Nathan Albert: “Belong, Believe, Become”

Nathan Albert, The Marin Foundation

During my years working as a professional singer and actor I was often quiet about my faith, especially around my countless gay or lesbian friends.  I quickly learned that their experiences with the Church and Christians were almost always negative.  Many were kicked out of their churches, shunned by family members, and even spit upon by Christian roommates.  They didn’t have a positive view of Christians or the faith we professed.  From their experiences, I saw that many churches excluded rather than included LGBT people, had a closed-door policy rather than an open-door policy, and taught a type behavior modification rather than Gospel transformation.

These churches worked on the model of Behave, Believe, Belong.  Christians have told countless LGBT individuals that they must behave a certain way (be celibate or become heterosexual), believe a certain set of doctrines (this is right, that is wrong; this is sinful, that is holy), and then they are allowed to belong to the church community.  My fear is that this model might actually be more damaging than helpful.  My fear is that this model can distort our understanding of grace and our understanding of God.  My fear is that this model might force us to think that if we behave a certain way, believe a certain thing, then God will accept us.  Or worse, I fear that people will give up on God entirely because they are forced to behave rather than belong.

This is a very religious attitude.  Religion says we negotiate with God to try to get help in exchange for our good behavior.  We do what were told and, hopefully, God rewards us.  Because of religion in churches, we’re told you must be a certain way, act a certain way, behave a certain way, believe a certain doctrine, then belonging to our community can happen.

Instead, I think the Gospel presents a better model: Belong, Believe, Become.

A church that follows this model allows people to come as they are.  Literally.  It allows people to be honest and vulnerable.  It leaves room for grace.  In actuality, it’s all about grace.  It allows us to acknowledge that we are not perfect but God is.  We are not righteous, but God is.  We don’t have our act together, but God does.

The Belong Believe Become model says that anyone can belong, regardless of their orientation, regardless of their beliefs, regardless of whether they are even Christians.  They are included, loved, embraced and welcomed into a community of Christians.

Then, only after belonging, do they begin to hear about Jesus, do they see Christians acting in counter-cultural ways, do they learn about this Jesus who claims to be the Son of God.

Then, only after belief in Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, does transformation occur.  Because men and women are able to belong to a community where they can belong, the process of sanctification begins.  And it is just that, a process.  This is where we as Christians begin to become followers of Christ.  In this process there is grace.  People can belong with their flaws and sin as they grow in the knowledge of God.  It is in this journey that we seek holiness and become agents of reconciliation, forgiveness, change, and we participate with God to bring about shalom on earth as it is in heaven.

This model can be seen throughout Scripture (John 13:1-17, Luke 7:36-50, Mark 14 and Matthew 23:25-28 are just a few examples).  It can also be seen in and through the life of Thomas.  Considered the one who doubted Jesus, Thomas belonged to a community for three years.  It was there that he belonged and was intimately known by Jesus and the other disciples.  It wasn’t until a week after Jesus’ resurrection that Thomas saw Jesus face-to-face.  During this week, all the other disciples believed and Thomas continued to belong even though he didn’t believe.  Once he encountered the risen Christ, though, he immediately worshiped Jesus.  Thomas went on to bring the Gospel to India and became a martyr for his faith.  Thomas belonged, believed, and then became.

In his book Love is an Orientation, Andrew Marin shares a suicide note that he received.  The gentleman who wrote the note said:

Had someone the courage to tell me that promiscuity of any type is wrong, that it is OK not to marry or being gay is not the end of the world then I might have been spared a great deal of trauma and pain in my life.  My past is not pretty but I don’t know many that are.  For me, it isn’t about making it, but is about survival and truly knowing peace…It is painful to think that people find it so easy to shun us- some of us actually do have good hearts that can be worth salvaging…

There are all kinds of medals given out for going to Africa to help with AIDS and for dealing with “respectable” illnesses but the stigma attached to being gay is as prevalent today as ever.  How sad.  This is the reason I don’t go to services- I can’t find a temple or a church that is really eager to allow me to be honest with what I face on a daily basis.  It has always been as though I was supposed to already be “fixed” just because I showed up at services.  Anyway, I have reached a point of hopelessness because there really is no one with a true heart to help. (Pg. 57-58)

It seems to me that this person was looking for a place where he could belong.  He desired a community of compassion rather than a congregation of condemnation.  It seems he was looking for a place where he could be granted patience and grace.  Perhaps he didn’t want people telling him to “change” but instead be told he was God’s beloved.  Maybe he wanted the opportunity to meet Christ face-to-face and begin the process of sanctification.  The saddest notion of all is that this gentleman is not alone in feeling this way.

As Doug Bixby points out in his book The Honest to God Church, our call as Christians “is to share God’s grace, not to decide who gets it” (Pg. 118).  That’s a scary statement but I hope I can radically live into that call.  I hope the ECC radically lives into that call as well.

The view of this and previous posts represent the author’s thoughts and is not representative of the views of The Marin Foundation.  For more on the this idea, reference the sermon Belong Believe Become given at New Community Covenant Church on Jan. 2nd, 2011 (http://www.thenewcom.com/podcast).

  • Nathan,
    I remember speaking with you about this at Ashram and couldn’t agree with you more. The model Jesus provides us in the gospels as he interacts with people (other than the religious “insiders” known as the pharisees) is always one of Belong-Believe-Become, and yet as a church, we continue to turn this around, into Behave-Believe-Belong as a means of choosing who we want in and who we want to keep out, as if we were the gatekeepers of God’s grace (and as if God’s grace was some sort of exclusive private club).
    Thanks for your thoughtful role in this dialogue.
    Peace,
    Johnny

  • Eva

    Nathan, this is gospel. Thank you. This is how God treats us. Romans 5:8 says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we (all of us) were still sinners Christ died for us.” Over and over Jesus meets people where they are, as they are. Thanks be to God. Where would any of us be if that were not so? We cannot earn grace, only receive it. So our role, is to love as we have been loved and to extend grace just as we have received it. Our role is to welcome all who come through the doors of God’s house to experience his love and grace just as we do. May we be reflections of that love and grace.

  • missioncov

    Nathan,

    I really resonate with your thoughts on grace. The challenge is when we seek to define what it means to “belong”. The challenge for most congregations is not in being hospitable – the challenge is what does all this mean when we are past the belong/believe phases and are seeking formal membership or leadership in the body?

    • Mella

      I’m trying to get a handle on what you are implying here, missioncov. Are you asking should those who have a different sexual orientation; and are either single or in committed, faithful relationships; and meet the other requirements of membership in the Covenant be admitted as members of the Covenant and as leaders in the church?

      Personally, I say, “Yes. Yes, they should.”

      That is what inclusive is.

      Not, “Well, here is some coffee and cake at the coffee hour after church…now, go sit at that table over there and don’t participate in the life of the church beyond that, please.”

      That is not inclusive.