For a number of years, alongside a dedicated team, I drove double decker buses around the local towns where I lived and did youth work in the housing estates. It was challenging because the young people had a very cynical view of church and christianity. They had a variety of rude names for the bus and called our youth drop in "bible bash." And yet they came and looked and asked questions. Some nights there were 40 teenagers in and around the bus. They were all spiritually bereft. They had never heard the good news of Jesus and many of them came from difficult family backgrounds. I would often go home heartbroken at some of the stories they told me about their lives, their lack of hope and broken relationships. They first came on the bus because of the novelty factor. It was a cool bus with couches and x-box. However they stayed for a different reason. What made them stay?
I would say there were two key factors 1) a sense of belonging, and 2) demonstrations of the kingdom of God by word and deed i.e. kindness, acceptance, prayer, healing.
I am a great believer that people today need to belong before they believe. The bus became "their church" to use their words. It was open to all, no-one was judged, although we were honest about tough questions around lifestyle choices. They were amazed that I met my future wife at sixteen and was still married 30 years later. Most of them came from separated families, most of them had a broken relationship with either a sibling or a parent. By creating a space to belong they thrived, even though their behaviour at times was hard to handle. A few got banned only to be welcomed back because they wanted to belong.
Jesus was the master at this. Think about Zacchaeus who according to Luke 19:2 was "a chief tax collector and was wealthy." This is a man who worked for the oppressive Roman government, he was despised by his own people as a traitor and a thief (taking a cut from the taxes). Jesus treats Zacchaeus like a friend. In Luke 19:5-7 it says:
"When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
This is the principle of belonging. For a holy man to go to the house of a known sinner broke the power of judgement and exclusion. Zacchaeus felt like he was accepted, he belonged. Jesus dealt with a heart issue that is a block for many people in our world today, just like the teenagers on the Lighthouse Bus. Deep down many people feel a sense of unworthiness, of not belonging. To counter this, Jesus invited himself into the life of Zacchaeus.
There are two main ways to encourage belonging. First of all go to where people are and join in with their world, secondly we can set up a third space, a neutral zone like a cafe, a bus, a drop in, where people feel able to walk over the threshold. Jesus tended to go where people are (from village to village) and meet their needs, whether that was acceptance, forgiveness or healing of some kind.
Look at the response of Zacchaeus. By feeling accepted by Jesus, he is convicted by his selfish behaviour and wants to make amends, this is first stage repentance.
"But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord,“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything,I will pay back four times the amount.” Luke 19:8
When we feel like we belong we begin to think of others, we want to change. Our individualism is replaced with community. I actually think community is a key strategy to winning and growing disciples (that's for another blog).
"Jesus said to him,“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:9-10
Notice that salvation comes to "this house" because Zacchaeus already belongs, he is a son of Abraham. This works on two levels. Zacchaeus is Jewish, from the family of Abraham, and he is displaying the faith of Abraham, trusting in God to go on a journey.
In Galatians 3:7 Paul, writing to Gentiles, says, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” Paul spent a lot of time convincing his Jewish contemporaries that the Gentiles could belong.
Many people who feel excluded from the gospel also feel excluded from faith and church family. That's why belonging often comes before believing (not always but often). We need to address the heart issue first. In order for people to have faith they often need to be invited into a space of acceptance. If they are in community it is easier to adopt the family values.
On the Lighthouse bus many of the teenagers heard the gospel once they felt like we loved them for who they are. A number chose to form a community of faith, those who were more serious about exploring who God is, we did Youth Alpha. Some of them got baptised. That group lasted for around three years until many of them left school and moved on to new jobs or locations.
Belonging comes before believing. Now some years later a number of the teens are young mums in their twenties and come into our cafe with stories of how they loved bible bash. They still feel loved, accepted and belong.
How can we apply this principle in our situation? Ask yourself, where are the spaces of belonging? Do you have third spaces that are accessible? Or are you connected into places where people already work and live, can you connect to their world before expecting them to come to ours? The good news needs a healthy environment to create good soil where seeds can be planted and grow.
If you have examples of this please feel free to share them.