Being church in today’s world, if we are being honest, is just really dang confusing. It brings some real challenges before us that many of us feel deeply. Some name the challenges as the unpredictability of future, a decline of worship attendance and the lack of consistent participation in the churches, slow draw of finances, decaying property, and the outright fear of irrelevance. Alongside these challenges also exist an endless supply of longings—the longing for more robust participation in the church, longing for more youth, and young people, the longing for diversity and vitality, the longing for a more secure future.
If there is to be a future, or rather, if we are to participate in the future God is already bringing, we will have to engage together in new and different conversations and practices with new and divergent audiences. We will have to discover, again, the central program that roots and moves us. The Good News is that this Program has never changed. The program I’m referring to isn’t the program that many of us might initially, perhaps, think about, like the youth program, or an organizational system reboot for greater efficiency, or purely the stewardship program to secure economic stability. The Program is not as much ‘a program’, of course, as it is a way of life, the Christian way, and a way of organizing life born from the foundations given in Holy Baptism.
I know we talk a lot about baptism in our churches, and how that roots us in our life together. And this is correct. But why it does, and what it continues to invite, is just so because through baptism God has created us as bodies grafted into, and belonging all the outcomes and promises that belong to Christ through the Holy Spirit. We are tethered into God’s will, Jesus Christ, not our own. Our interests and focus and attention are being realigned in God. Baptism is a belonging ministry of God’s creating in creation. We receive this as gift, we also take it up, and extend it in the ways we practice life with one another, in our churches and in our broader communities.
One of the challenges, as I see it, is that we tend to misconstrue belonging by associating it with the terms of insiders, whether by ethnic or religious terms, and in so doing, create a binary between insiders and outsiders. When, as people of Christian faith, we are Gentiles; we ourselves began and were grafted into life by God, now and continually, as outsiders. This orientation and belief help us to remember that it is always God who is creating us as those belonging to God and to one another. When God’s Spirit creates people of belonging in Christ, we take on a renewed imagination that is neither pure comfort, nor pure consumption. It is a life of becoming present to a world where the agonizing struggles of the world are real, and need to be heard, received, processed, repaired, and reconciled. The hard truth about our belonging in God is that it will not only comfort us in our woundedness, it will also work to unsettle us in our familiarity.
This last year, we studied the Acts of the Apostles together in a weekly synod-wide Bible study. We were led by Willie James Jennings in his own commentary on the book of Acts. Willie James Jennings is an important voice and leader in today’s conversation about what it means to be church, and how it is that belonging is a key element to becoming the people of God the world needs.
Here’s a couple powerful learnings that came from him, and that spoke to us about this new place of belonging as people of God. In the words of Willie James Jennings:
The struggle of faith is about the faithful, who they may be and how they may be. We yet struggle over faithful bodies and over their necessary alignment—their conformity to dominant culture, normative orientation, aesthetic form, or intellectual temperament. We, like the Judean disciples, are tempted to control the unknown and domesticate difference. How do you capture in words the dynamic life together, not just life together, but a holy joining of life, the life of the Spirit of God within our lives?
The church has always been tempted to confuse citizenship with discipleship. The citizen who is a disciple can no longer be a citizen in the abstract, no longer a citizen in theory but only in the concrete practice of a disciple. The disciple is a citizen who has had their citizenship tightly bound to the body of Jesus and ordered by the Spirit of God toward one purpose—to expose the concealed architecture of oppression and violence and to set the captives free.
The upcoming year’s theme for the LiVE Project 2023-2024 emerges from listening to and learning from Willie James Jennings. We are entitling it “Becoming Communities of Belonging”. It is God’s program to joining with bodies of this world in Jesus Christ through the Spirit that we live into this way of being challenged more broadly to engage and imagine life as God’s people.
Belonging is a continual discernment and formation process involving the whole people of God, people within our churches, and those who may never dawn the doors. It is more than the application of principles, but the ongoing anticipation of God’s possibilities. We belong to God as does all of creation. The fact is that many of us, from time to time, do not align with God’s way of how we ought to be belonging with one another and in God. It is God’s new creation that moves us out to trying new things, and finding new conversation partners where we become new communities.
I hope and pray that you will find yourself joining one of our upcoming course and cohort offerings for the LiVE Project 2023-2024. We long to practice this way of being church as God’s people together; broadening a community who is engaging together in new conversations, forming new connections across our congregations, and region, and discovering anew God’s future that is already underway among us.
Rev. David Christian Hahn, PhD (he/his)