A case for church from a self-described “commitment phobe”

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When it comes to church, Lane's desperate to belong but she doesn't know how. - Image courtesy of Erin Lane

When it comes to church, Lane's desperate to belong but she doesn't know how. - Image courtesy of Erin Lane

When it comes to church, Lane's desperate to belong but she doesn't know how. - Image courtesy of Erin Lane

When it comes to church, Erin Lane is desperate to belong but she doesn’t know how. – Image courtesy of Erin Lane

Commitment has never been simple for Erin Lane. She’s a child of divorce, moved around a lot growing up, and says she is as “moody as the wind.” When it comes to church, Lane is desperate to belong but she doesn’t know how.

Erin Lane’s story will sound familiar to many of her fellow Millennials who often eschew organized religion or “church hop,” but she hopes to make a compelling case for church. In “Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe,” Lane shares honest vignettes from her own struggles and how they’ve taught her to believe that church is worth the risk.

RNS: Of church, you write, “I want to belong, but I do not know how.” But is committing to a faith community really that complicated?

EL:  Perhaps the decision to commit is easier for some but I think the practice of belonging is complicated no matter who you are. How do you give yourself to others without giving up who you are? When do you yield to group consensus and when do you exercise personal agency? What’s the difference between a church that challenges your gifts and one that subtly diminishes them? A large part of my story – really, the human story – is learning how to hold the paradox of self and community instead of either arrogantly asserting my individual will or passively losing myself to relationships.

RNS: You say that belonging to a church is a lost art for Millennials. How so?

EL: Millennials came into this world knit into the fabric of belonging like every other child of God, but as we grew older we saw weakening trust in the structures of belonging meant to support us–like marriage, the economy, and faith communities. Time magazine called us “the most threatening and exciting generation since the baby boomers brought social revolution, not because [we’re] trying to take over the Establishment but because [we’re] growing up without one.” Far from not wanting to belong, I think many of us have never learned or forgotten how to experience trust, forgiveness, and freedom within the boundaries of community.

Image courtesy of Intervarsity Press

Image courtesy of Intervarsity Press

RNS: You talk about church as something we are, rather than something we go to. But isn’t this a bit of a false dichotomy? Isn’t church both?

EL: Absolutely. I believe in being the church and I believe in attending a church. When we emphasize the being over the going, the church can lose its prophetic role in the community as a sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s reality and instead begins to mirror our personal views on reality. What if my idea of “being church” is really just code for being more intentional with friends? How will I stumble into “being church” with the stranger if there is no safe, common space where we regularly show up together? I don’t want to lose the emphasis on church as a public assembly where we faithfully gather to test our truths amongst a group of people that faithfully tests us.

RNS: Some blame boomers for the waning in interest of church among millennials. They point to the way that the church has been infected by consumerism, materialism, theological rigidity, and the like in the last several decades. On what do you place blame for millennials’ waning influence?

EL: Instead of criticizing the church and its leaders for not meeting the needs of our generation, I want to locate the problem – and the solution – in the psyche of Millennials and call us to become agents of our own belonging. We’re actually a surprisingly compliant generation despite popular opinion, certainly more so than our parents’ generation. Often we wait for someone else’s permission or the perfect conditions before we commit. But as I once heard in a sermon: “Trust means deciding you can handle it if you get screwed.” Belonging, like trust, is ours for the taking if we’re willing to risk.

RNS: You mention the “art of reading charitably” as a key to belonging. Explain.

EL: It’s a practice I learned in graduate school when I was reading writers from the Christian tradition and learning how to wrestle our differences with dignity. It’s not that we couldn’t be critical or disagree with these authors. It’s that we couldn’t pick apart their ideas line by line without practicing charity – an ancient word for Christian love that reminds us that we’re all human and we’re all in need of compassion. When I finished my degree in theology and started looking for a church home, it occurred to me I could practice this same strategy whether with the pastor in the pulpit or the cynic within myself. The art of reading charitably reminds me that I can belong to a church without agreeing with everything it says or does.

RNS: Vulnerability is a buzzword today. How can belonging to a church teach us about vulnerability?

EL: Vulnerability is a buzzword but it’s one I think the church hasn’t emphasized enough in its history. Belonging to a church should have everything to do with teaching us how to be vulnerable if its sole purpose is to teach us how to be like Christ. Christians love to use the Apostle Paul’s metaphor of the church as Christ’s body but we often forget that Christ’s body was a vulnerable one, a wounded one, a permeable one. Christ showed us that choosing to reveal weakness is at the heart of belong to one another. [tweetable]If your church isn’t a place where weakness lives, then I’d venture to say it’s not a house of God.[/tweetable]

  • As a baby boomer myself but a pastor to millennials associated with our local church, I really appreciate the wisdom in the perspective which “Holy Hellion” Ms. Lane exudes. It requires a lot of grace and trust to commit to a local manifestation of the Body of Christ, but it’s abundantly clear that Jesus is there in the midst of that commitment. I so admire the Millennials my wife and I shepherd who are willing to “do church” with us despite all the evident flaws and pitfalls involved in that process.

