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

Erin Lane is stuck in a lover's quarrel with the church, but she hopes to inspire other Millennials to keep searching for a place to belong.

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]