Belong, Believe, Become

Belong, Believe, Become February 23, 2011

The following post was written by Nathan Albert, Director of Pastoral Care at 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 we’re 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.

For more on the this, reference my sermon “Belong Believe Become” given at New Community Covenant Church on Jan. 2nd, 2011 (

Much love.

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20 responses to “Belong, Believe, Become”

  1. I really liked this article by Nathan. It truly addresses the “elephant in the room”. I think the church has to change its entire paradigm respect to GLBT folks. Those of us who belong to Mainline Liberal Protestant Denominations are way ahead of many of churches with respect to this. We have been asking people from many walks of life to join us just as they are. No stipulations.

    “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.”

    Does this quote mean that if GLBT folks are intentionally welcomed into conservative congregations with open arms that THEN God will “convict” their hearts regarding their sin of homosexuality–and THEN they will decide to become straight or celibate? The language in this paragraph seems imply that sinners(gays) should be invited into the church..BUT It seems to STILL make the assumption that are gayness(sinfulness) is still assumed–and that clearly if we DO decide to attend that God will speak to our heart and soul and we(GLBT folks) will either change our orientation or ask us to be celibate.

    I think I have been around here long enough to know that this is NOT what this paragraph means but I would like more clarification. As long as the evangelical/conservative churches operate from a theology of assuming that the act of being and acting upon as sinful–then really nothing will be achieved mainly because its the same message packaged in a different format.

    I do NOT think that GLBT folks are asking for everyone in the evangelical/conservative church to agree them BUT I think asking them to come into their churches with an atmosphere of “your lifestyle is wrong” will be unproductive. There are wayyy too many other christian churches that welcome GLBT folks just as they are.


    • Hey Jack!

      Thanks for the comment. Hopefully I can clarify some things for you and I know others have been asking the same question. I do not mean to imply that once LGBT individuals are in the church, then they should be convinced/convicted to be straight or celibate. I will say that I believe the Gospel compels us to transformation. What that transformation looks like is obviously different for each person. And I think we should allow the transformation happen in its own way- I don’t control that. Nor do I have the job of labeling “sin” in someone else’s life. Some people will obviously argue that transformation will include celibacy or becoming straight- and that was not my intention to imply those thoughts.

      I’ve seen too many churches working on a Behave Believe Belong model and I’ve grown tired of it and I do not think it works. It promotes guilt, legalism, and self-righteousness; three things I think that have no place in the church.

      • Thanks for the clarification. I guess what I am saying is that assuming a GLBT person were to be welcoming into an evangelical church (although I am not sure why given the track record), the members would have to operate from the paradigm that the GLBT person has nointerest in changing their sexual orientation or behavior–this I believe is the ULTIMATE challenge for conservative churches.

        Something else I got from the article is that someone who enters into an evangelical church that they would THEN be transformed. It might be true that someone comes to meet God in a personal way but often times many folks (including GLBT) are already connected to their faith and are simply looking for a church home. I realize I am probably implying a lot from what I read but from the lense that I read this, it also sounded like it assumed someone didn’t have a relationship with God.

        When I search for an Episcopal Parish, I search for a community of believers that want to engage people where they are–I do not necessarily expect them to transform my belief. It may be the case that I will continue to grow in Christ while being a member of that parish. I realize I am probably speaking from an Anglican approach to Christianity which is somewhat different that an evangelical approach. Anyways…just my random thought this evening.

  2. The more I read this blog, the more I just don’t even want to bother to talk to conservative christians. It has the opposite effect of a bridge, it seems like a nightmare to nowhere. With so many really loving liberal churches out there, and so much wonderful gay and lesbian centered theology, why do we bother? We have to fight them in the streets, and over federal and state laws, but as institutions, I think any self-respecting adult gay person would not want to be caught dead in those places. The only thing I can think of that would have value would be for large groups of gays and lesbians to join conservative churches all at once, and be a witness and lifeline to the kids growing up in those chambers of horror.

    • Hi jJoniJJ,

      I’m more than willing to talk to conservative Christians for you. 🙂 I have a lot to learn from you. I think conservative Christians have a lot to learn in general (not solely about sexuality). So, your voice is appreciated.

      And, I hear your frustration and hope to empathize in light of my limitations. I’m sorry things are so nightmarish for you.

      The reason I bother is because I think the Church can be better. Step by step, that’s what I’m trying to do.

  3. Hi –
    Phyllis Tickle covers the shift from Behave, Believe, Belong to Belong, Behave, Believe in her work, and we’ve found this shift to be true for our congregation outside DC. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of ministry to GBLT friends. Thanks for a good post.

    • Hi Jan,

      Thanks so much for the info about Phyllis Tickle. I didn’t know she had information on it. I’ll have to look her up.

