I recall the year our son started the second grade. As parents, we were beaming with pride as he brought home straight As every week. He told me, “Daddy, I don’t want to get anything below an A.” My wife and I told him how happy we were that he wanted to do his best and get all As, but we also said that as long as he does his best, we will be happy—even if he brings home a scary B.
All this discussion on grades made me think about what a church needs to be healthy and grow for Jesus Christ. An elder at my previous church taught me that a church needs to bring home straight Bs. For a church to reflect Jesus to the world, it needs three Bs in the right order: belong, believe, and behave.
Consider Jesus interacting with two people in the Bible and how He emphasized the correct order of the three Bs. This gives us a model of how we should interact with people, whether strangers or friends.
John 4: The woman at the well
Belong. A Samaritan woman came to a well for water near noontime. She noticed Jesus resting by the well and He startled her when He asked her for a drink (John 4:10). Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman even though He was a Jew. By this interaction, He showed her that she belonged, even though many thought Samaritans were to be shunned.
Believe. Jesus revealed to the Samaritan woman that He cared about her even though she was not a Jew. He also revealed to her that He knew about all her past relationships. Even though her moral and spiritual record was far from satisfactory, and indeed she was living a sinful life, Jesus offered her salvation by inviting her to believe in Him as the Christ (vv. 21–26).
Behave. The woman’s behavior changed, and she began to tell others about Jesus. This woman, who came to the well at midday to avoid being noticed by others, now talked to everyone she met in town. She invited the whole town to come and meet this Man that she believed could be the Christ (vv. 28–30). From hiding in the noonday sun, she went out to bring others to meet God’s Son. John does not tell us what exactly happened in her future relationships, but we can see a change in her behavior to others immediately after Jesus helped her know that she belonged and she believed in Him (v. 39).
Luke 19: Zacchaeus the tax collector
Belong. Crowds of people followed Jesus as He walked through Jericho, then suddenly Jesus noticed a short fellow up on a tree. Jesus not only told Zacchaeus to come down, but He invited Himself to his home for a visit (Luke 19:5). Jesus chose to associate with someone who, like the Samaritan woman, was largely rejected by the Jewish community. Jesus showed Zacchaeus that he belonged by going to the tax collector’s home. Zacchaeus belonged even before he changed his behavior (v. 8).
Believe. Luke does not share with us the conversation at Zacchaeus’s house. But it becomes obvious to the reader that Zacchaeus had accepted Jesus and His teaching. He believed in Jesus’ message, and Christ said that the tax collector, Zacchaeus, became a saved son of Abraham (vv. 9, 10).
Behave. Zacchaeus promised to change his way of dealing with people and money (v. 8). He planned on giving half of his possessions to the poor and to give back quadruple money to anyone he had cheated. This 180-degree turnaround for the crooked tax collector did not happen until Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the tree, out of the crowd, and showed Zacchaeus that he belonged by choosing to go to his house.
Believing and behaving: The link
Believing and behaving are closely linked in the newcomer as can be seen in the stories of the woman at the well and Zacchaeus. The problem comes when the church and its members force or expect new folks to believe a certain set of beliefs and behave a certain way before helping them feel like they belong.
This idea of belonging is not about church membership. Membership should come later. This is about helping new people who are seemingly different from us and desperate for connection, to feel and know that they can belong even the first time they come to our church.
I have seen some people baptized into the church, and yet they do not feel like they belong among the community of members. They stand off to the side at church events. They may sit in the back pew of the church. They are waiting for someone in the church to include them, to help them know that they belong. Even newly baptized believers, who accepted the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit to change their lives, end up leaving the church if they do not feel a sense of connection with members.
How does my church get the Bs in the right order?
Model. Begin with the pastor. Members need to see the pastor being warm and welcoming to all newcomers. The pastor must make it a priority at church to visit with the new folks who come. The members must also see their pastor making connections with the community outside the church. The pastor can present the idea of belonging from the pulpit, in bulletin correspondence, committee meetings, and casual conversation. Members must learn that Jesus used this method to approach people.
It only takes a few. In Revelation 4 and 5, the choir keeps growing. First, the four living creatures start to praise God (4:8). Then the 24 elders sing (4:9–11). Suddenly, all the angels join in (5:11, 12). Finally, the whole creation praises God (5:13).
This pattern will help a church change its thinking and practice regarding new faces in the church. The pastor has to help the elders and church board capture the vision of belonging the first time a newcomer visits the church. From there the greeters need to be trained in helping new people feel like they just came home from a long trip the first time they walk through the church doors. Slowly, the whole congregation will witness the idea in action and eventually will accept it. Finally, a church that “gets it” can share the idea with other churches.
Work patiently. From the time I understood the gospel message to the day of my baptism took nearly four years. The Lord had a lot of work to do with me, and this took time. Churches need to remember that the Lord continues to work with new people. Lasting changes in one’s behavior oftentimes happen gradually. Drastic, sudden changes usually do not last and people fall back into their old ways. Jesus is patient with us, so we should be patient with others as well (2 Pet. 3:9).
What should a pastor do if someone in the church resists and wants to continue to use the backwards model of Behave, Believe, and then Belong? The pastor should work with them. Ignoring those in opposition works about as well in a church as ignoring cancer does in a body. As difficult as it may be, the pastor should sit down and listen to the opposition’s complaints. The pastor can then share victory stories of how people have joined the faith because of the method of helping people belong first. The point? Address those who disagree with the plan. Do not ignore.
