Belonging Before Believing

René Breuel is pastor of Chiesa Evangelica San Lorenzo in Rome, Italy, and editor of the forum

"Social media” is not the only thing which is becoming more “social." An increasing number of voices are pointing out that the extraordinary success of Facebook, Twitter and the like are actually a visible symptom of a much larger trend. Just as Facebook is helping transform the Internet from a sprawling, opaque mass of unrelated content into relationally meaningful networks – what is being called Web 2.0 – the way people are approaching life and faith is changing too. It is becoming more social, less individualistic, more about belonging than believing or thinking.

Two larger trends can help us understand this phenomenon and the way it impacts people’s path to faith and how we should minister to them.

1. Cultural fragmentation – our Western cultures, especially in our major cities, are no longer homogeneous like they used to be. They are splintered into many subcultures, some of them overlapping, according to ethnicity, family upbringing, political ideology, socioeconomic status, religion, and choice of lifestyles. For a young person looking for a way into this massive horizon, there is not one but several possible paths, each of them more or less visible and credible according to his social networks. This cultural fragmentation also leads us to develop fields of trust: we distrust the complex world out there and its wars of interests and narratives, and come to trust people and then institutions when we develop close personal contact with them, and faces and voices that we can discern among the massive crowd.

2. The rise of the Emergent Adulthood – financial pressures, longer years of education, delayed marriage and other trends have formed in the last decades a new, intermediate type of young adulthood. Whereas maybe three generations ago most people transitioned from adolescence into established adult life – stable career, marriage, children, house – fairly directly, today’s emergent adulthood means that people stay single, professionally and geographically flexible well into their 20s and 30s. “Rather than being settled,” writes sociologist Christian Smith in his major study on the spiritual lives of emerging adults, “most of them understand themselves to be in a phase of life that is free, fluid, tentative, experimental, and relatively unbound" (see Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults p. 56). This means that the previous basic social unit, the nuclear family, is not only interrupted by a long hiatus between one’s leaving home and forming a new family, but the family itself often gets relativised into one of numerous living arrangements: couples living together, breaking up, single parents, sharing an apartment with friends, moving back to the parents’ house. And what is the basic socializing unit in this phase of life? The tribe of friends like in Friends and Sex in the City, complemented by extended circles of friends that stay liquid as people move in, move out, get together, break up, and by affinity-based circles around hobbies, cultural and social interests, or religious beliefs. People band together with others who are also feeling their way into life and into more lasting identities, forging a social approach to self-discovery.

And what do these trends mean for the way people approach faith today? For the people who did not inherit it from their upbringing, it means they will approach it socially. If the gospel is to become more than just another narrative among so many, hidden in a complex and distrusted landscape, it will get a serious hearing only if it gets incarnated into my field of trust by a known face, a close relationship, which will then open the way for a group which can show how it can be lived out, why it is plausible, and which will embody it concretely and attractively enough to make me want to embrace that faith as my own. Unless the gospel can be made visible in a face and a group, it will stay foreign, and unless I can feel my way into it and see intelligent people believe and articulate it, it will stay implausible, questioned by a landscape where belief in God and active faith are countercultural.

I’d like to highlight three implications of this social path to faith for our urban mission:

1.    Belonging > believing > behaving: as church leaders, we would much prefer people who arrive already believing the gospel fully and who live according to it. More traditional churches actually behave this way, letting people feel they are incorporated only if they already believe (having come to faith outside of church, through a friend, tract, evangelistic crusade) and already behave Christianly, at least with no visible sins. But people considering faith today need to belongbefore they come to believe and behave; a “cold “medium like a tract, website or an unknown speaker won’t have the gravitas to make a person rethink their beliefs (unless she is undergoing a serious personal crisis). In fact, the very act of belonging could be the most influential factor leading to belief and behavior.

2.    The importance of church planting: people’s increasingly social path to faith means also that, as we are noticing, mass approaches like the crusade, conferences, TV preaching, street evangelism etc. are becoming less effective in reaching nonbelievers (even though their importance in gathering, nurturing and strengthening believers continues). Friendship evangelism, too, though a crucial part of the process, is becoming less sufficient on its own, unless the contact with a believer leads to belonging to a larger group like a church or fellowship. The evangelistic approach which seems to best address people’s social approach to faith, however, is the planting of new churches: proliferating numerous circles of belonging and articulation of the gospel which can befriend and make space for a person to consider faith, next to believers who embody and explain the gospel.

3.    Open and warm communities: people’s social path to faith also means that a specific kind of church will be most effective at reaching people today: churches that are open, warm, relational, sensitive to the fears and doubts of nonbelievers. It takes a specific congregational dynamic to do that; many of our churches, instead, have a spirit that keeps seekers away, however strong may be our professed interest in reaching them.

In my next blog, we'll look at specific practices that can help churches lay down a social path for people to walk in to our congregations.