We all like to belong to something. No matter who we are or where we come from, our identity is somehow wrapped up in belonging. Even those who seek to be different from the majority of society still find their belonging in being a part of a different kind of crowd.
Growing up, you could really tell who belonged to what group. Their style of clothing, the music they listened to, and their after school activities all said something about the group to which they were affiliated. There were the rockers, the jocks, the skaters, the gangsters, the wanna-be gangsters, the nerds, the teacher’s pets, etc.
As we try to figure people out, we often put them into a category or box, believing we have figured out what they are like, even before we know them. This can be frustrating, especially for those who like to push the boundaries and don't want to be defined by arbitrary characteristics.
For example, I attended a catholic high school in Toronto, separate from the public school system. In that school, I was part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, different from the regular students. Within our two classes, I became really close with a group of guys, and we were named "Brown Town." Yes, we were all brown.
Being a part of Brown Town, in the IB program, in my school, defined my identity to a great extent. And it’s not like we were exclusive, but we just really enjoyed hanging out together. We were happy when others joined us, even if their skin wasn’t brown.
This way of categorizing ourselves into groups based on specific criteria is the way our world functions. We have Winnipeg Jets fans, and we have Toronto Maple Leaf fans. The Leaf fans wish they could probably be Jets fans, but it doesn’t work like that. These are two bounded sets that are distinct from each other, and you are either in or out.
Unfortunately, bounded-set thinking is how we have defined Christianity for a long time. And it isn't necessarily those on the outside, but those on the inside who have defined what it means to be a Christian. They determined what a Christian looks like, what a Christian does, and what a Christian confesses to believe. And if you meet that criteria, you’re in. If you don’t, you’re out.
This way of thinking, although potentially helpful, has divided the church and society in unhelpful ways. Most significantly, it has given us perceived license to label people as “in” or “out” when it comes to the family of God.
When someone doesn’t look like a Christian (whatever that means), we put them outside that box. When they don’t listen to the right music, use the right language, spend as much time in church as we do, we assume they can’t be Christians. We label them as lost and in need of our saving. But very often we think that in order to be saved they need to become just like us. This is when evangelism fails and turns away many people from faith.
There is a different way of looking at faith and Christianity that isn’t defined by bounded sets, but by a centred set. In the centre is Jesus. And instead of all of us being either in or out of God's family, we find ourselves at different distances from the centre. But the important thing is not our proximity to the centre, but the direction in which we are moving. Are we moving closer to the centre, closer to God in faith, or are we moving further away, choosing to ignore God in our lives?
Our directions change at different points in life. We may start out far away from wanting to have anything to do with God but then start wanting to move closer to the centre. Or we have grow up in the church, knowing all the Sunday School Bible stories and answers but drifting away and choosing to trust in other things rather than God. The journeys of our lives are rarely straight; rather they are crooked, changing speeds and trajectories.
This model of faith is one that we see Jesus subscribing to all the time. In His day, there were religious groups that thought they had it figured out. They knew who was in and who was out, and they were always in. But Jesus brushed them aside, calling out their hypocrisy and going to those whom religious institutions had deemed to be lost.
When Jesus encounters these people, He encounters people who are hurting, lonely, forgotten, and outcast. He encounters prostitutes, tax collectors, and the sick. They are the people we would be sure to label as being out. But Jesus takes the time, listens, and recognizes the faith that they do have. For some, that faith is tiny. They want to believe but are having a hard time doing so. But Jesus doesn’t discard them. He recognizes that they are moving in the right direction and encourages them to keep going.
This is not to say that the Bible doesn't use divisive language. The problem of good and evil is enough to tell us that they can't both exist at the same time. "In" and "out" language is used, but it's a function that is reserved for God. We, as fellow humans, are never told to be judges of peoples lives and journeys. Our job is not to determine who's in or out.
What if we did evangelism this new way? What if we, instead of trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out, recognized that all people are on a journey. What if we, instead of convincing people of what we already believe, recognize where people are at and help to nudge them closer to the centre? What if we, instead of focusing only on changing others as if we have it all figured out, recognize that we too continue to grow and learn, very often from those we try to help?
The difference is one of mindset, of paradigm. And it’s a shift that we, as those who traditionally see ourselves as the “in” group, need to make. And as we do, we will quickly find that God is already at work in so many ways in the lives of people we might have labelled as being “out.” And we will also quickly learn that God continually pulls us closer to the centre, closer to Him, with a lot of distance yet to cover.