• Kevin Archer

Belonging to believe...

Last time we considered the idea of Jesus 'impact-touching' the lives of those as yet outside the circle of faith and the implications for ourselves. I would like to develop this thought a little further.

We were invited to a hogmanay evening - on New Year's Eve, of course - by Christian friends and encouraged to bring something which might help us look back over the last year or forward to the next. Tracey had come across an exercise that week which she prayerfully brought to the group. It was a wordsearch grid and you were encouraged to note down the first three words which stood out to you and see if there were any helpful thoughts emerging for the new year.

My first three words were 'connection', 'power' and 'change'. I jotted down 'make the connection, trust God's power and see the change'. Interestingly, this did chime with some of our thoughts and discussions from last year.

One of these areas sprang from a book I read while on holiday in March. In The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West, George Hunter reflects on how the Celtic church approached mission. Essentially, he identifies a significant contrast between the broad strategy adopted by these early communities and what he describes as the pattern followed by the 'Roman way' which for centuries has become the predominant form of evangelism. In support of his thesis he cites the findings of John Finney who conducted research into how people came to faith. Hunter suggests that much of the evangelism of recent decades has been conducted on the premise that we expect people to 'believe before they can belong'. The crisis of faith comes first and in turn leads to entry into the Christian community and the adoption of a new culture and lifestyle. With Finney, he contends that the ancient Celtic way was the reverse of that approach:

In his later book, 'Recovering the Past', Finney summarises his chief finding in four words. For most people, "belonging comes before believing." Finney believes that we are now rediscovering the approach to mission first pioneered by ancient Celtic Christianity. He contends that the Celtic way is more effective with postmodern Western populations than the Roman way (and its more recent version—the traditional evangelical way). His data shows that more people come to faith gradually (the Celtic model) than suddenly (the Roman model). Furthermore, the ongoing contagious common life of the congregation that permits people to discover faith for themselves, at their own pace, now appears to be much more influential than special-event-preaching evangelism.

He points to recent trends in evangelism that appear to be rediscovering this approach. One example of this, he suggests, would be the thinking behind the increasingly popular Alpha courses. The 'belonging to believe' model has not only the historic credential of being the approach which effectively brought the gospel to these islands; it also would seem to have an inherent integrity in its respect for those as yet outside the circle of faith and perhaps reflect the approach of Jesus who, while calling for sinners to repent, first with his disciples went and ate and drank with them.

Hunter concludes:

If... 'belonging comes before believing,' then evangelism is now about 'helping people to belong so that they can believe.' Finney believes that, as we adapt to a changing Western postmodern culture, we will observe a widespread shift from the entrenched Roman model to the rediscovered Celtic model.

The practical application of all this is a challenge to us at the beginning of the new year. For us, 'helping people to belong' is about making connections, recognising and engaging with the spheres of community of which we are already or can be a part and sharing our lives, offering welcome and hospitality in the fullest and most genuine sense and making room for God's grace and power to bring change.

What could this mean for you?

Perhaps more on my second and third 'hogmanay words' next time...

[George Hunter's book can be found here:]