    I’m going to share this interviews with our group members and encourage them to reflect on the journey that God has brought them through as they seek to take on the mantle of leadership for the very fallible but very loved organism that is the Church, the bride of our Savior.

  • Manfred

    One should focus on belonging to Christ rather than belonging to a church.

  • Thecla

    The model of church as ‘community’ has got to change. Churches are semi-public facilities (like supermarkets, movie theaters and restaurants) where people go to consume religious goods and services. Instead of thinking in terms of church membership or belonging, churches should think in terms of church USE. Churches have no more right to look for ‘commitment’ than supermarkets do. You pays your money and takes your choice.

  • Jack

    At the risk of seeming not to “read charitably,” the interviewer should have asked her where she lives. It would’ve provided some color or context to the story. People aren’t just atomized individuals floating in space. Each of them lives somewhere.

    If it’s anywhere near New York, she should try Redeemer Presbyterian if she wants a Millennial-friendly yet Biblically faithful and intellectually challenging environment.

  • Greg

    You cannot separate Christians from the Church, or from Christ. When a person is baptized, he/she is baptized into the Body of Christ (1Cor. 12:13), and each Christian is part and parcel of that Body (1Cor 12:27), of which Christ is the head (Eph 5:23). So to separate Christ from his body, would be to behead him (Col 1:18)! But let’s look a little deeper into this, if the baptized are the “body of Christ” (1Cor 12:12,27), and the body is the “Church” (Col 1:18), and the Church is the “bride” (Eph 5:29-32; Rev 21:9), and Jesus is the “groom” (Lk 5:34), and then the bride and groom become “one flesh” (Matt 19:16), then their marriage is “inseparable” (Matt 19:9). So we need to keep the body attached to the head.

  • @Thecla, I respectfully but completely disagree. This is not a scriptural view of what God intended the local church to be. The local church is a local manifestation of the Body of Christ. All who love Jesus are called to participate. It should not be a marketplace where you pay cash and get some sort of benefit. It is instead a living organism, a group where those of like identity (as God’s imperfect but forgiven children) are called to love and serve others, to exercise whatever gifts God has given each for the benefit of others and for the benefit of the community and world around them.

    Our problem here in 21st century America is that we have too often treated church exactly as you have described it. That’s one reason it’s becoming less relevant to an entire generation.

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  • “I don’t want to lose the emphasis on church as a public assembly where we faithfully gather to test our truths amongst a group of people that faithfully tests us.” – Erin Lane

    How can this have a happy ending?

    Jesus is a bundle of contradictory assertions, not a coherent individual.
    Testing assertions will drive you crazy if you are surrounded by people who deny they are contradictory lessons:

    “Judge not that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1)
    “Judge them unworthy, remove your blessings of Peace” (Matthew 10:13)

    “Love those who won’t listen” (Luke 6:27)
    “Abandon those who won’t listen” (Matthew 10:14)

    “Bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:27)
    “DON’T BLESS those who curse you” (Matthew 10:13)

    “Pray in public” (Sermon on the Mount)
    “DO NOT pray in public” (Sermon on the Mount)

    It makes me so nervous when people make decisions then use the Gospel of Jesus to confirm what they already were going to do anyway.

    Like an astrology chart – Jesus will bless any moral or IMMORAL action you are ready to do.

    There is no ‘There’ there.

  • @Larry Short,

    “It requires a lot of grace and trust to commit to a local manifestation of the Body of Christ”

    Does it? Really?
    We all long for community. It seems churches are ready-made for people to walk in and make friends and have coffee. It is the social fabric which keeps them going.

    Grace? Trust? Perhaps for you.
    But it seems most of the time these connections to Jesus and the church are skin deep.

    Tell your congregation that you are gay, trans, getting divorced, have lesbian daughter who married another lesbian, etc… and let’s see how much ‘trust’ and ‘grace’ gets sent back toward you.

    “The only cure for homosexuals is that they be put to death” – Pastor Robbie Galaty, Tennessee Megachurch, Sept. 4, 2014

    There are no checks and balances in religion. It is a free for all.
    I have no doubt these haters in the churches
    think they the nicest people in the world – full of grace and trust. It is an illusion.

  • Larry,

    “All who love Jesus are called to participate.”

    Like any other cult, how one sees the leader is what he brings to the church.
    Does Jesus love gays? Yes.
    Does Jesus want gays to get married? Yes.
    Does Jesus love gays? No
    Does Jesus want gays to get married? No.

    Everything is right. Everything is wrong.
    The problem with church is that it encourages the abandonment of thought while it celebrates contradictory assertions.

    You bring your own idea of Jesus to whatever church you attend.
    The preachers don’t correct you – they can’t.
    Besides, they will take anyone who walks in the door.

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  • samuel Johnston

    Erin appears to be “true believer”, a needy, dependent, personality whose desperate desire escape herself, drives and defines her. In short, she presents herself as a perpetual child.
    One day my wife came home from work and told me that a Social Security disability claim which she was reviewing, cited the examining physicians’ diagnosis of the patients’ condition as “inability to adjust to adult life”.
    The better “cure” is to face up and grow up.