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Fall 2000 · Vol. 29 No. 2 · pp. 185–90 

Ministry Compass

Belonging and Believing

Rick Bartlett

He came to the weekend event to have a laugh. He lived his life for the next level of exhilaration, usually brought on either by drugs or by skateboarding, and sometimes both. But this was no ordinary weekend. This was a youth event organized by Norwich Youth for Christ, and it involved times of worship, teaching, and prayer.

One of the leaders spoke on Psalm 23 and the specific verses where God lays a table before David in the presence of his enemies. To illustrate this amazing banquet, a huge table was laid out with cakes and cups of Coke and Dr. Pepper. This young man said later that for the first time he sensed the presence of God, that he belonged somehow, and that there was joy in that place.

Preconversion postmodern young people are looking for a relevant lifestyle and for its embodiment in a group which is safe and welcoming.

After the “banquet,” he went out and prayed for the first time, “God, if you’re real, give me a high like I experience with drugs.” Graciously and mysteriously God granted his request, and the next night he was standing in front of the venue telling this story: “I never experienced God before yesterday.” As he walked down from the stage, another young person came up and offered to pray with him, and he turned his life over to Christ. This young man found in the weekend retreat environment a place to belong and then to experience faith. {186}


Should a Christian youth worker look for conversion before allowing a young person to join their group? Or is it okay to “belong” before they “believe?”

I find the theories of John Westerhoff particularly insightful on this issue. In his book, Will Our Children Have Faith? (New York: Seabury, 1976), Westerhoff takes the “faith development” theory of Emory University’s James Fowler one step further. Both Fowler and Westerhoff come from a Christian perspective, but Fowler defines faith development as a human universal. In Fowler’s theory, “faith” is broader than religion, and all human beings have it regardless of religious or nonreligious upbringing. Westerhoff defines faith within a specific Christian context, calling his work “spiritual development” as a way of differentiating it from Fowler’s approach.

Fowler’s faith development is a sequentialist theory in the style of Jean Piaget or Erik Erikson. In contrast, Westerhoff describes faith in several styles using the image of a tree with concentric rings. The person remains in the “tree” of faith and retains each style as they developmentally progress to the following faith style.


Westerhoff identifies four “rings” that an individual passes through on his or her journey of spiritual development. Adapting Westerhoff’s terminology a bit (79-103), the rings may be called experiencing, joining, searching, and owning styles of faith (fig. 1). Here are some brief definitions of each step of growth.

Fig. 1
  • The center circle is experiencing. This stage is linked to childhood, and the key is for children to experience the faith community as a place where they feel loved and accepted. {187}
  • The second circle is joining. This is a stage in early adolescence and is a time when the young person looks to belong to a faith community and to join “God’s family.”
  • The third circle is searching. This stage corresponds to later adolescence and the natural shift in intellectual capacity. To use Piaget’s terminology, one moves from concrete to formal operations. Adolescents are questioning their experience of faith, the church, and what they have been taught, as well as the experiences of others.
  • The fourth circle is owning. This is a stage during adulthood when the person makes a decision to believe and personalize what they have been taught as a child. This person is now believing because they want to.

It is important to note that in his book, Westerhoff is looking at the situation of children and young people who grow up in the church. Our focus is different in two ways. First, it begins with adolescents rather than children, and second, it can also address those with little or no church background. We thus need to modify Westerhoff’s model in two ways. We still must begin with experiencing even though the person is an adolescent and not a child. Second, as the unchurched young person encounters a faith community, we must consider that searching and experiencing happen together (fig. 2). From there such young people move (we hope) to joining. Whether they must “leave” the community in a second ring of searching before they attain owning is outside the focus of this article.

Fig. 2


How should a pastor or youth pastor use this information? Are developmental psychological theories really relevant to Christian life and ministry? Let me suggest some insights which I have drawn from Westerhoff. {188}


The ring of experiencing faith can be considered in two aspects: (1) experiencing God in worship, nature, and through His Word, and (2) experiencing the faith community, a place to belong, to fit in, and to feel at home, much like the young man from Norwich. The latter aspect is where “belonging” before “believing” begins. Youth workers need to look for ways to help young people have experiences in the faith community as well as to experience the transcendent.

This leads us to consider, in fact, whether it is actually possible for a person to “belong” to God alone. Might it be that belonging needs something more tangible? For the young man from Norwich, through the free food and drinks as well as other demonstrations he began to experience a taste of genuine Christian community.

