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Christianity is one of those communities where everyone believes the same things and enjoys the psychological benefits of their shared beliefs. But is it possible that there are “believers” in your community who accept the beliefs so they can be part of the group? They want the psychological benefits of belonging but have a disinterest in the beliefs. When the benefits of the community are more important than the community’s beliefs, there will be compromises within the community.
Being made in God’s image implies—among many things—a desire for a community. Our Trinitarian God is a community, and He made His image-bearers to where it was not good for them to be alone (Genesis 2:18). The gift of a community is essential to living well in God’s world. But after the fall of humanity, the desire for belonging became so significant and twisted that it did not matter what the shared beliefs were as long as we could be part of someone’s team.
For Christians, what we believe—theology—is the most vital thing about our connection with God and each other. But for every “believer,” what we believe is not the main thing. It would be inaccurate to assume that everyone in the room on Sunday morning holds the truths of God’s Word in the highest esteem. Many professed “followers of Christ” choose these communities for their benefit of them more than the nonnegotiable shared beliefs of the local body.
They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy-wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth (Hebrews 11:37-38).
The way with which you can test my thesis is when suffering or persecution comes to the community. If a believer believes what they believe as the supreme thing, they will endure the hardship, pain, or persecution while tenaciously holding on to the Christian faith to the bitter end. The person who seeks “psychological belonging” as the primary thing will peel off when the going becomes rough. They joined the group for “social belonging reasons” and the perks of being part of such a community. Let me quickly state that enjoying the benefits of a community does not have to be wrong.
It is personal suffering that challenges our faith more than anything else. Persecution is the litmus test that lets you know what you believe. In most first-world Christian communities, there is no cost for discipleship. We “become believers” for many reasons, e.g., friendship, reputation building, image enhancement, or desire-filling. The tension is that the benefits of belonging cannot be the primary reason for connecting. It’s about the accent mark; where do you place it: on the benefits of the community or the shared beliefs?
The day of belonging without adverse consequences is passing before our eyes, and if there is a dark side to the shared beliefs, the weaker soul will probably succumb to the temptation to leave because of the perishable benefits when the disappointment comes. This dark side between shared beliefs (primary motive) and communal belonging (psychological benefit) is not a unique problem within Christianity. People infiltrate every group to enjoy the privileges of the group. They do not have a “till death do we part” commitment to the organization.
Marriage: Couples enjoy the benefits of their private community (marriage), as they should. But not every spouse is decidedly committed to the presumed shared beliefs of the union, which is holy respect for the one-flesh covenant that they made before God. You’ll hear this as they talk about the relational benefits. They talk about how tertiary matters are continuously changing, e.g., communication, beauty, sex, prosperity, and connection. They may end the union if they don’t have a devout shared adherence to biblical marriage—primary motive. Then they reset as they look for the psychological benefits in another relationship—one with less friction.
Gangs: A street gang member enjoys the psychological benefits of identification with the group. They have their black jackets, emblems, and tattoos to show the world their communal belonging. If you want to test the allegiance of a gang member, pull him out of the group and talk to him privately. Perhaps you’ve done this with a rebellious teen. He was fierce in his community, secretly hoping someone would love him enough to help him. His deepest desire was for someone to go beyond his masked hurts—to provide an escape from the hellishness of his life. You will often find that this “facade of toughness” is not as bold, courageous, angry, resistant, or unwilling to accept your redemptive help. After you separate him from the shared psychological benefits of the group, his loyalty to the shared beliefs of the group is not as strong.
Millennials: You have witnessed two generations of kids who, after turning eighteen, left the church because they found a new community—with benefits. Some of them went to college. Others started their vocational careers. As youngsters, they played with the other church children, grew up with them, and ate worms in the youth group. There were mission trips, too. But their commitment to the shared beliefs (theology) was not nearly as important to them as the fun found in the community. When their friendships shifted to other contexts, i.e., college, they left their well-worn community for the psychological benefit of the next adventure. This problem is why sound theology is the most vital thing any parent or youth leader can teach a young person. If you win them with games and activities, you will not keep them because there are always more fun things to do in other places after they grow up. Long after the games, noise, and outings fade to black, the only essential thing is knowing God.
Political Groups: It is impossible to escape the political noise in our world. The Twitterverse is a hot, angry cloud of political opinion where keyboard warriors are boldly proclaiming their beliefs while enjoying the benefit of camaraderie with other like-minded combatants. There are scores of video interviews from those who have challenged the belief systems of these angry warriors. In those interviews, you see how what they believe is inconsistent at best and incoherent at worst. What they say they believe is nothing more than a safe passage into a community where the psychological benefits of acceptance and respect are vital things. They will tacitly promote their belief system, even though they can’t articulate the core tenets of membership.
The Lonely: When I was a teen, I chose a dark community of rebellious teens because they let me be part of the group. I did not care what they believed as much as my craving for their acceptance and approval. Their “shared beliefs” centered around beer drinking, weed smoking, and vandalizing. It sounded good to me. Who cares? It was only after landing in jail that there was a tension between the things we shared in common—breaking the law—and their approval of me: the psychological benefits. At that point, our shared beliefs did not matter. So I chose a different path from them, a new belief system that was law-abiding, and they promptly lost interest in me.
Vocation: My reaction to my former criminal community sent me searching for another group. It was the workplace. The type of job did not matter as long as I found belonging inside this new group. I learned the ropes, did as they did, and became like them. Once I discerned all the do’s and don’ts, I found new belonging, the psychological benefits, which was the main thing, even though some of my supervisors taught me things that bothered my conscience. The main thing was belonging, which teased me with the carrot of corporate advancement. Many Christian employees sacrifice their shared beliefs of the Christian community and replace them with the shared beliefs of their vocational community—at least between the hours of nine and five. This false dualism folds in on them at some point. You can’t press the truth of God out of your life without consequences (Romans 1:18).
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24).
The American Christian is facing a new day where our shared beliefs are no longer the social, accepted norm. We are a shrinking minority that millions of fellow Americans are growing to hate. This time in history is when what we say we believe goes under the angry surveillance, scrutiny, and reaction to the God-hating mob. They are the ones who determine what is acceptable. The persecution of believers will break many from their Christian communities because there is no more psychological benefit to being part of them.
Our reaction to persecution is the dangerous dark side that will challenge us to rethink our beliefs. The former earthly perks of Christianity are diminishing by the minute, while the vital need to know that you “believe what you believe” has never been more life-threatening. It would be natural to think that everyone who is part of any relationship is in it for the long haul. You could presume that there is nothing that can tear someone away from their community. This perspective is short-sighted. Surgical suffering and persecution will be the instrument in the hands of the Lord that will cause us to rethink why we believe what we believe. It will determine whether or not we will continue with other like-minded believers.
Are you part of your community because it’s more about what the group believes, or is it about the shared benefits of the group? Things like fellowship, understanding, opportunity, and personal growth. These “psychological benefits” do not have to be wrong, but they can’t be the main things. There is an order, and we must know this. What we believe about God is the foundation upon which we stand. If this is true for you, when the benefits of Christianity are not coming your way, you can continue to stand firm.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).