Belong before you believe, or believe before you belong?

Some of our leaders recently visited a local church holding a seminar on how to welcome new visitors. The practical advice and suggestions were all very helpful, but there was a phrase that caught our attention. During the seminar the speaker made a case for allowing non-members to serve in various ministries. The understanding seemed to be that if one gets plugged into the church they are more likely to return for subsequent Sundays. The hope was that eventually said person would come to know Jesus through exposure to other Christians, and eventually place their membership with the church. The speaker summarized this ministerial philosophy with the slogan, “belong before you believe.” In other words, whether one is a Christian, or simply a seeker there are no practical “lines in the sand” so to speak.

I get the heart and logic behind this statement, but I wonder if it’s biblical. It sounds pious but it may be missing the mark. It is definitely more pragmatic and yields immediate results, but is it the most healthy pursuit? Should we not call people to “believe before you belong?” Didn’t Jesus live out this philosophy? Some will reply—“Yeah but Jesus was accused for hanging out with drunks, prostitutes, and the unclean!” True, but we must ask ourselves—did Jesus hang around these people arbitrarily without any call for a change of lifestyle? Or did Jesus hang around these people for the sole purpose of calling them to “repent for the Kingdom is at hand?”

  • It was Jesus, was it not, who told the rich man to sell all of his possessions and give it to the poor before being allowed in the Kingdom (Matthew 19).
  • It was Jesus who said to the man who requested he bury his father before following Jesus, “let the dead bury the dead (Matthew 8).”
  • It was Jesus who said the road to eternal life was narrow and few would find it (Matthew 7).
  • It was Jesus who said that in order to follow him you would have to love him more than your entire family (Matthew 10).
  • It was Jesus who said that one would have to deny themselves, and  take up their cross in order to follow him (Matthew 16).

In other words, have we as a church become so obsessed with attracting people into our community that we have neglected to set any standard by which one can come in? Perhaps instead of leaving the front doors of the church wide open and the back doors closed it should be the other way around.

How Making Jesus your King Can Send you to Hell.

I was struck this past week, as I was preparing for my sermon on Jesus’ feeding of the Five Thousand, by a phrase in John chapter 6:

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves (John 6:26, ESV).”

In the context of John’s rendition we discover that after Jesus performs the miracle of feeding a conservative estimate of 15,000 people with five loaves and two fish, the crowds are so amazed of what they experience they try to take Jesus by force and make him their King (see John 6:15). On the surface it seems fantastic; this is Jesus’ climactic opportunity to be exalted as King and Messiah. Yet, we read that Jesus perceiving this is what they were intending to do, withdrew….why?

We discover the answer in that most provocative verse above. Jesus reveals the true intentions of the crowd—they wanted Jesus for the bread of the flesh, not the bread of life! Rather than desiring a devotional allegiance to Jesus they merely wanted Jesus for what he could give, namely their physical security.

In fact, as the texts unfolds in the rest of John 6 Jesus begins to spell out exactly what type of attitude he desires:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst (John 6:35).

In response to this radical call of devotion the crowds are taken back, and are not that sold on such a bizarre invitation. They are after all just wanting Jesus for his ability to feed their bellies, and perhaps heal them when they are sick. So radical was Jesus’ invitation to feed on him rather than mere physical bread, that it compelled the majority of those who claimed to be his disciples to no longer follow after him. This enormous crowd who moments earlier desired to make him their kind had now wanted nothing to do with him…

As I reflect on the massive implications of this compelling story I can’t help but wonder if this reaction is prevalent in today’s culture. Could it be that many who claim to want Jesus as their King really just desire him for what he can do for them, rather than wanting Jesus Himself? I wonder if some of us carry Jesus around, and only find him useful when he benefits our physical and emotional needs? Could it be that some of us really don’t want Jesus, but rather only want what he can give us? Could we be in danger of acting like the crowds and only wanting him because he has bread?! Is it Jesus that we want or just the benefits that come with carrying the name “Christian?” These are admittedly penetrating questions, but questions I think every serious Christian should ponder.

The irony however, is that while the crowds desired only the physical bread, it was Jesus himself that provided “everlasting satisfaction!” Jesus said “I am the bread of life!” Oh how I hope to always desire the bread of life over the bread of man! Take my friends, but give me Jesus! Take my family but give me Jesus!Take my life but Give me Jesus! As the songwriter puts it “when I come to die, give me Jesus. You can have all this world but give me Jesus!”

It’s no wonder we find these words from Jesus:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied (Matthew 5:6).

My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life (John 10:10, NLT).

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:39).