The Christian life is holistic. Our beliefs create belonging and dictate behavior. To prioritize one or two of these elements over the others is to fundamentally miss some part of the Christian faith. In fact, it is impossible to hold any two at the exclusion of the third. If we claim to believe and belong but our behavior is lacking, our faith is dead according to James 2. Our behavior shows a shortcoming in our belief. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Corinth, addressed the issue of a man who claimed to be a believer and belonged to the church but was sleeping with his stepmother. Paul made it clear that this behavior should not be tolerated. He went so far as to tell the church that this man needed to be cast out in order to feel the conviction of his sin and repent.
Belief, Belonging, and Behavior are Connected
If we claim to believe and behave but do not belong, we become a lone ranger Christian. While we have a category for shut-ins and other challenging circumstances, the Bible seems fairly clear that we are a people who gather together physically. Our lack of belonging is in itself a behavioral issue. The author of Hebrews tells us not to neglect meeting together. In every city where the gospel was preached in Acts, the new believers were connected to a local church. We are given dozens of “one anothers” in Scripture that can only be carried out as we belong to a local church. When we neglect the Bible’s exhortations to belong, we can become stagnant and dull in our faith.
If we claim to belong and behave but do not hold to the fundamental beliefs of our faith, we don’t belong to the faith. That may be fine for the Elks Lodge, but Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, said, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor. 15:3–8). The very thing that creates Christian belonging is our belief.Jesus has brought us into his mission for the redemption of his people and each of us individually as local churches play a divinely vital role. Click To Tweet
Our task in reaching out to the dechurched is about more than displaying the inconsistencies in our friends’ lives. Our task is to display the richness of what Jesus offers his people in believing a gospel that creates a sense of belonging we can experience nowhere but in the church and a behavior that will allow us to live in line with and more fully experience the God who created us.
A Hopeful Future Can Require Hard Decisions
A hard reality we’ll need to face is that some churches can pivot and reorganize to embody belief, belonging, and behavior as we were designed to, but others cannot. But that doesn’t mean there is no hope. There are many ways churches can bless the kingdom in unexpected ways. For every three churches that closed in 2019, a new one started. That may seem like losing math to many, but new churches have new life. Church plants are often much more effective at reaching the lost than older churches. In a Lifeway study making this claim, Ed Stetzer, who was at that time executive director of Lifeway Research, said, “In winning new converts to Christ, church plants are light-years ahead of the average church because of their focus on reaching the unchurched.” New believers are often the only way a new church can survive.
If your church is a stable, older church, are you engaged in planting new churches in your area? Are you not only willing but also planning to give money and people to that end? If your church seems unable to make this pivot, might it be better to bless a young church plant by bringing them into your established facility to worship when your church is not meeting? Or would you consider even giving them your building and joining them?The Christian life is holistic. Our beliefs create belonging and dictate behavior. Click To Tweet
Let me contrast two dying churches in our area that represent many other churches I know personally. Church A had its heyday just twenty-five years ago as it ran five worship services on the weekend and welcomed more than two thousand people each week. Now, as deficiencies have grown in the areas of belief, belonging, and behavior, the church has dwindled to about one hundred on Sunday. Church B was never as large as church A, but it has also taken a downward turn for the past twenty years. Church B has deficiencies in what they believe, but their belonging (even if they are small) seems to be quite strong. The leadership of church A seems to have its head in the sand as people continue to leave. They own their building outright and have endowments to pay a basic staff, but the church’s future is clear. The congregation will continue to leave and die, commercial developers will come, and the church that used to be a light in the city will fade out completely.
Church B on the other hand, who also owns a great facility, has acknowledged that it cannot make the shifts necessary to continue, and they have invited a young, thriving church plant to use and eventually take over their facilities. The dying church, in its last breath, is giving this new church what it needs to live a long life. All may seem lost if our vision is dominated by our own small kingdom, but so much is gained when we see our local church in view of God’s large kingdom. Churches can win even in death.Our task in reaching the dechurched is to display the richness of what Jesus offers his people in believing a gospel that creates a sense of belonging we can experience nowhere but in the church. Click To Tweet
Over two thousand years ago, as Jesus died on the cross, all seemed lost to his disciples. They felt like they had wasted three years. They went back to the lives they knew before Jesus. It would be hard to imagine the loss, defeat, and confusion they felt. But what looked like the ultimate defeat was all a part of Jesus’ plan for victory. Three days later, they would see that. The same Jesus who resurrected from the dead and promised to be with us always now resides in us in the form of his Holy Spirit. Jesus declared that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church.
As hopeful as this data is, our hope is in Jesus, in his power, and in his glory. Jesus has brought us into his mission for the redemption of his people and each of us individually as local churches play a divinely vital role. There is hope. It comes through both individual and corporate introspection. It requires coming alongside the dechurched as friends, not projects. It requires an examination of the belief, belonging, and behavior in our churches. It requires a kingdom perspective. But we believe deeply that if we do these things, there is much to hope for, and this season of loss could contribute to some of the greatest fruit in the American church to date.