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.
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.
SOURCE: Interview by Laura Turner