Practical ideas to implement the model
When good things happen in the church unintentionally, we consider this a great event. Sometimes a church will get this idea of belonging first and make it happen without a real plan of action. But those churches are rare. If pastors want their churches to be safe places for newcomers to feel they belong, then a plan becomes necessary. Every church is different, but here are some practical ideas that have worked in churches in the past.
Organize shepherd groups. These are small groups intended to work with a member, with a shepherd overseeing the group. Each shepherd has no more than ten family units in his or her “flock.” The shepherd must stay in contact with the members by phone, email, cards, and face-to-face visits. This builds connections among members, and newcomers can be placed in shepherd groups that have already learned how to help people feel connected.
Community outreach events are crucial to the Belong, Believe, and Behave model. The days of “doing” church and hoping people will show up are over, if they ever truly existed. Relying solely on a five-week evangelistic campaign to make connections in the community is also not as effective without community outreach. Events throughout the year give newcomers a chance to come to church and see if they belong.
My church has tried several different events in the community to invite people to attend. Each church and community is different, and great success in outreach events usually comes after trial and error, failure and success. My church started having a Halloween alternative on October 31 for our community. Every Sabbath School room and even the hallways were decorated as Bible stories. As the children went around collecting treats, they also learned about the truths of the Bible by hearing stories and doing fun activities. They threw beanbags at a giant cutout of Goliath, crawled through a whalelike Jonah, and knocked over the Tower of Babel. One key to the event was that everything was free: the rides, the treats, and even the food were all free (donations were accepted). The members who helped were trained to make sure everyone had fun and felt like they belonged. We have had hundreds of people from the community attend this event every year and they walk away knowing that, at our church, everyone belongs.
Inviting community people to events for which they have no interest amounts to a lot of work for little return. When choosing outreach events, the church must find a felt need that already exists and fill that need. Community people begin to think about God and religion during Christmas and Easter each year. Those are excellent times to invite people to free events where they can learn about Jesus and feel like they belong.
December can be cold, but newcomers, at a Nativity display, can sip hot chocolate while we visit with them and show that they belong. During the Easter week, many people go to church Wednesday night, Thursday night, Friday night, and Sunday morning. This seems like a perfect opportunity to offer an outreach event like a mini–Passion play on the Saturday of Easter weekend. If your community has parades over the Fourth of July, enter a float in the parade. Make the float about Jesus and make it fun. The float can even advertise the biblical truth that with Jesus everyone belongs (maybe build the scene of Zacchaeus on the tree). Have members walk alongside the float and invite parade onlookers to a pancake breakfast, health seminar, or family fun day in the park.
The ideas and opportunities are endless. Step one includes training the members to help newcomers feel like they belong. Step two is creating opportunities for members to meet new people. When presented with Bible truth, God will convict newcomers’ hearts, and they will believe. Behavior will then change in time, but the first step is helping people find a connection and know they belong.
When I first headed down the road of becoming a follower of Jesus Christ, He did not meet me at the start of the journey with a list of beliefs. The Lord did not give me a lecture about the mess I had made of my life and scold me about behaviors that needed changing (and there were many). First, Jesus helped me realize that I belonged. I belonged to Him. In time I learned to believe in His love and plan to save me. That belief eventually helped me to sense that a change was needed in my life. Then I allowed the Holy Spirit to change my behavior.
I believed the message before I had ever met a member of a church because I was watching sermons on videotape. I finally decided I should try going to church. Everyone noticed me as I strolled into the foyer with my long hair and leather coat. I did not blend in with the crowd. However, that small church in the Midwest loved me into the church. They made me feel like I belonged, even with my unusual look and behavior. They encouraged me to come back and meet their pastor. The pastor contacted me, and we began studying. There were many things in my life that needed changing, but the pastor did not focus on them. He befriended me and taught me about Jesus, and I learned that I belonged to Christ.
God is still working with me. He is still teaching me what to believe. He is still changing my behavior to be more like Christ. I am a pastor today because I believed the message and God changed my behavior, but it all started with God and His people helping me to know that I belong.
Additional Church Growth Resources
1. Becoming a Contagious Christian by Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg (Grand Rapids, MI: Willow Creek Resources, 1994).
This book provides ideas about how to make a difference in the world around us. It begins by going through the reasoning why Christians should reach out to others. The authors give practical strategies for how to move conversations toward spiritual matters and how to connect with people who are unchurched.
2. Christ’s Method Alone—Christ’s Way of Relational Witnessing by Philip G. Samaan (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2012). Dr. Samaan builds off the Ellen White quote that Jesus Christ’s method of connecting with people is the best way to make a difference in someone’s life. Jesus did not shun people. He mixed with the masses. He reached across cultural and societal barriers to help people know they belonged first. Jesus met their needs and showed compassion, then asked people to follow Him. Dr. Samaan’s book illustrates that Jesus believed in the three Bs—Belong, Believe, and Behave.
3. Christ’s Way of Reaching People by Philip G. Samaan(Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1990). This book also emphasizes that if we want to reach people and share the good news with them, we must use Jesus’ method. We must rub shoulders with new people and help them connect first before trying
to change them. Like Christ, we must care about the needs of others before we call them to change and follow Jesus as their Master.
4. The Chosen by Dwight Nelson (Hagerstown,MD:ReviewandHerald Pub. Assn., 2011), 132 –149, 193–212. In this book, Dwight Nelson shares the principles about how God’s chosen people need to care for others both in and outside the church. He shares how a church is supposed to be like an emergency room and
give opportunities for members to build a “Front Porch” to their community. Pastor Nelson shows that the early church was most successful when they met together, prayed together, and ate together. People flocked to the early church because it was a place they could belong, and they were called to believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior.