Future Faith: Challenge Nine: Belonging before Believing

Retail stores build buildings and pay staff to gather, organize, and display goods for consumers to inspect and buy. Encyclopedias collect, organize, and publish volumes of stored information. Libraries collect, organize, and loan books, also serving as centers for research. Taxicab companies organize fleets of cars and drivers from a central headquarters. Hotel chains build, organize, and offer rooms. All these commercial and public institutions, plus more, are being dramatically challenged by how the internet and the technological means to utilize it have radically transformed the individual’s relationship to acquiring information, purchasing goods, and accessing services.

A whole “sharing economy” is developing…

The power of individuals to have boundless, personalized access to information is transforming their relationships to established organizations and structures. Increasingly, people are becoming their own gatekeepers, consuming and working in the economy more and more on their own terms rather than trusting in established institutions to be the mediators of those choices.

The Effect on the Organized Church

Reflecting on Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb helps illuminate trends that go far beyond economic life. Organized religious structures are also being dramatically altered. The same forces driving Amazon’s growth, closing Sears stores, and spawning the gig economy will alter how the church and Christian organizations will function in the future.

Two such trends are reshaping tomorrow’s church and being seen already today.

First, believers have less trust in and loyalty toward established religious institutions to serve as the intermediaries for how they understand, practice, and grow their faith. They’d rather access information and select resources themselves to support their pilgrimage. They want to choose to join the networks or groups that seem compatible with their beliefs.

Second, dogma is less important than community, and relationships often transcend doctrine as a guide when Christians make choices about participation in congregations, groups, and organizations. This feature becomes more pronounced among younger seekers and believers, who begin with the value of belonging.

Transforming such institutions is difficult but not impossible. The model for how they function requires fundamental change.

In many respects, denominational structures have taken on the roles of being intermediaries for their congregations and clergy while serving as regulatory bodies.

In this new environment, inherited structures of denominations and religious institutions no longer seem to empower their members.

Envisioning New Models

Denominational systems can be reconstructed to focus on empowering congregations, providing pathways for them to acquire needed information, networks of necessary relational support, and expanded opportunities for missional engagement.

Practical systems such as pension programs, insurance, and credentialing can be maintained, but if that is the only “glue” that holds a denominational system together, that system’s not worth preserving.

Creative denominational structures will capitalize on their ability to provide strong relational connections throughout their membership.

Shift the energy of denominational gatherings away from a singular focus on systems of governance and toward experiencing the denomination as a place for relational connection, enrichment, and empowerment.

The trend, however, is clear. Whether within denominational structures or beyond, networks of relational connections that empower and equip courageous pastoral and lay leaders serving in environments of continual change will drive the future vitality of congregations.

For churches and wider organizational structures, a foundational theological question is raised. Do they exist simply to maintain themselves at all costs, or is their identity defined by uncompromised participation in God’s mission? The rationale for reinventing older structures or initiating entirely new networks of relational connections must be rooted in courageous missional faithfulness rather than mere entrepreneurial success.

Denominations and religious institutions must reinvent the models of how they function or gradually constrict into enclaves of survival with decreasing tribes.

The Gift of belonging

a woman I’ll call Alysha shared her story.

Alysha was raised in a typical Lutheran Church in the rural Midwest, being baptized there and attending its worship services, Sunday School, and youth activities. Her memories were clear and compelling. First, she found the church services “boring.” They held little engaging interest. Second, she found that her questions were not welcomed. She remembered raising issues that she didn’t understand and was typically met with responses like “just believe.” So, when she became a young adult she left the church, staying away for decades.

Later in life, after undergoing a number of personal crises, she decided to try returning to the church. At Christ Lutheran, she experienced a congregation that welcomed her and her questions. There wasn’t the expectation that she, and others, had all the issues of faith figured out. Rather, she was invited to be part of a community where folks accompanied one another in their journeys of faith. This is what drew her in and kept her now as a faithful member of Christ Lutheran Church.

That gift of belonging is what connected her to the congregation.

Belonging is what connects her and millions of others to local Christian congregations rather than rigid adherence to doctrinal beliefs. Often, the question is which comes first, belonging or belief? The past decade has seen a robust discussion about this, with many asserting that, especially in a postmodern culture, belonging is a step preceding belief in the Christian journey. The traditional view is that a person outside the church undergoes a dramatic conversion experience—he or she reads a tract, or attends an evangelism rally, or has some other personal encounter with God—and then joins a church community. But the more likely pattern in today’s culture is that one becomes part of a congregation or fellowship first, working out their journey and defining their beliefs through that process.

Those prone to reverse the order of belonging and believing are often impacted by the organizational theory of “bounded sets” and “centered sets.” The terms are mathematical ones, but their application comes this way. A bounded set is a group or organization with clearly defined boundaries determining who is in and who is out. Members can be easily classified as being part of this “set” or not. A centered set is a group defined by a clear center that gives it identity, but those belonging may be closer or further from that center. The definition of who belongs to this “set” and who does not is much more fluid and fuzzy. A centered set is more dynamic, and a bounded set is more static.

A metaphor often used to describe the difference between these two ways of understanding the church—and other organizations—comes from Australia. It’s said that there are two ways of forming and maintaining a herd of cattle in open land. One is to build a fence around the entire herd. The other way is to dig a well. Whether grazing close or far away, the cattle will always be drawn back toward the water, in a centered set.

Alysha was really looking for, and discovering, a Christian community that functioned as a centered set. That doesn’t mean there’s an absence of doctrine or theological conviction. Congregations like hers will regularly recite the Apostles’ Creed. But the animating force in such congregations is relational connection.

In summary, technological, economic, and social innovations sweeping the globe are producing two irreversible changes throughout world Christianity.

First, adherents of faith have less trust and loyalty toward established religious institutions.

Second, participation in local Christian congregations and groups is being driven more by the experience of belonging to a welcoming, nurturing community than by doctrinal agreement and dogmatic belief.

Participation in communities nurturing future faith will be driven by relational connections rather than defined by doctrinal divides. The church that will learn to survive and thrive in this future will be one that includes rather than excludes, that welcomes rather than warns, and that relates rather than regulates.

discussion guide


  • What do you think of the idea that in our modern culture people are working and consuming on their own terms more and more? What examples of this does the author give? How have you experienced this?
  • In what ways does this widening of individual choice have an effect on the organized church? In what ways is the church responding?
  • How has the explosion of groups, initiatives, and organizations in the global faith community led to a kind of chaos? What changes are needed to bring some order to the chaos?
  • What is your reaction to the story the author tells about Alysha? Does it ring true for you? Do you think it is a common experience for many in faith communities?
  • What is more important—belonging or believing? Why? In your experience does one usually precede the other? If so, in what way? Name some examples.
  • What do you think of the author’s statement that nurturing faith in the future will be driven more by relational connections (how one belongs) than by doctrinal understandings (what one believes)?
  • What more do you want to learn or do based on reading this chapter of the book?



Previous posts can be found here:

Challenge One: Revitalizing Withering Congregations

Challenge Two: Embracing the Color of the Future

Challenge Three: Seeing through Non-Western Eyes

Challenge Four: Perceiving the World as Sacred

Challenge Five: Affirming Spirit-Filled Communities

Challenge Six: Rejecting the Heresy of Individualism

Challenge Seven: De-Americanizing the Gospel

Challenge Eight: Defeating Divisive Culture Wars

For more on this, please support the author and buy his book at Amazon or Fortress Press. I do not receive any compensation for this summary.