Wesleyan Wisdom: In the Christian journey, belonging comes first

Donald Haynes

Donald Haynes

After General Conference, the Book of Discipline will be different. But will things really be different back in the local church?

Will we, like the Twelve become Sunday morning quarterbacks, or, like Mary and Mary Magdalene, will we see what is going on with Jesus? Is there any chance that we might, like the women, hear the voice of a resurrected Lord?

There is a sad alternative. We can return from General Conference with the same world-view we had before the gathering. Will thousands of United Methodists be saying, “Some things are changed, but nothing is different”?

Certainly, if we have that attitude, the corporate proverb will be fulfilled in our time: “They called a meeting to discuss apathy, and no one came.”

This is our “D-Day.” My career is over; my grandson is in seminary. What are the possibilities for his generation of United Methodists?

What if—yes just “what if”—we rethink possible?

First we would rule out of order any statement that articulated or implied, “That’s not possible,” or “That won’t happen here,” or “This is not who we are” or “We tried that before and it did not work” or the seven last words of the church—”We’ve never done it that way before.”

Instead, can we apply to our hopes for United Methodism the words of Jesus following his conversation with the “rich young ruler”: “With mortals it is impossible, but all things are possible with God”?

In my recent conversation with Bishop Larry Goodpaster, as he ended his two-year term as Council of Bishops president, he envisioned a mandate for every vital congregation to begin by transforming its community. He concluded, “This happened in the early days of the Methodist movement in England and America, and it’s happening today in many developing nations.” Can we “rethink possible”?

To do that, I believe we must begin by inverting the order of credentials for membership in the United Methodist Church. We must make “belonging” the first order of business.

Allow me to explain. To join a legalistically moral church, the “order of journey” is behave, believe; then belong. The order for fundamentalist churches is believe, behave, belong.

But if we follow Jesus’ ordering of the credentials for becoming a Christian, the order is belong, believe, behave. With Jesus, discipling began with belonging.

Look at the Gospels: First Jesus called the disciples, and they followed with little or no understanding of beliefs and no apparent tests of behavior. Secondly, there are intermittent subsequent references to believing: “Who do you say that I am?” Finally, no one was dis-fellowshipped for poor behavior. Aside from Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, and James and John’s jockeying for special relationship, the Gospels are almost devoid of references to behavior.

To an impressive variety of people—lettered and unlettered, affluent and poor, entrepreneurs and government employees, politically conservative and radical, male and female, married and single, Jew and Gentile, influential and marginalized—Jesus met them where they were, spoke their language and basically said, “Follow me.”

Discipling must begin with belonging. Len Sweet, in his book I am a Follower, writes, “If followership is a way first, then the Christian life is a verb before it is a noun. . . . Pilgriming moves us from a noun-centric language to a verb-centric language. . . . Before Christianity is ‘the truth and the life,’ it is ‘the Way.’”

Dr. Sweet has found an ancient African phrase, “Will you walk with me?” It is not a morning stroll around the block, but to be caught up in what the fellow sojourner is doing, to join his or her journey, to hear another’s story, to enter as best we can into another person’s world. How many of us church regulars are willing to develop fellow pilgrims?

In the community of every local church there are people who are lonely, frightened, confused, and in search of some meaning and purpose in their own journey. Most of us are part of a network of friends, colleagues, sports enthusiasts, walkers, golfers, carousers, or thinkers. But we all have one deeper thing in common: a soul, a heart that is a lonely hunter. People all around our churches are seeking the right things in the wrong places. Most of them are deeply scarred and some are downright scared.

Those are the people the church can reach. In an ancient letter from one North African to another, Cyprian wrote to Donatus: “This is a wicked world, but I have discovered a company who possess peace and righteousness. They are called Christians and I am one of them.”

The first mission of a church that is willing to be revitalized by the Holy Spirit is to develop and constantly monitor and enhance the priority of belonging. Among the geniuses of the Methodist class meeting was the superseding of English caste as lords, ladies, peasants, serfs, miners and maids sat side-by-side on backless benches in plain meetinghouses or humble homes.

The origin of the English word “pub” was “public.” Their word “freehouse” meant than any brand of grog or ale could be sold there; its products were not determined by the company but by the customers. Our churches should have a sense of belonging to the territory they serve, not to the members who pay “dues.” Let’s be more like the pub (“public house”) and less like the club.

Dr. Evelyn Laycock teaches a unique exegesis of Jesus’ reference to the mustard seed as a peek behind the scenes of the Kingdom of Heaven. When the mustard seed morphs from its seed-form to its tree-form, the latter is large and strong enough that the “birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Dr. Laycock says that in the Aramaic colloquialism of Jesus’ day, “birds of the air” was a stigmatizing reference to Gentiles! This interpretation gives rich meaning to the phrase and reveals Jesus’ meaning that in the Kingdom, those whom you derisively call “birds of the air” will have a roosting place!

What a marvelous vision for the local congregation. Let’s reach out with radical hospitality and include “birds of the air.” Every church must decide to adopt the philosophy of “exclusion” or “inclusion.” To me, “belonging” comes before believing and behaving.

In the congregation for whom I am now pastor, 40 people will be going in May to a “barn dinner theatre” 30 miles away. Some are longtime church members, some are personal guests of members, but two couples have never before signed up for an evening of fellowship, dining and hanging out with a church group!

Though neither of those two couples is married, both couples are regulars in Sunday morning worship. Both have motorcycles. On one couple’s property is a cabin where bikers gather every Sunday morning to “have a cold beer and do a little betting on the NASCAR race of the week.” (I will be hearing the vows of one couple on May 5, baptizing him and transferring her membership. My predecessor would marry no one who had been living together. He received three adult members his last three years; we have received 47 in 28 months.)

You may be frowning and asking, “What about their beliefs and behavior?” Those issues come later in the curriculum. First comes belonging. Remember the accusations that religious folks made of Jesus’ fraternization habits! You cannot transform the world without relating to the people within a mile of your church.

Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Let’s take that literally; first comes “the way.” Let’s walk with him and talk with him and learn from him rather than gulping down a prescription written for someone else. Len Sweet writes, “Followership is a ‘way,’ in that it is a path of exploration and discovery. The key is to get our feet on the path and start pilgrimaging with Jesus. We don’t “get it right” first and then follow Jesus. We follow Jesus to “get it right.”


Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series. The next two columns will be on “believing” and “behaving.”


Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. dhaynes11@triad.rr.com

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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