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A Fearless Belonging

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?

About the Author

Jonathan BrinkI am an business development and communications consultant. I am also the senior editor and publisher for Civitas Press. I recently published, Discovering The God Imagination: Reconstructing A Whole, New Christianity. (Civitas, 2011)View all posts by Jonathan Brink →

  • John

    ”Universalism? No, but definitely universal belonging.”

    I resonate with this, but understand where most may not see any significant difference. I would offer that “belonging” is easiest in communities where radical inclusion is practiced.

    Very best wishes with your book Jonathan. Looking forward to it.

  • John

    ”Universalism? No, but definitely universal belonging.”

    I resonate with this, but understand where most may not see any significant difference. I would offer that “belonging” is easiest in communities where radical inclusion is practiced.

    Very best wishes with your book Jonathan. Looking forward to it.

  • http://jonjourney.blogspot.com/ Jon

    Good thoughts. I've had a similar shift in thinking. Recognizing that God loves us, everyone, all the time. Like a good father would. I've been influenced in the past by some leaders who think God hates sinners.. but I'm changing my way of thinking (repenting) on this issue.

  • http://jonjourney.blogspot.com/ Jon

    Good thoughts. I've had a similar shift in thinking. Recognizing that God loves us, everyone, all the time. Like a good father would. I've been influenced in the past by some leaders who think God hates sinners.. but I'm changing my way of thinking (repenting) on this issue.

  • aamoslove

    Tony

    Good stuff – We are already reconcilled…
    And God doesn’t remember our sin anymore…

    Why do we? ;-)

    *2Corintians 5:19
    That God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself,
    not imputing their trespasses unto them;

    *Psalms 32:1
    Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
    Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD does not impute iniquity,

    *Isaiah 43:25
    I, even I, am he that blots out your transgressions for mine own sake,
    and will not remember your sins.

    *Isaiah 44:22
    I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, your transgressions,
    and, as a cloud, your sins:
    return unto me; for I have redeemed you.

    *Psalm 103:12
    As far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

    *Acts 3:19 Repent therefore, and be converted,
    that your sins may be blotted out,

    *Jeremiah 31:34
    …for I will forgive their iniquity,
    and I will remember their sin no more.

    *Romans 4:7
    Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven,
    and whose sins are covered.
    Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.

    John 1:29
    Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.

    1 John 1:7
    …And the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin.

  • aamoslove

    Tony

    Good stuff – We are already reconcilled…
    And God doesn’t remember our sin anymore…

    Why do we? ;-)

    *2Corintians 5:19
    That God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself,
    not imputing their trespasses unto them;

    *Psalms 32:1
    Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
    Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD does not impute iniquity,

    *Isaiah 43:25
    I, even I, am he that blots out your transgressions for mine own sake,
    and will not remember your sins.

    *Isaiah 44:22
    I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, your transgressions,
    and, as a cloud, your sins:
    return unto me; for I have redeemed you.

    *Psalm 103:12
    As far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

    *Acts 3:19 Repent therefore, and be converted,
    that your sins may be blotted out,

    *Jeremiah 31:34
    …for I will forgive their iniquity,
    and I will remember their sin no more.

    *Romans 4:7
    Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven,
    and whose sins are covered.
    Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.

    John 1:29
    Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.

    1 John 1:7
    …And the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ jshmueller

    It seems to mee that the crux of traditional evangelicalism is its desire to clearly define the borders between who is “in” and who is “out”. I know exactly what the typical response from that stance would sound like: “Reconciliation is only limitless as an offer. It does not become a reality unless a person decides to embrace it. That's why Paul must plead in 2 Corinthians 5:20 with unbelievers to be reconciled to God.”

    In other words: if we were to believe that everyone is reconciled already, the call to repentance and conversion would become obsolete. That's the “logic” behind it.

    My response today would be: while there is a kernel of truth in this approach(reconciliation indeed doesn't reach its goal without a mutual embrace), we actually obstruct this desired human response by treating certain individuals as “out”. And unless they go along some certain rites of initiation (i.e. “pray the sinner's prayer”, be baptized etc.) we refuse to truly include them as people who belong.

    But what if the whole point of repentance and conversion was not those rites but a waking up to the fact that God treats us as being 'in' completely independent of any response? What if the prodigal sons and daughters never ceased being treated as true children of the Father? Why shouldn't WE treat others exactly the same way?