Something tangible for a young person might begin with an individual, such as a youth worker. But a single person will never be adequate in themselves. A significant challenge of youth work is incarnating Jesus not only as an individual but also as a community. For only something larger—a team, a community which represents some of the diversity of God’s kingdom—is adequate enough to accomplish the belonging needs of those we are attracting. Thus we must continually ask whether we are finding ways to create community and shared experiences for someone to be part of so that he or she can truly belong.


Preconversion postmodern young people are not looking for an apologetic for the faith, at least not overtly. Instead, they are looking for a relevant lifestyle—a real and active Christian witness—and, more importantly, for its embodiment in a group which is safe and welcoming.

Research by Youth for Christ in Britain has determined that one of the areas where young people are experiencing loss is in the domain of love and security. From my continuing contacts in the U.S., I am certain that this is true there as well. It appears that many teenagers are growing up in a world where they are not valued as unique individuals, wanted neither by society nor by their families. Building on Westerhoff’s theory, the best way to reach these young people may be to provide a place for them to belong. Perhaps a model which recognizes the importance of experiencing and joining as a prelude to belief will address the needs of this generation in a way that will enable them to listen.

We would do well to consider the significance of “rites of passage” events that take place around an individual’s thirteenth birthday in many cultures and societies. In the church there are confirmation classes at {189} around this same time, and for those of the believers church tradition, most churched young people are baptized and join the church at around twelve or thirteen.

Youth work which takes this into account would provide opportunities for churched and nonchurched young people to “join” as an important step toward owned faith. For me, it is important to make this as meaningful and relevant as possible, moving beyond the mere words “you are a member” to actually giving the young person responsibilities in the church.

In the past, the uniformed youth organizations like Boys or Girls Brigade grew by tapping into this part of spiritual development. I am not advocating a return to uniforms necessarily, but creative people need to consider how rites of passage might accomplish belonging to a group as a way to share Jesus with young people.

One way this is being addressed in Britain is through Rock Solid Clubs, a Youth for Christ initiative for eleven-to-fourteen year olds. Young people are given a chance to join in and be a part of the “club,” a program that is exciting, relevant, and fun. From humble beginnings of nine clubs in the Northeast of England, there are now over two hundred clubs involving over twenty-five hundred young people around the United Kingdom.


What is a leader to do with all the annoying, antagonistic questions that teenagers ask about God and the church? If, as Westerhoff suggests, searching is a normal part of a person’s faith development, then how churches and Christian youth workers deal with the questions of young people is a key step to belonging. This third area is probably the one that is the most difficult. How do you make a young person feel welcome when he or she is questioning, sometimes even mocking your beliefs? If this behavior is part of the emancipation process of becoming an adult, then here is where the hard work comes in. Sometimes for the leader to just recognize this as a normal part of life is enough to develop more of an openness to work at helping these young people belong.

Training a youth group to be both an accepting and questioning place is one way that searching can be integrated into experiencing, and then into belonging. Imagine a young person with whom you come into contact. If you can provide him or her with an opportunity both to experience God and to belong to your community, this could be the first step at moving them closer to making a decision for Christ. Suppose you have a program for younger teens that they can join. Anything from a Rock Solid Club to a skateboarding club can provide a place where the {190} young people belong.

For those who are searching, belonging provides a safety net within which they explore questions without worrying whether they will be thrown out. They have the security of a Christian environment where they can express strange or even unorthodox viewpoints without being addressed like I once overheard: “Sit down, shut up, and have a cup of tea.”


One danger in emphasizing belonging over believing needs to be mentioned. Can a Christian be too soft on belonging and thereby open the door too widely and “water down” the gospel? I have been concerned sometimes when I have met with “friendship evangelism” youth workers who are trying so hard to relate and provide an accepting friendship with young people that they never even identify themselves as a Christian.

Yes, we do need to provide belonging. But we must also realize the cross is a stumbling block, and Jesus’ call to the disciples was “Follow me.” This should not be a club which never challenges lifestyle or behavior, but one which is both accepting and challenging. Somehow Christian youth workers need to walk this tightrope if they hope to bring young people into the kingdom and not just build up a good relationship.

Should a young person belong before he or she believes? Absolutely. In fact, I am convinced it is a necessary step in the spiritual development process.

Originally from California and with previous youth pastoring experience, Rick Bartlett, with wife Karen and two children, has worked the past seven years in Britain for Youth for Christ. Currently Assistant to the National Director for YFC, he travels and speaks widely as an “11-14’s Specialist.” Rick received his M.Div. from the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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