Can I Belong? Even if I don't believe?

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“My wife and I don’t really believe in anything. Can we still bring our kids to your church?” This is the question posed a few weeks ago in a piece titled “Raising Kids Without God (But Maybe Not Without Religion).” The writer and his wife, both having grown up in a fairly conservative brand of fundamentalist Christianity have left this behind for something like agnosticism. Obviously burned by the church and particular ways of thinking about the divine, they nonetheless find themselves drawn to a religious community (this case Unitarian) for the good of their children, and maybe even themselves. He writes:

"I’d like my kids to have a place where they can contemplate essential, universal questions about what it means to live a good life. I’d like for them to be part of a community searching for something bigger than the joys and struggles of everyday life – even if this “something greater” isn’t God. And I’d like these things for myself, too."

Him and his wife find themselves are on the search for meaning, community, and spirituality. Yet, they are not sure if they should find a religious community or if they would be welcome if they did not fully “buy in.”

This is a common question I hear, especially people of my generation, as well as Gen X and Y. I read an article in the Globe and Mail a while back where a writer was extolling the virtues of religious communities, yet lamented that she could never “buy in” to particular beliefs, implying that this would automatically exclude her from participation. There’s some sense out there in our culture that one has to “sign on” or buy in fully to the convictions of a faith community before they could ever be involved. This perception makes some sense in their own experience with a branch of the Christian family that likely showed outright hostility to non-believers. But it’s also a reasonable perception in that in the past few centuries the Christian church has often presented the faith as first and foremost a matter of intellectually assenting to specific doctrines. You attend a church community that fits your beliefs. As a result, to many outside the church, it looks like believing comes before belonging. It’s a perception that is hard to overcome.

Yet, my own experience has been the opposite. I recall going to a United Church in my late twenties and not really believing in much other than the politics I’d picked up in university. My longings were similar to his—a search for meaning, what it means to live a good life, and being part of a community wrestling with “something greater” that ordinary life. That community was not perfect and is not perfect in its welcome, certainly. Yet, I found myself welcomed without being doctrinally tested at the door. Eventually, my wife and I found ourselves more and more deeply committed to the life of the community and the Way of Jesus through baptism. Neither my wife and I “bought in” to anything at first. Nonetheless, it was that initial welcome and sense that we were welcomed and belonged there that made us call that community home and drew us in to the Christian journey. Belonging came before believing. Now, not only do I count myself among the people who call this story their own--I find myself as a credentialed storyteller!

So, if I were to be asked the same question: “My wife and I don’t really believe in anything. Can we still bring our kids to your church?” I’d respond with an “absolutely”! Not only has it been my own experience, gracious hospitality and generous welcome is deeply rooted in our tradition and a key piece of the biblical story. In the Old Testament, welcoming the stranger and the sojourner is a central practice of faith. In the New Testament Jesus seems to welcome and gather all sorts of unexpected people around him—no questions asked.  It’s part of who we are as the people of Jesus.

So, if you’ve already found yourself welcomed to this community—great! This is your chance to pass on the same hospitality that you’ve already received to those who come. And, if you find yourself drawn to our community for whatever reason, know that we welcome you and your children without pre-condition. No matter the state of your health, your personal life or where you are in terms of faith. Know you belong here first. Don’t be surprised, though if you leave things there. You may find yourself being drawn up in to this story like I did. You may find what you have been searching for--and more! Maybe God, even.