Sometimes, to borrow a phrase, we long to be in the church but not of it. We love Christ, but the church is full of people—and problems—we'd rather avoid. In Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe, Erin Lane, a divinity school graduate and pastor’s wife, explores her difficulty (and that of her millennial generation) in feeling fully devoted to the body of Christ. Laura Turner, a contributor to Her.meneutics, talked with Lane, a program director at the Center for Courage & Renewal, about the paradox of belonging and the practices that help to sustain commitments to others.
Such themes will also be explored in "Making Peace with Church: Finding Grace and Authenticity in an Age of Skepticism," a live online panel discussion co-hosted by Regent College and CT. Join Lane, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, Vancouver pastor Darrell Johnson, and theologian Hans Boersma this Tuesday, February 3, at 12pm PST as they discuss millennials' relationship to church and building authentic community in the body of Christ.
Why is the concept of belonging so important for the church at this moment?
Sometimes the world can feel overwhelming, especially among the younger people of my generation. There’s a really deep need to find our place in it. We have so many options for connecting with one another and all this pressure to make the most of them. But it’s often the case that the institutions that used to broker these connections—institutions like the church—are losing their influence.
The major premise of the book is that we’ve forgotten how to belong—to institutions, to one another—and we need to recover some basic practices that remind us of our interdependence. Part of the reason the word belong resonates with me is because it has this paradox built into it: We have to both be present to our circumstances even as we long for something more. But in my own life, finding that balance has become increasingly hard. The church could be a really rich place for that, but it can be confused about its identity, which makes young people like myself more confused about where to seek belonging.
If not in the church, where are people today finding the experience of belonging?
There’s a huge desire to experience belonging in an embodied way. We search for shared interests, like exercise groups—Crossfit, yoga, and Pure Barre. A great deal of belonging is created over food culture and being connoisseurs of things like coffee or beer—for me, it’s cupcakes.
I worry, though, about whether we’re doing enough to interact with people who don’t inhabit our particular lifestyle enclaves. I don’t see many examples of rich involvement in public spaces that are open to strangers and friends alike. That’s one of the unique features of the church, at least right now, that it offers a common space between your private friends and the larger community. I think we’re losing some of those rich public spaces where anyone can show up, regardless of fitness or food preferences or economic status and ability to work.
In the book, you emphasize the value of welcoming the stranger, but you’re also forthright about your discomfort in interacting with strangers. How can we work to welcome strangers while caring for ourselves?
Most of the time, I think we’re intended to interact with strangers in community. Especially being a young woman, I don’t feel especially compelled to initiate one-on-one relationships with strangers. I’m a huge fan of the biblical principle to going out two-by-two [Mark 6:7], because when we encounter strangers and are getting to know them, we don’t need instant intimacy.
This is a healthy way to interact with strangers because it creates some structure and boundaries. It could just be you and your friend, or you and your romantic partner, or something larger like a church community. This way, you don’t feel a burden of extend yourself to a place that’s not safe. Ultimately, the question of strangers and boundaries has to be discerned in community. For me, that means when I encounter strangers, whether it’s at church or through a volunteer organization or even walking downtown, I might try to be friendly and attentive, but I don’t put any pressure on myself to make a friend right away.
How can we encourage people in our churches to feel a sense of belonging?
I have a chapter in the book called “The Discipline of Showing Up” where I bring up the idea of wearing nametags at church. This is a really radical thing, and a lot of churches don’t do it anymore! There’s something powerful about hearing your name and seeing other people’s names and connecting that to the names we use in liturgy and prayer, and in talking about God and theology.
I also advocate for good small groups. Churches need to have spaces for groups with no other agenda than hearing the voice of God. It doesn’t have to be a Bible Study or a theology class, necessarily. It doesn’t have to be specifically generational. I think if you just open some space and say the sole purpose is to listen to God and ourselves—and we’re not going to “fix” or “save” or “advise” or “correct” anyone—people will feel freer to express some powerful things that might otherwise have gone unspoken.
Of course, the church needs spaces for correcting and teaching—I’m not at all saying that doesn’t need to happen. But when you give people permission to speak without judgment, something really powerful happens.
One of your themes is idea of earnestness, and how we’ve lost it in a “hipster” or ironic culture. What does the church lose when we don’t prize earnestness?
I think we lose vulnerability. We lose the ability to talk honestly about our heartbreak. A lack of earnestness, for me, is usually a control mechanism or a protective coating that says, “I don’t want to look like I want this too badly because if it doesn’t happen you’ll see it all over my face and I’ll feel stupid and embarrassed.” There’s a real fear that we’re not all in this together, that somehow we have to differentiate ourselves from people who have clear, unfulfilled longings.
One of my favorite questions to ask friends is, “What do you want? What do you go to bed wanting?” A lot of the first responses are, “I don’t know. I don’t really know what I’m longing for.” And that’s a problem with modern life: that we busy ourselves with a whole bunch of nothing, and lose that space within where we really get in touch with our longings. For me, earnestness is about honestly admitting to those longings and then, eventually, wondering what our response is: How do we cry out to God as a community? How do we start to become the hands and feet of Christ to make our longings real? Without those questions, I don’t see how we avoid whittling our days away responding to emails.
Toward the end of the book you write, “Now I see that homesickness is our spiritual condition.” What do you mean by that, and where do we go with it?
All of us are caught between longing and belonging. We get glimpses of places that feel like home; we get glimpses of people that feel like our people. We get glimpses of places that feel like sacred ground, and yet we lose them so quickly. Homesickness is our spiritual condition because, in terms of redemption history, we’re caught between Christ’s first coming and second coming, between what already is and what’s yet to come. So theologically it makes perfect sense that we are longing for a promised land we don’t yet inhabit.
On a more practical level we’re caught between the real and the ideal. We’re caught between these harsh realities we see around us and this wild hope for things we only see dimly. But we’ve begun to discern them—we’ve caught those glimpses—and now we’ve got a hunger for something that maybe we haven’t even seen. I find it fascinating that I can be homesick for somewhere I’ve never lived. But theologically, it just make so much sense.
Someone once asked me a question: “Have you ever thought you’re making this too complicated?” And I said, “Are you kidding me? This is so complicated!” Everything is a paradox to me—self and community, longing and belonging. They’re both true and real at the same time. I understand, on some level, that I belong to God’s people—wholly, completely, eternally. But that just isn’t my everyday reality. There’s such a gap between what we know and what we know is possible. But somehow, we should welcome that. Somehow, that disillusionment is what the life of faith is about. So reality should never scare us. Illusion should.
Image courtesy of Daylight Photography