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Photo by Tom Cramer

In her book, Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler-Bass writes about “the Great Reversal.” She believes it is the key to growing the church in the coming decades.

According to her, Christianity can be characterized by belief, behavior and belonging. All three are important but the church has traditionally prioritized them in this order. For example, to become a member, a person first had to confess the Apostles Creed and then obey the 10 Commandments. Only then was the person’s name added to the congregational rolls.

Yet, in the 21st century this scheme no longer seems to work. In a post-modern world with a breakdown in authority, belief and behavior are becoming increasingly relative in our society, whether people of faith like it or not.

So I think Butler-Bass is on to something. When I talk with people involved in our New Worshiping Communities or Fresh Expressions, they always mention the relational nature of faith. And they are passionate—community or belonging is primary.

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Rev. Erin Dunigan

Just this summer, one of our leaders talked about why her faith community was so effective in connecting with people in her neighborhood. She said it was because “believing the ‘right things’ comes long after the being accepted and loved.”

When I asked her what she meant, she described her situation this way: “Well, with most churches, you have to believe the ‘right things’ in order to belong. In our community, you ‘belong’ first and are invited to reflect on what you believe as you travel through life with us, and us with you. Belonging comes first. It has to do with all of us, you, me, and even people we don’t like and with whom we disagree, being made in the image of God.”

Her experience seems to be evidence of a Great Reversal unfolding in our time which also seems to resonate with the “nones” of our society—a reordering of belief, behavior and belonging into belonging, behavior and belief . 

After our discussion I was ready to become an evangelist for Butler-Bass’ book when I had yet another conversation that led me to think even deeper about this matter.

When the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) did an exhaustive questionnaire a few years back among our churches, they discovered that almost all congregations want to do a better job of connecting with young adults. What they learned from consulting experts and interviewing 20s and 30s somethings was that what young adults wanted most was an experience of practical Christianity. In other words, they weren’t looking for a belief system or a community—they had plenty of friends—but a new way of living out their faith.

As a result, PMA started the YAV (Young Adult Volunteers) program where young adults go on a mission for a year. It’s a big success. Young people in their 20s return after 12 months of meaningful service and get re-involved in the church.

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Rev. Alex Wirth

One young adult in our presbytery has already benefited from it. Steve Wirth’s son, Alex, went to Belfast, Northern Ireland to minister to youth living in a town known for its history of violence. One of the peacemaking activities Alex organized was soccer tournaments between Catholic and Protestant 12 year-olds who previously spent their energy throwing rocks at police cars. It was during this year of service that Alex found the call that God had placed on his life to serve the “least of these” whom Christ calls his family and become an ordained minister. He now pastors at the Lakeview Presbyterian Church outside of Chicago where he focuses on social justice.

When I talked to our former Executive Director of PMA she said, “We put a spin on Diana’s Great Reversal. Our scheme is ‘Behavior, belonging, belief.’ That’s what works for our young adults.”

She may be right.

Last week, I attended an educational forum at Whittier Area Community Church about how to welcome and assimilate refugees that are arriving in our country by the tens of thousands. It was expertly presented by World Relief, one of the nine organizations selected by the State Department to orchestrate our nation’s resettlement efforts.

I was struck by how many young adults were present, which told me that perhaps the next generation does lead with “behaving the faith” before it gets overly concerned about beliefs. Maybe their sequence is mission, community, and then doctrine.

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Syrian Refugees

My new understanding now is that it helps to see every Christian group, every church or congregation, through the lens of these three elements of faith. Some groups will emphasize belonging. Others will emphasize belief, and still others will emphasize behavior.

I don’t think there is any one formula to be found in scripture with regard to one being emphasized more than others. Context is key. What is critical is that the living Christ is magnified through the Church and in the lives of Christ’s followers.

What kind of church is yours?