Belonging, Believing: A Tension at the Heart of Church


There is a paradox buried in the idea of religious community, an imperfect compromise that sooner or later all churchgoers must make, but that we don’t like to acknowledge openly. This is because a church has two purposes, the social and the devotional. We prefer to pretend that these two goals never pull us in incompatible directions, or that the tension can easily be resolved by abandoning one of them with no damage to the church’s mission.

In ordinary circumstances, we adjust our expectations all the time, in order to maintain equilibrium in our relationship to our faith community. We learn to get along with fellow members who make us uncomfortable, because the church is guiding us to serve God together. Or we tolerate preaching and programs that we don’t fully agree with, because we’ve formed strong bonds with our parish family. As in a marriage or a workplace team, a certain level of compromise is healthy. C.S. Lewis discouraged “church shopping” because he believed that members’ acceptance of one another’s imperfections produced spiritual maturity.

But there is an ever-present risk that the tension between our social and spiritual needs will become too great.

A church with robust faith in the Incarnate God and substantial programs for spiritual formation may turn out to be a church that is not safe for authentic personal relationships — for example, because of homophobia, sexism, or a general culture of disregarding boundaries in order to “save souls” (see Dianna Anderson’s incisive post about false intimacy in evangelical small groups).

On the other hand, a church that respects its members’ privacy and diversity may be refusing to provide any leadership about what it means to live a Christian life. Because of a liberal overreaction against fundamentalism, such a church may be a safe social club but no more than that. Our interpersonal roots may be spreading while the plant of our faith withers away for lack of nourishment.

The work of Christian scholar Diana Butler Bass is popular nowadays in discussions about reinventing the liberal church. Though I haven’t yet read her book Christianity After Religion, from which this framework is taken, I’ve heard talk about her formula of “belonging, behaving, believing”, which represents the current (in my view, unsatisfying) attempt to resolve the tension. Mark Krause of Nebraska Christian College summarizes it well on his blog:

Bass uses the paradigm of Believing, Behaving, Belonging to flesh out her argument. This is the order her analysis of 20th century American Christianity has produced. First, we believe a set of doctrines put forth by a particular church or denomination. Second, we change our lives to conform to these doctrines in the area of personal behavior. Third, we are accepted as part of the community. Bass sees the new spirituality-based Christianity of the 21st century as reversing this paradigm. We begin by belonging, identifying with a faith community based on personal relationships. Second, we behave, although Bass’s understanding of this is far removed from the earlier understanding. She means that we begin to fit in with this community in our lifestyle. However, in the new paradigm, this may be because we have found a faith community that matches our current lifestyle rather than any sense of transformation. Third, we believe; we incorporate the general beliefs of our identified faith community into our lives, largely on a experiential and activist basis.

As I see it, Bass’s formula sets up churchgoers for a crisis of conscience or personal heartbreak down the road. What happens when we have developed close personal ties to a community, but discover that we can’t accept what they believe? The peer pressure to maintain those ties can distort or suppress our search to know God’s will for ourselves.

This is the subterranean flaw in what conservative Christians call “friendship evangelism”, i.e. nurturing a relationship of trust with another person in order to create an opening to convert her. The “trust” and “friendship” turn out to be one-sided because the would-be evangelist is not open to having his own beliefs altered by the encounter with the other. He expects her to prioritize “belonging” while he will always put “believing” first.

To avoid this pitfall, the liberal church often de-emphasizes the “believing” piece. But I’ve noticed that this creates its own kind of cognitive dissonance, in me at least. The church’s retention of authoritarian privileges sits uneasily with its primary branding as a voluntary social club. For instance, we receive strong messaging that we should be attending church. Once we’re there, we’re expected to sit quietly while the person in the pulpit tells us what our shortcomings are, and what good works God commands us to do. We generally hear a lot more about what is needed from us (tithing, volunteerism, charitable giving) than invitations to share our own needs.

If the church is going to foreground “relationship”, it had better make sure that its model of relationship is mutual, consensual, and not guilt-based. That’s not currently happening.

Moreover, relationship is an empty word unless we have a basis for our affinity. To cite C.S. Lewis again, in The Four Loves he offers a memorable image of friendship (philia) as two people standing shoulder to shoulder, together looking at something they both love. For the friendship network that is the church, shouldn’t that “something” be Jesus? But now we’re back to “believing”.

The real B-word that will determine the church’s viability in the 21st century is boundaries. Stay tuned for future posts.

2 comments on “Belonging, Believing: A Tension at the Heart of Church

  1. Ysabel de la Rosa says:

    Your usual excellent writing, with incisive insight.

  2. Andy Winternitz says:

    After a very intense recruitment experience with a movement that would only stop if you explicitly said an unequivocal rejection of social contact (I instead chose to change my phone number), it was comforting to sit in a congregation where I felt that the socializing was predictable. However, in time I realized that this new church would not dare to presume to speak for me on spiritual matters, would not hesitate to express political ideas which were anathema to me. The shared values were not primarily spiritual, I discovered to my dismay.

    Everything is a package deal. C.S. was right that we must learn to be loving in the relationships which are part of our neighborhood, but I don’t think he anticipated either the theological or sociological developments that have transpired since his writing was published. If your purpose in attending church is to learn to love better, I am convinced that there are places of worship that help me love God and my neighbor which are not determined by geography or the parish boundaries. It is healthy to be honest in one’s meta-narrative and to question the motives of a church choice, but in the current circumstances described by “The Big Sort”, I think we are stuck with compromises for a while.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.