' and the article went on to tell us that "the moderator of the Church of Scotland has told congregations not to insist on a belief in God for people wanting to join."
The Kirk is rightly concerned about its rapidly falling numbers and wants to reconnect with those who having some past memory and experience of the church, now "feel excluded" by having to "tick certain boxes of belief". There are still people who "have a warm memory of their Sunday School God, whose common values are accrued from their Judeo-Christian tradition, who still love the sacred spaces provided by Kirks and cathedrals and who cannot live without the time for quiet reflection that was instilled in them during the Sundays of their youth". According to the moderator, we are not addressing their real "spiritual needs" when we ask them to believe. We should realise that faith comes with belonging to the community of the incarnate God. The idea seems to be that we should encourage people to belong to the church and then perhaps they will come to faith in Christ.
As someone who is very interested in church growth and church decline (especially in Scotland and the UK) and someone who longs for the Church of Scotland and the whole church in Scotland, to be revived, I was fascinated by these comments. If the Moderator means that non-Christians are welcome in church then he is saying nothing new. On the other hand, if he is saying that they can be part of the church without believing then it is a statement of incredible desperation.
What are we asking them to join? The Church is the gathered community of those who believe in Jesus and their families. It is the 'ecclesia' – the called out assembly of God's people. When you enable non-believers to join as members (and presumably become ministers?), then you are changing the church of Jesus Christ, into something else. At the very best you are setting up the Church within a Church scenario, where everyone belongs but there are a special group who really belong to the 'inner sanctum'. Does not that maintain the 'exclusivity' but just make it more hypocritical? At the worst you are turning it into a kind of social, ethnic or nationalist gathering, based upon tribalism or fashion or whatever philosophy happens to be in power at the time.
The trouble is that the moderator's prescription for halting decline in the Church of Scotland has already been tried and is in reality the main reason for its decline. For too often, people have been brought up in churches with the notion of the Sunday school God and the vague, lukewarm, fuzzy, sacred space, cuddly toy God, that seems to be advocated. You come along to this church, believe what you want, create your 'own personal Jesus', have him 'your way', and we will welcome you and 'share the journey with you' – as long as you turn up, sign the membership card and contribute. But churches like that never last. They are built on the shifting sands of this world's fashions and our fickle emotions. We need churches that are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone. Anything else will come tumbling down.
There are many people who consider themselves Christian who do not know Christ. There are many church leaders who say they teach Christianity but they neither know nor teach Christ. This is not to be judgmental except in the way that almost every statement is a judgment. It is simply to state the biblical reality that there are many wolves in sheep's clothing. What do you expect when you tell people they don't even have to be a sheep to belong to the flock, and think this is cutting edge evangelism?
Any church which turns away from the Bible, also turns away from the Christ of the Bible. Liberal theology may suit the spirit of the age, but as someone wisely stated, "she who marries the spirit of this age, will be a widow in the next". The Church of Scotland is disintegrating because this process has even led recently to it rejecting the teaching of Jesus about marriage, whilst at the same time claiming to follow him. As a result, several congregations and hundreds of members have joined the annual exodus of 20,000 members per year. Thankfully there are those Church of Scotland congregations which do teach the Jesus of the Bible and in many cases they are the congregations which have been growing and developing.
Instead of presenting this confused, boring, old-fashioned liberal 'church without belief in God' message, as though it were something new, the Moderator would do better to return to the faith of his forefathers and start proclaiming the Good News of Christ as given in his Word. 'Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved' is the message that Scotland needs to hear. Not "come and get a nice warm fuzzy 'spiritual' feeling with us". For that they would be better going to the pub/club/football stadium or atheist church! The Christian faith is much more radical and life changing.
Here is how this works in practice. A man, who had just started attending St Pete's, came up and asked me if he could become a member. Always the optimist, I thought "that's great, he's been converted", only to have my hopes dashed when he said, "but I don't believe in any of that Jesus rubbish"! When I told him that, at least in this church, believing in Jesus was kind of the point and he would not be allowed to join, his face fell.
-Why do you want to join?
- Because I like coming along, and I like the people and I want to find out more.
- Well, you can do that without joining.
- You're joking! I thought you wanted me to become a member, give money and all that.
- No – we won't let you become a member until you come to faith in Christ and we don't want your money.
For him that was a liberating thing. He did not feel excluded. It was great he did not have to pass any tests. He could still come along and hear the Word and feel the love! His 'spiritual needs' were to be born of the Holy Spirit, to receive forgiveness, new life and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Seeking to fulfill spiritual needs without the Spirit is like seeking to be a Christian without Christ, or belonging to his Church without believing in him.
If you are not a believer in Jesus, you don't belong to his Church. But the Good News is that he invites you to both believe and belong. Scotland and the UK do not need more people belonging to dying churches. We need more people who really believe in and follow Jesus and thus belong to his church and become part of living, vibrant, Christ-centered communities!