The latest book “exposing” Scientology is “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” by Lawrence Wright.
The author mixes journalistic methods with something of a sociology of religion study to demonstrate just how powerful the hold Scientology can have on its adherents.
I have no interest in parsing the tenets of Scientology or in exposing the secrets of that or any other organization.
What interests me is Wright’s conclusion that what keeps even nominal “believers” in Scientology is their investment in the Scientology community.
Wright claims that when a prominent member of the Scientology community was presented with the deeper, secret teachings of his religion, he considered it madness, yet he stayed in the religious context of Scientology.
“He was glued into the community,” Wright said. “His family was all deeply involved in it; it had helped him in his career. He felt that some of what they call ‘technology’ in Scientology, which is its approach to human behavior, had been helpful to him. And there was not a triggering event [to make him leave].”
This strange attachment that the subject in Wright’s book seems to have with a religion – that even that subject called “madness” – is what piqued my interest.
Does theology even matter in our religious expression? Is a congregation of like-believing individuals no more than that – a gathering of people to which we feel a sense of belonging?
A recent article by Robert Dilday connected with this same idea of the powerful attractive force of belonging to a particular religion by exploring the three-word mission statement of Gayton Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.: “Belong, Believe, Become.”
His point is that churches today need to foster a sense of belonging among those being brought into the congregation to hear the Gospel.
Rather than an older, modern version of ministry (Believe, Belong, Become), which places the emphasis on orthodoxy, this rearranging of the motivations of a church’s ministries reflects the postmodern impulse in evangelism.
Does the church necessarily need to make “belonging” a priority over demonstrating correct belief to those who seek to know God more fully in our congregations?
Certainly, we need to develop an atmosphere of discipleship that encourages faithful and correct belief in the person and work of Jesus Christ, but the order of words in a slogan should not be interpreted as a priority of ministry.
It is an unnecessary dichotomy to say that we must develop a sense of belonging before (both temporally and ontologically) we develop a sense of believing.
The church makes disciples by living out its theological convictions in real time rather than by simply talking, preaching or singing about them.
The theology of a church is its welcoming, affirming, embracing atmosphere into which it brings those seeking God.
We cannot separate the theology that we believe from the sense of belonging that should be present in the community of faith.
Back to Scientology. The man interviewed by Wright stayed in a religion for years, even after he stopped “believing” the tenets of that faith. What kept him?
He had a sense of familial belonging that overcame his intellectual and spiritual hesitation of belief.
It was more valuable for him to stay in a religion and belief structure that he could not fully embrace because of the close community of the Scientology church.
Although there have been reports of cult-like behaviors concerning people who attempt to leave the church of Scientology, there is apparently a strong sense of belonging developed among the adherents of that religion.
Entire families, social circles and work relationships are bound up in the church, thereby reinforcing the sense of belonging the members feel.
What can we learn about community and the generation of a sense of belonging from Scientology?
We cannot, and should not, adopt the cultish practices of that religion, but certainly we can see that belonging is at least as important as believing.
Our churches do, indeed, need to encourage visitors, hangers-on, “ChrisEaster” members and the wider community of the church to develop a sense of belonging.
In our Christian context, we must encourage one another to see ourselves as members of Christ’s body, as members of God’s people, as belonging to the great story of Christianity that has been told for thousands of years.
In our preaching, welcoming and embracing of the world in the name of Christian belonging, though, we cannot bifurcate theology and the welcoming, disciple-making atmosphere of the congregation.
The atmosphere of Christ’s love and welcome is the foundation of our theology.
In His embrace of humanity in the Incarnation, and especially in his cross for the sake of humanity, we see the combination of theological truth and spiritual embrace.
We must not be like Scientology in our evangelism or our treatment of those who leave.
But we would do well to see that there is eternal value in the theological/social presence of Christ that must be exemplified in every church’s ministry.
Brock Ratcliff is a minister at Madison Chapel in Madison, Miss. He also teaches mathematics and computer science at Clinton Alternative School in Clinton, Miss. A version of this column appeared on his blog, Fides Quaerens Intellectum, and is used with permission.