Believe, Belong, Behave are often used as the foundations on which to understand church growth. The idea goes something like this: In some church traditions it has been expected for a seeker to come to make a statement of faith (say ‘Jesus is Lord’) and then they are allowed to belong to a Christian community (usually a church) and then learn both the inherited tradition of that community (e.g. when to sit and when to stand in worship) and accept an ethical code of conduct (no sex before marriage, for instance).
So the route believe (a statement of faith); belong (joining of a community); and behave (accepting the practices of the community) have been the hallmark of church growth and evangelism over the centuries (even if it was never understood in those terms until relatively recently). However, there have been those over the years, and particularly in the last 20 years, who have wanted to challenge that understanding. What if believing comes at the end of the process? What if people need to belong to a community long before they believe the same as the community? and what if people are crying out for a moral compass in this disorientated post modern world? Surely, then we begin with behave?
I suspect the truth is that they are not a linear progression. Instead, they are more like spheres of influence that affect all people who are on a journey of faith. So to be a disciple of Jesus is to constantly be attentive to things that I believe, the community (ies) to which I belong and my behaviour and at any one time I might need to be more attentive to one than the others. So whatever way we look at it, whether it comes at the beginning, middle or end – there is still a need to belong.
To belong is a complex state of being that is affected by my psychology (who I am) and my sociology (when and where I live). Some might feel a greater sense of belonging with a pensioner’s luncheon club than with a group of teenagers in a park. That is not to denigrate one way of belonging, but to simply highlight the complexity. To belong will depend on age, sex, finances, past experiences, future hopes, geography and interests. And to belong is closely bound up with my own sense of identity. So if I feel that I have reached a point in my life where I want to explore more of the Christian story – I need to belong to something that holds and tells that story; and that place might not be the same for everyone.
So here’s my question: Is it possible to belong to a digital community? let me give you a more concrete example. I am working as a pioneer minister in the UK responsible for planting new Christian Communities. I do this mainly by planning art-type events and through conversations that will hopefully turn into relationships. I have no church building. I have no small house group! I have plenty of churches and house groups that I attend and I am happy to bring people along to them. But if someone says to me ‘I’m interested in your stuff – can I be a part of it?’ should I say ‘Yes! – here’s my blog, twitter and facebook (and Google + if I can get to grips with it); or should I say ‘Yes! – come with me to this church/housegroup’?
A few more coals to add to the fire: firstly, in a conversation with a more experienced pioneer he commented that people did not ‘sign up’ to his church. Instead, he knew they considered it their church when they identified with it – ‘that lady goes to my church’, ‘that’s my pastor’. Much work has been done on membership and attendance of churches and what that looks like in a post modern world. So if I don’t need to ‘sign people up’ (a thought that horrifies me) then can I count anybody in who says ‘I’m part of that VFXhanley thing!’ Secondly, isn’t it odd that the language of social media begins to resonate with the Christian narrative? Jesus says ‘Come and follow me’ ….. and I have 144 followers on twitter!
So have I planted a church when someone intentionally follows me on twitter? Or should I take Philip’s lead and invite people to the local house group to ‘come and see’? Is it possible to belong in any real sense, to an online Christian community? a digital church? or does it simply nurture growing relationships?