Thursday, October 13, 2011

The "In or Out" Gospel

How does one become a Christian? What marks you as one? Growing up I was told that I had to "believe and confess" that I was a sinner but that Jesus died to take away my sins. Practically this worked itself out as me saying the sinner's prayer with my parents at the kitchen table. Now was I a Christian? Maybe. But I certainly didn't understand all that it entailed. Later in life I began identifying my first mission trip as the point of real conversion. This was the point where I was jolted out of the illusion that I was the center of the universe; the point where I finally saw people and realized there was an actual need for a Savior.

But if you look at all of the above statements they revolve around one idea: that you must believe and understand correctly to be a Believer. I believed I was a sinner at age 6, even though I didn't understand all the implications. At 13 in the Dominican Republic I finally understood that we were hopeless without Jesus. In the Christian walk, whether we come right out and say it or not, believing/understanding equals inclusion in the faith. After all, this is the definition of orthodoxy: "orthos" meaning right or true and "praxy" meaning belief.

Over the years I have grown dissatisfied with this idea as a means to identify other Christians. As someone who loves to read theology and philosophy, I'm always pushing further and further into belief. As truth makes itself evident to me, my beliefs change accordingly. But not everyone is on the same track. I know people who love Jesus yet hold certain doctrines that I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. As I'm sure they would say the same about me. Then you have Christians living in the underground church in China who only possess a small section of the Bible and the Holy Spirit to live on, whose faith is stronger than mine may ever be. I also know people who don't read theology at all, who believe the same things they were taught as a child and are completely content to continue doing so. I cannot doubt their love for the Lord and yet I know we will never believe all the same things.

And what are the "things"? What are the "main and plain", as my Aunt once asked me? I'm not actually going to answer that question here, not only because I don't feel qualified to do so, but because there is another point I'm driving at. And that is how our emphasis on right belief changes how we present the full, living, Gospel of Christ to "unbelievers" (as we commonly call them).

I want to make a quick disclaimer: I am not trying to downplay the importance of right belief. I wouldn't read theology at all if I thought that it didn't matter what you believe. My point here is to show that right belief is an inadequate way to label and categorize "Believers" from "unbelievers". Not only do I think this an inadequate way to categorize people, I think it does damage to the ultimate mission of every Christian: to proclaim the Good News to people who don't know it, that they are loved by God.

Consider these two methods of invitation into the the Life in Christ found in "The Tangible Kingdom Primer":
-Unbeliever is invited to church
-Unbeliever confesses belief
-Unbeliever repeats a prayer
-Believer joins church
-Cognitive discipleship focus: counting confessions
-Believing enables belonging

-Sojourner is invited to belong
-Sojourner confesses interest
-Sojourner experiences the good news
-Sojourner participates in community
-Experiential apprenticeship focus: transformation
-Belonging enables believing

In the incarnational approach believing is still a vital part of life, but the focus has shifted. This is the good news of the Gospel, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! In other words: while we still didn't believe all the right things, God invited us to be forgiven! While we were still fumbling our way through this life, God asked us to join him in His Life. How much would this change the way we encounter our family and friends who don't know Him yet if we would just let it? I fear we, myself included, have reduced the Gospel to an "in or out" mentality, when the good news is for everyone RIGHT NOW.

How can we create a relational environment in which sojourners can belong so they can feel and see  aspects of the Gospel lived out?