Last week, something happened that had never happened before: people read my blog (a lot of people!).
Outside of a handful of gracious friends and family members, my blog had remained relatively unread for the past three years. But something about my most recent post apparently prompted a whole bunch of shares (I’m guessing it was the click-bait title), because I had over 16,000 readers check in over the course of three days.
One of the side effects of this surprise boost in readership was a sudden onslaught of feedback, mostly from complete strangers. The majority of comments were supportive and encouraging, but not everyone loved what I had to say. The criticism that came back varied, but the most prominent and intriguing rebuttal went like this:
“Choosing a church because they treat you like family seems unwise. Shouldn’t your choice of church be based on the accuracy of the church’s theology, not on the strength of their hospitality?”
Unlike some of the less articulate critiques of my post, these comments really made me think. Was my reason for joining my church foolish? After all, good churches aren’t the only communities capable of hospitable acts; cults, gangs, and Klans can be just as welcoming to those in need of a family. If any community, regardless of integrity, has a capacity for hospitality, what makes my reason for joining my church compelling?
To be honest, I’m not sure I picked the right church, nor am I sure I picked it for the right reason. The point of my post wasn’t to recommend a process for choosing a church, nor was it a sales pitch for the Church of Christ. I was just hoping to offer an honest depiction of the journey that led me into this particular family.
That said, my reason for joining the Church of Christ still doesn’t seem so bad to me. In fact, I’m convinced that it’s the primary—if not best—reason people join a church.
While I understand the “choose the church with the right theology” argument, it simply doesn’t resonate with my experience. I’ve never met anyone for whom theology was the initial, central on-ramp to church (they probably exist; I’ve just never met them). Everyone I know—from first-time Christians to church kids choosing churches as adults—joined their church because someone in that church loved them. Grandma took them to mass before Christmas dinner. Their college roommates invited them to small group. The church across the street bought them groceries when they were most in need. Someone sometime extended the welcome of Jesus, even before they knew the family that was welcoming them.
“People must belong before they believe” has become a sort of catch phrase among church planters and evangelists as of late. This observation is descriptive, not prescriptive; it’s simply true that for almost everyone, belonging comes before believing. Hospitality precedes theology.
More significantly, choosing a church based on its theology seems impossible because—and this is the point that I’ve wasted 450 words trying to get to—no church contains a single, homogeneous theology. Each church family is filled with theologies; within every congregation exists a widely diverse collection of beliefs and opinions about God.
Take my church for example. There are all sorts of views on God, church, the Bible, and society in my little congregation. If we took enough time and asked enough questions, we’d discover that no two people in our family agreed entirely on every theological issue. Each of us is the only individual in our church who believes exactly what we believe.
Which means that we all must be wrong about something (or at least all but one of us). Each of us holds inaccurate/incomplete views of God and God’s people. We’re all heretics.
This doesn’t mean that theology doesn’t matter to my church, nor does it mean that we have no theological agreement; the vast majority of our family shares a number of central beliefs and values (one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one baptism, one God, etc.). There is an expectation that every committed member of our family confess these core beliefs, and rightly so.
However, no one could choose our church because our theology perfectly matches their own, because there is no such thing as my church’s theology (at least not in the intricate, systematic sense that most Christians have in mind when they ask about my “church’s theology”). If there was, whose beliefs would it be based on? The elders’? The ministers’? Each of the members of our church leadership team holds beliefs that are unique to them. Imposing a complex, monolithic theological system on our family would compromise the integrity of each individual and stifle the work of God’s Spirit in our community.
So instead, we choose unity over uniformity. We’re convinced that our diversity is a strength, that our disagreements over truths draw us closer to the Truth. In our plurality of theologies, we embrace a single hospitality, welcoming strangers—even those strangers within our own family—in the same way God welcomed us while we were still strangers.
Hospitality may precede theology, but the two are not mutually exclusive. The hospitality that welcomed me into this family is central to the identity of our Father. It’s deeply theological.