The church has traditionally positioned itself as a place for those who believe to find a place where they can belong. As the church changes and evolves with the times there is a trend to make the church a place where anyone can belong regardless of whether or not they believe. Having people who wish to belong without believing does not a crisis for many modern churches.
Churches that subscribe to the “belong and believe” philosophy will say that a sense of acceptance and belonging will help unbelievers overcome many of their prejudices towards the church. They will be able to experience the community that churches do (or should) have and see that Christians do not scorn or fear non-Christians. What this means is that people who want to attend the church but have not made a commitment to Christ are accepted as part of the church. They will generally be allowed and even encouraged to serve in some ministries within the church, perhaps playing an instrument in the band or serving coffee at the Sunday morning services. It is not likely that they will be allowed to lead ministries, but they will be allowed to participate in most. It is important to note that membership is not devalued to the point where anyone is allowed to be a member. Most churches continue to have reasonable, Scriptural standards for who may or may not become a member.
The alternative, of course, is what I have seen most often in churches I have attended. In those churches unbelievers are not encouraged to join in the work of running the church and may even be actively discouraged. The church’s ministries are reserved for those who have made a commitment to Christ. Once a person makes a commitment he will be allowed and often required to participate in ministries.
I cannot deny that initially I am uncomfortable with the “belong and then believe” philosophy. This may be as a result of my conservative (what does that word mean anyways?) upbringing or perhaps it is just a desire to see the church guarded and protected. Despite my discomfort I do see great value in allowing those who do not believe to belong. I can attest that I have seen this work with great success. I have seen unbelievers come to the church and be welcomed with open arms. I have seen them find acceptance and community. Almost inevitably one of two things happens. If they remain with the church for any length of time they become believers. It seems that they come to realize the importance of what ties the community together. If they do not become believers, it seems they quickly tire of the church and disappear.
Perhaps churches that encourage those who do not believe to belong are more able and willing to see evidence of the Spirit’s work in unbelievers. For someone to remain in a church when he is not a believer is a good indication that the Holy Spirit is working within that person and drawing him to Himself. Another alternative is that these churches are reckless and do not do enough to protect their church from outside influences.
Maybe what it comes down to is the way churches view both their members and unbelievers. Some see unbelievers as a blessing to the congregation. They see them as having value and being able not only to contribute to the church but also being able to sharpen the faith of the believers. They have faith in the members of their church to discern good from bad and to be leaders and not followers in relationships with unbelievers. Other churches see unbelievers as people to be feared, lest they infiltrate the church and attempt to draw it from the narrow path. They assume that these people are coming to church not to learn and not because the Spirit is leading them, but because they wish to disrupt or destroy the church. These churches must not trust their members to be able to stand strong in their beliefs.
In every area of my life I count relationships with unbelievers as a great blessing. Whether in the church, at work or in the neighborhood, every relationship is an opportunity to share the Good News. I am thrilled that my church views this the same way I do and does not run from any opportunity to reach out to the lost.