  4. Nathan,
    I love this simple concept, and I especially love the line from the book “Our call is to share God’s grace, not decide who gets it”.
    It is my opinion that “the church” or Christianity is perceived as judgmental b/c the traditional Church, as people interact with it, is an institution. Functioning as an institution, it has to draw dogmatic lines and hold opinions on black and white issues. So regardless of whether those stances are on homosexuality or tithing, if an individual has a different opinion or lifestyle, then there will be an aspect of judgment that comes from the institution.
    The Christianity and Christians and I know, as individuals, are able to practice a faith that is more in line with Belong, Believe, Become. People such as yourself are reconciling and healing broken or sinful people, including themselves.
    The barrier, I believe, for real progress lies within the “institutional church’s” ability to step outside of it’s typecast as dogmatic and judgmental, and grow to be a more accurate representation of the love and grace that it’s individuals are living.

  5. I have a question.

    How exactly can gay people belong in a conservative church? If they can’t get married or become priests, will they feel at home?

    Brian Dokter made a good point that a traditional church functions as an institution. And it’s problematic because some traditional policies are pushing gay people away from the entire institution, which in turn makes it easier for conservative Christians not to re-examine these policies. It’s a vicious circle. I see only two solutions:

    1) The church can behave less like an institution. For example, pro-gay priests should be free to marry gay couples, but anti-gay priests should not be forced to.
    2) The church can become gay-friendly on its own.

    Both solutions aren’t that realistic. So how exactly can the “Belong, Believe, Become” model work in this situation?

    • Eugene,

      I think you clearly distilled what I was asking in my posts above. Excellent way to say what I was thinking! 🙂

  6. Though some will be shocked (proving how little they really know me), I agree with the sentiment Nathan expresses in this post. Christians have no justification for excluding GLBT people from church fellowship. That is precisely where they belong. Shame on us for getting it backwards.

    How do we think hearts can be transformed (however that looks — it’s up to God and the individual doing the transacting with Him — when we force gay people to stand outside the “temple courtyard”? Psalm 84 declares, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” Amen!

    Would I rather see a gay person humbling himself/herself before God, in fellowship/discipleship in a community of mature believers (whether or not he/she “changes”), who realize how hopeless their lives would be apart from Christ than to see that same person wounded, angry and bitter from being shut out? You bet! Good Lord, the second scenario virtually guarantees making an enemy of that person.

    It is not up to any Christian, as another comment above reminds us, to decide who receives grace and how or when it is dispensed. Such hubris is killing the Church. God is big enough to handle this, if we let him.

    Now, I am well aware that some here are hoping such a changed attitude within the Church would lead to affirming homosexuality rather than leaving the process of where this could go in God’s hands. Is that not rather like deciding how God’s grace is dispensed, however? Think about it. If we trust God, no matter which side of this issue we come from, are we not able to let Him do what He wills? It seems to me this divide comes down to the issue of that trust. We can’t modify God’s purposes or His timetable. Each side is seeking to do that in its own way.

  7. I think all gays and lesbians need to be very protective of themselves. Because what conservative christians are trumpeting every day is the most horrifying anti-gay stereotypes–mostly anti-gay male, as they are very patriarchal and erase women… God the father, means women are frozen out of being in the image of God, that sort of thing.
    I have to face a very hostile world every day. I deal with homophobia and woman hatred everywhere–porn, objectifying women’s bodies, being discriminated against in wages, not being fully represented in government, having to listen to men lecture all the time at conferences…
    If you want to develop the hightest possible personal relationship with Jesus, Mary, Goddess… the saints… you have to really experience this as a fully self-loving lesbian or gay person. And I turn to the most gay positive stuff I can. There are two very different god languages out there — there is the conservative christian god language, and the lesbian god language– and we may even be using the very same terms, but the meanings are vastly different.
    So we are not even speaking the same god language, or living by the same moral code. We are not on the same page, which is really what is alienating about all of conservative christianity… it seems at best hopelessly old fashioned and women demeaning, and at worst cruel, bigoted, bullying and excluding.
    So no, conservative churches wouldn’t really know how to include out gay people, and they wouldn’t at all feel welcoming to me. When I go out with my partner, I want to make sure she is treated very well. I want no grief, no hostility, no meanness coming her way. She is handicapped, and can’t be exposed to the toxic waste of blantant homophobia from churches.
    We’re just not going to be in dialogue with conservative christians because they have no intention of responding to where we are.
    What is a miracle is liberal churches and their incredible outreach to all gays. UCC, Episcopal churches… heck, we even bumped into a retired gay male episcopal priest the other day at the hospital, and we were very upset at the health issues we were dealing with, and some angel must have sent this man to us… retired, deeply closeted while he was an active priest, and now here he is doing such incredible ministry to a lesbian couple in a scary waiting room! Now that folks is christianity and god at work. It would have been horrifying if some conservative Rick Warren or bible thumping idiot pastor had been in the same waiting room… because then we would have been dissed as a lesbian couple, negated and erased and so inauthentic at a time when we were in crisis. And that is what I hate so much about conservative gay hating christians out there… they have driven so many of us out of the church forever, and I think they have turned an entire community against the bible, against outdated worship, against trust.
    To do this kind of damage is so horrifying, and I’ve been on the receiving end of it for so long, that there is no way in hell I would ever want to talk to a conservative christian group ever. I will protect and defend myself against that evil hatred, that exclusionary gay hating stereotypical gay bashing that they do every day in every way.
    So, bumping into that retired priest yesterday struck me as god always reaching out in the best way… but even he was coded in that waiting room, and said “oh I’m a friend of ________” gay code for I’m one of the club, and this elderly man made me smile, because he’s old school old gay, and I revere that generation that was so closeted, and yet so present. We even had a good laugh over the bad old days in the church—“Hey back then it was don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t get caught” he said. Laughing over the horrors of the past, the shared horror of living closeted lives is something I hope a new generation of gay people never has to go through, and conservative christians always want us to shut up and go back in the closet, and I’ll never forgive them for what the do NEVER!!

