Belonging Before Believing – A New Way of Being the Church

Many years ago I had a man who was a very serious Christian come to me to express his concerns about the way we practiced the Lord’s Supper, which we only did four times a year. He noticed that we allowed some to participate whom he did not believe were worthy. He even offered, the next time we observed the supper, to sit in the back and point out to me those who should not be allowed to participate.

I could just picture myself in front of the congregation waiting for my friend to point to an undeserving sinner just as he reached out to take the bread. “Stop right there,” I would declare, “you are not worthy!”BFLOGO1-page-001

Even in our tradition-bound little church, that would not have been well received and would have probably been my last Sunday as pastor. I thanked him for his gracious offer to be our resident spiritual judge but told him I would have to decline.

Although I was young in the ministry at the time, I had already put in a significant amount of study about the two Baptist ordinances – Lord’s Supper and baptism. As I neared graduation from seminary, my father asked if I wanted to pastor a church in Colorado, my home state. The reason he asked is because he had been a well-liked and respected leader among Colorado Baptists since they first established churches in the state. Once churches heard Bill Austin’s son was ready to pastor I was confident a pulpit would be available.

Daddy sent me a questionnaire that he gave to all his prospective pastors, asked me to fill it out, and said he would find me a church to pastor. I filled in the blanks and mailed it back to him. A few days later he called and told me there was a problem. I had answered two of the questions incorrectly – the questions about baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The problem was that I did not believe that only Baptist’s baptism counted or that only local church members could participate in the Lord’s Supper. These were the traditions of my father’s upbringing.

I listened to his concerns and told him I could not change my answers. Consequently, I never pastored a church in Colorado.

I hesitate telling this story because I don’t want anyone to think I’m being critical of my father. The truth is that his reaction to our disagreement is one of the things I have always admired about my father and tried to emulate. He held firm to his convictions. The problem was that I also held firm to mine. We disagreed about this point of theology but our disagreement never affected our relationship. I can honestly say we both respected each other’s opinion (another of his outstanding qualities).

When my friend came to me offering his services as Lord’s Supper judge, this was an issue I felt confident about and did not hesitate refusing his offer. His reason was different than my father’s (Daddy never would have judged anyone’s spiritual condition, only their church membership) but they were both products of the way church used to be done.

As weird as it seems, I completely understand the rationale. The traditional approach to doing church was to follow this pattern – believe, practice, and finally belong. In other words, we expected people to first profess their faith in Jesus and then practice that faith. Once they had done that they were then allowed to belong to our church and enjoy all the benefits. Times are changing.

There are a number of good things going on in my life right now and one of those is what is happening in our church, Bread Fellowship (www.breadfellowship.com). What began as a small group of folks who wanted to gather to study the Bible has become a church. Well, some would question whether we are actually a church since we don’t really fit their definition.

After meeting in a variety of venues, including several homes, a park, church fellowship hall, restaurants, apartment meeting room, wedding parlor, and other unusual locations, we finally have a place to call home beginning this coming weekend. Everyone is excited and plans are underway to make our new place a hub of community activity. This journey has been fun and it is about to get even better.

At Bread Fellowship you do not have to believe before you belong. The truth is that belonging is the first step. Just show up and you belong. You will be invited to practice the faith with us, even sharing communion, which we typically do every Sunday. The Apostle Paul stated that eating the bread and drinking the cup is a way to “proclaim” Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:27). It does not make any sense to sequester ourselves away from non-believers before we proclaim Jesus. Communion is probably the best evangelistic message we share each week. If you share the Lord’s meal with us a few Sundays it will be impossible for you to ignore your own spiritual condition. At Bread, you belong at our table even before you believe.

We do not have “membership” at Bread Fellowship. We have thought about it and discussed it but to this point we do not see the need. Whenever you have “members,” the result is that non-members no longer belong. The trend among many churches today is to move in the opposite direction. Their policy is to require attending a “membership class” prior to belonging.

Several years ago when I was working as a church consultant, I was out of town on most Sundays. Sharon and I tried to join the church we attended when I was home but we could never make the membership classes, which were held on Sunday afternoon. Thus, we never did belong.

At Bread Fellowship all you have to do is show up. You can participate in our worship, share your opinions, get involved in our activities, and practice the faith. We had a young man come one Sunday evening who was heavily involved with Buddhism. He had a background in Christianity but it was not much a part of his life at the time. We discovered he could play the guitar and we needed music. His second Sunday he was leading us in singing choruses and singing words he was not even sure he believed. We loved him, accepted him, and walked with him. Now he is at the heart of everything we do, in love with Jesus, and he will tell you it was because he belonged at the very beginning.

The new location for Bread Fellowship is in the heart of a vibrant community in Fort Worth. It is filled with people who want to belong to something. Hopefully, what they will find is a place where they belong the minute the walk in the door. They are welcome to bring all their spiritual baggage – Jesus is capable of dealing with it.

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