Thank God that someone swore at church the other day.
Let me explain. We often have a gathering on Sunday mornings where we just encourage anyone and everyone to boldly and publicly share what God has been up to in their lives over the last couple of months. As you can imagine this is always such an interesting couple of hours. People share about the healings that God has done, the unanswered prayers that have been left hanging, they share dark times, joyous times, we pray, we cry, we laugh… and I get very nervous. I love those times with every ounce of my being but I also get anxious..especially when a person gets up the front who I don’t know so well or not at all! What would I do if someone starts uttering all kinds of crazy talk one day? I hope I will have the wisdom to deal with that with grace if it ever happens….or we could just employ bouncers?

But so far it has never happened…..however…
The other day at this kind of gathering people were sharing in a very vulnerable way. I thought to myself ‘This is what real community is all about!’. Then a woman got up who I don’t know very well. She is new. I don’t know where she is at in life or with God. She seemed a little raw. She was shaking and she started by saying that she had never spoken to such a large gathering of people. But she felt that she had to get up and say something. As she wrapped her arms around her to stop the jolting she shared very openly about her struggles and her up and down journey with God. I got it. We all have ups and downs as we try and make sense of our relationship with God. Then after a few minutes, out of no where,  she swore, just like that, like it was the most normal thing to do at church on a Sunday morning.Out it popped amplified by the microphone so that we all heard it. For one split second I was in shock, but that was only for a second. It only took me a moment to then utter a prayer ‘Thank you God’.
I thanked him not because I like to swear. I actually tried it for a season when I was about sixteen and it just never really stuck with me. And I tried. Oh how I tried to be cool and utter the most creative, confronting, toe curling expletives that I could come up with. But it just never really became a part of me. So I didn’t thank God for the swearing. I thanked God rather that we as a church community had an atmosphere where someone relatively new to a relationship with God felt like they could be themselves. I thanked God that even though this woman may not yet be a ‘Christian’ she felt like she belonged, at least enough to not need to put up a front as she shared with us her authentic and fragile story.
The sense of belonging is such a deep need in us as humans. Hugh Mackay in his book What Makes us Tickwrites about the basic desire that we have for connection and belonging. Even in this social media age where we can sit in front of a computer for hours alone, people are still connecting, joining groups, trying to find where they fit in the world, trying to find a world within a world to connect to. Mackay has interviewed many people in his career for his research and he quotes one person in this book who I found said something quite interesting about belonging. This man says ‘I bought myself a Harley Davidson- classic midlife crisis stuff, I know. But what I found was that any other Harley rider I passed acknowledged me. Very subtle, it was- just a raised finger. It was like a salute to another member of the tribe- a bit like a masonic handshake.’ As I read that I thought every ‘tribe’ or group has it’s ‘secret signals’. Those signals are designed to keep some people in and keep some people out. Churches can be like that.Some people belong but others don’t. Churches have not only practices but sometimes cultures which keep certain people in and others out. To the person who is lonely and looking for a place to belong, a church community can be a place to find that thrilling sense of belonging like this woman found on a Sunday morning at our church. Other times a church culture can keep a person who is struggling with life, outside of the perimeters that have implicitly been established by the prevailing powers that be.
Who should we let in and who should we keep out? Is that up to us to decide?
Perhaps we should just accept people as they are so they have an opportunity to connect with that deep sense of belonging? Then we can just let God take people into a gradual and greater understanding of his character as we reflect that character by showing people grace, mercy, compassion and sacrificial love.
Actually this is the way the ancient Christian Celtics ‘did evangelism’. In The Celtic way of Evangelism by George Hunter III, he writes about the effectiveness of community amongst the Christian Celts in terms of coming alongside people who were interested in finding out more about God. This rich sense of community created a sense of belonging in the ‘tribe’. Hunter applies this to the way people come to faith in God today and quotes from current research done by John Finney who says that ‘Most people experience the faith through relationships, that they encounter the gospel through a community of faith,and that becoming a Christian involves a process that takes time…For most people “belonging comes before believing”‘
I like that. Belonging comes before believing.
I want to capture that atmosphere that we had at our gathering the other Sunday morning, put it in a bottle and let the fragrance of grace fill the place every time we meet so that more people have a sense of belonging in our community….no matter who they are.
Right now, I’m kind of looking forward to hearing a few more swear words at church.
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Do you have any comments? What has been your experience of Church community? Do you agree that ‘belonging comes before believing’?