Perhaps no element of my faith has changed more over the last ten years than my understanding of belonging.

Tony Jones recently highlighted a post by Jeff McSwain, who was fired by Young Life over what he describes as “theological differences.”

“In November of 2007, I was dismissed by Young Life for what was termed “theological differences.” Since 2001, I had been preaching the gospel with an emphasis on theological belonging, the idea that humanity belongs to Jesus Christ by virtue of creation and redemption. Rather than splitting Christ as Creator from Christ as Redeemer, I was keen to preserve the gospel symmetry proclaimed by Paul in Colossians 1, where he speaks of the Christ who created and reconciled all things (Col. 1:16, 20). This is the gospel “that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (Col. 1:23). This is the gospel that declares that every person is included not only in the first Adam but also in the second (Rom. 5:18).

My point was that preaching this kind of a Christ-centered message actually brings congruence between our incarnational work and our proclamation message.

This story hit me because my wife spent five years in Young Life.  It was one of the more important experiences in her faith development.  When we were dating, I got to spend countless hours following her to meetings, singing songs, and going to ice cream with the kids afterward.  The central idea of Young Life was to hang with the kids and love them…period.  Very little Scripture was provided.  The dominant means of communication was through belonging.

What surprised me even more was that if Young Life took its current policy to its conclusion, Jim Rayburn the original founder would likely have been fired too. The irony of this whole incident is humorous on so many levels.  Rayburn founded Young Life on the idea of belonging.  Jeff provides a remarkable story about Rayburn’s original ideas.

In 1957 at the Young Life Staff Conference Rayburn taught on 2 Corinthians 5:19, which explains “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” Said Rayburn:

“Reconciliation. Every single person in the whole wide world is now reconciled to God. [. . .] It’s been true for nearly two thousand years. I wonder what they [high school kids] would do if they knew it [. . .]. God has reconciled us, all of us, it’s already done.”Universalism? No, but definitely universal belonging. I italicized that last phrase, I wonder what they would do if they knew it, because the inflective anticipation in Rayburn’s voice on the recording of this talk is unavoidable. He is talking about how Young Life was founded “out of theology”; he relates how these great truths regarding the reconciliation and redemption of all people “rang the bell” in his heart and he became increasingly zealous to get the good news to his thirsty young friends.

What didn’t surprise me is that it worked.  Young Life consistently drew kids in because they began with belonging. They began with the idea that each kid was God’s valuable child, even if they didn’t know it yet.

McSwain calls out our historical approaches to the mat and reveals the contradiction in both forms.  But his quoting of Barth is fascinating.  He shares:

When Barth was asked, after all that he had written about the gospel, to summarize it as succinctly as possible, he responded with the familiar, simple words to the song “Jesus Loves Me.” We teach our children these words—“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong”—are we to tell kids that when they get to be a certain age this is no longer the case? Are we to tell them they belong to Jesus if . . .? Is belonging with an if really belonging at all?

It made me think that one of the deepest theological issues of our time is a fundamental shift back to belonging, beginning with the idea of the reconciliation of all things. This will be a central component of my book coming out.  What if we began with the idea that God actually has reconciled the world.

I wonder if our fear of actually living into the idea of belonging is not that it is true.  I would argue that we already do begin with this idea, we just dont’ admit it. Our fear resides in what we think would happen if people accepted it as true.  Would it make much of our institutional structures and activities obsolete?  Would it transform culture in a way that we’ve dreamed of but can’t get to because we can’t seem to get out of the way?