    • Joni,
      I am so sorry for what you have experienced! I guess I would call myself a conservative Christian, but I can’t tell you how sad your post makes me feel. You are His beloved! I pray that the behavior of some Christians doesn’t keep you from fully knowing the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

  8. Remember that Andrew’s ministry is to bridge the gap & if there is no gap, he has nothing to do. Since there is still a huge gap in certain churches, he has a lot to do & we need to help him.
    Many of my Evangelical friends overreact to certain things like civil unions. I often don’t say anything. It isn’t worth arguing about.
    I welcome your comments. If you are in or near Chicago, you & your partner should come to Andrew’s events. You both will be welcome. If someone mistreats you, Andrew will say something. No one should mistreat anyone in his meetings! ((HUGS))

  9. I am very sympathetic to Jack Harris’ comments, which I take fundamentally to be: If you’re simply allowing us (GLBT) to ‘feel’ more welcome by not ‘insisting upfront’ that we somehow must change or refrain, yet the undercurrents remain ‘change’ and ‘refrain’, then it won’t work. Essentially, it amounts to some sort of bait and switch methodology, and such often does more harm than good, i.e., the GLBT could start out thinking that acceptance is present, but finding out later that such was not the case, i.e., betrayal.

    So what is being advocated? If they are claiming that the church has no prophetic calling to identify and take action on sin in her midst, then they understand neither the nature nor the calling of the church in our current age, where two kingdoms coexist by sovereign decree. Tolerance is needed on the level of mutual co-existence within God’s intended pluralistic time line, but tolerance outside the church has different criteria than inside, and she must not forget this. Nor do I think leaving all discernment of sin to the individual is an option. Happily, I don’t think either of these, though present in some measure, is what is being advocated by the Marin Foundation, for such have no basis in the Scriptures.

    What is implied, but not pronounced, is that the Scriptures are ‘not clear’ and thus we need to suspend our ‘collective determination’ on this issue and live with an allowance of various perspectives. I do believe that scholarship has muddied the waters, and a well-formed conscience does and should respond with tentativeness under legitimate concerns. I’d love to see their interpretive maneuvers. Thus far I have not been convinced by those who have attempted such, e.g., Paul was wrong, promiscuous homosexual behavior vs. faithful, et al.

    I believe the real driving force goes back to what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” For two generations now, evangelicals have been, statistically speaking, morally indistinguishable from those who claim no faith at all. And there’s a limit to what one can bear in allowing for oneself what one has denied to others (though our blindness does amaze me much of the time, e.g. economically speaking). Ironically, cheap grace fails to capture the depth and beauty of what love really is, which is why I think the church is so open to the notion of ‘belonging first’; I do affirm that Postmodernism has been beneficial for the church in many ways, e.g., inclusive welcoming vs. upfront confrontation etc. but, ironically, postmodernism has a tendency to sink into the very either/or thinking of modernity that they have so powerfully and eloquently critiqued. As I believe is here when tolerance is elevated to the exclusion of loving discipline.

    A sad and regretful consequence of cheap grace is that it lessens, and even distorts the very meaning of love. If the church is to exhibit love’s fullness, then discipline is necessary Why? Because all that is…isn’t good and right. Sin has disordered our affections, skewed our judgment and perverted our will and imagination.

    Pushing ‘belonging’ to the lessening of discipline has dysfunctional advantages, e.g., it keeps us out of conflict, and on some level makes us all feel better about ourselves. But it does so at a tremendous cost and consequence – it fails at precisely the point where Nathan and the Foundation wish to succeed, i.e., loving their neighbor. All of us deserve honest engagement, not a pretense of acceptance. Blurring lines, where lines are clear, might be in vogue with our culture’s climate, but I feel it does not succeed at compassionate, honest, engagement.

  10. I listened to the sermon Belong, Believe, Become over 6 months ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it! I see a need for change in the way the evangelical church relates to the gay community. The message of grace has been drowned out for too many by simultaneous and conflicting words of condemnation. I long to hear the strong, loving, grace filled gospel message of Jesus Christ shouted loud and clear — to all, with no exceptions. We ALL need grace. Belong, believe, become seems the way. I will work and pray for this!

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