Which of these is most important to be a follower of Jesus: belonging, behaviour or belief? This is not a trick question, so chew on this one for a while and dissect its nuances before moving on too quickly.
In his very helpful book, The Change in Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, Alan Kreider shows how, in the first few hundred years of the church, neither belonging, behaviour nor belief was deemed more important than the other. Like the Trinity, which holds the mystery of Father, Son and Spirit in creative and equal tension and unity, so the early church believed that belief about God and his activity in history, belonging to the new humanity in Christ and behaviour that reflects obedience to the teachings of Jesus demanded equal treatment for conversion to be genuine.
Over time, and particularly with the emergence of a world called Christendom, in which church, state and the individual were united and wed to one another in holy—or unholy?—matrimony, belief found itself decisively in the seat of honour. Belonging and behaviour still mattered, but kind of like younger siblings along for the ride.
Eventually, this led to an imbalance, where to be converted to Christianity was almost exclusively about coming to believe the right things. Belonging was transferred from the borderless body of Christ to state citizenship that supported Judeo-Christian virtues, and behaviour that radically obeyed the teachings of Jesus was downgraded to a life that looked “Christian” in ritual observance: go to church and give in the offering plate without cussing, at least in church.
Can you see where this has led? It has produced Christians who believe “in” God, but lack a sense of the body of Christ being their primary place of belonging, and whose ethics and behaviour are as much shaped by the wider culture as by the teachings of Jesus. The drift away from the church of people who believe in God should then not surprise us, but simply be seen as logical.
The “worldliness” of a church where divorce, materialistic greed and other behaviour is not statistically different than the wider culture should also not cause us to gasp. And the increased lack of a real biblical worldview among many people who are church-goers should not really shock us either. After all, they have checked all the appropriate boxes of right belief much like we agree to all those waivers we zip through when buying something online.
This is where imbalance has gotten us, and now we no longer find ourselves in the “saving” embrace of Christendom. Christendom is road-kill. There is no wider cultural ascent to the beliefs, belongings and behaviours Christians assumed just a couple decades ago. We are in post-Christendom and, as Stuart Murray points out, this “is not an easy environment for discipleship, mission or church.” Every fellowship of Jesus followers is now feeling this, and there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
So, now what? Well, hard as it is to hear, there is no easy way back. In fact, there is no going back. There is only forward with hope that objects in the mirror can become closer than they now appear. And this will only happen as Christians hold ferociously, tenuously and gracefully to a holy trinity of belonging, behaviour and belief while not apologizing for calling people to a full conversion.
Phil Wagler (email@example.com) is a pastor in Surrey, B.C. He is author of Kingdom Culture and seeking the balance of the kingdom.