    The point of pleading and of evangelism in general then becomes something much different. It's a pleading to wake up to the reality of a love so limitless and amazing that it makes a compelling case to overcome our state of open rebellion or hiding in shame – a state in which we did not want or have been able to believe that such love and acceptance could truly exist.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ jshmueller

    It seems to mee that the crux of traditional evangelicalism is its desire to clearly define the borders between who is “in” and who is “out”. I know exactly what the typical response from that stance would sound like: “Reconciliation is only limitless as an offer. It does not become a reality unless a person decides to embrace it. That's why Paul must plead in 2 Corinthians 5:20 with unbelievers to be reconciled to God.”

    In other words: if we were to believe that everyone is reconciled already, the call to repentance and conversion would become obsolete. That's the “logic” behind it.

    My response today would be: while there is a kernel of truth in this approach(reconciliation indeed doesn't reach its goal without a mutual embrace), we actually obstruct this desired human response by treating certain individuals as “out”. And unless they go along some certain rites of initiation (i.e. “pray the sinner's prayer”, be baptized etc.) we refuse to truly include them as people who belong.

    But what if the whole point of repentance and conversion was not those rites but a waking up to the fact that God treats us as being 'in' completely independent of any response? What if the prodigal sons and daughters never ceased being treated as true children of the Father? Why shouldn't WE treat others exactly the same way?

    The point of pleading and of evangelism in general then becomes something much different. It's a pleading to wake up to the reality of a love so limitless and amazing that it makes a compelling case to overcome our state of open rebellion or hiding in shame – a state in which we did not want or have been able to believe that such love and acceptance could truly exist.

  • http://jonathanbrink.com Jonathan Brink

    Josh, I don't know if I have so clearly heard a comment on my blog that so resonates with me. You have captured so much in what you just said. Thank you for participating.

  • http://jonathanbrink.com Jonathan Brink

    Josh, I don't know if I have so clearly heard a comment on my blog that so resonates with me. You have captured so much in what you just said. Thank you for participating.

  • http://jonathanbrink.com Jonathan Brink

    Josh, I don’t know if I have so clearly heard a comment on my blog that so resonates with me. You have captured so much in what you just said. Thank you for participating.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ jshmueller

    Jonathan, I have blindly followed this pattern of thinking myself for most of my adult life and am certainly not proud of it. Talking about “embrace”, it just brought back a memory of a teen camp about 5 or 6 years ago when we cried with and hugged a few of those teens who had decided to stay behind after an evangelistic talk and did indeed pray the sinner's prayer. I'm convinced we thought we weren't loving the other ones who weren't ready to take that same step any less. You still gotta wonder what may have been if the “unrepentant ones” had received that same amount of outpouring of our emotions or what damage we may have done by effectually treating them as being outside the family still.

    I can only thank God for those he brought into my life who challenged me and made me question many of those old unreflected assumptions. I'm grateful to have heard their life-stories and how much they had been hurt by being treated as outsiders while they were thirsting so deeply to truly belong. I'll never forget it.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ jshmueller

    Jonathan, I have blindly followed this pattern of thinking myself for most of my adult life and am certainly not proud of it. Talking about “embrace”, it just brought back a memory of a teen camp about 5 or 6 years ago when we cried with and hugged a few of those teens who had decided to stay behind after an evangelistic talk and did indeed pray the sinner's prayer. I'm convinced we thought we weren't loving the other ones who weren't ready to take that same step any less. You still gotta wonder what may have been if the “unrepentant ones” had received that same amount of outpouring of our emotions or what damage we may have done by effectually treating them as being outside the family still.

    I can only thank God for those he brought into my life who challenged me and made me question many of those old unreflected assumptions. I'm grateful to have heard their life-stories and how much they had been hurt by being treated as outsiders while they were thirsting so deeply to truly belong. I'll never forget it.

  • http://openmindedconversations.blogspot.com/ jshmueller

    Jonathan, I have blindly followed this pattern of thinking myself for most of my adult life and am certainly not proud of it. Talking about “embrace”, it just brought back a memory of a teen camp about 5 or 6 years ago when we cried with and hugged a few of those teens who had decided to stay behind after an evangelistic talk and did indeed pray the sinner’s prayer. I’m convinced we thought we weren’t loving the other ones who weren’t ready to take that same step any less. You still gotta wonder what may have been if the “unrepentant ones” had received that same amount of outpouring of our emotions or what damage we may have done by effectually treating them as being outside the family still.

    I can only thank God for those he brought into my life who challenged me and made me question many of those old unreflected assumptions. I’m grateful to have heard their life-stories and how much they had been hurt by being treated as outsiders while they were thirsting so deeply to truly belong. I’ll never forget it.

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Business development and communications for growing businesses.