LESSONS IN BELONGING FROM A CHURCH-GOING COMMITMENT PHOBE
Lessons in Belonging from a Church-going Commitment Phobe
Erin S. Lane
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014
Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe is a book for people who like the idea of church but feel disillusioned by the reality of the people who make it up. The author takes you on her journey as a late-twenties millennial, trying to discover what it means to belong when you don’t know how. Ultimately, she highlights the importance of recognizing we already belong to God and encourages others to show up and be vulnerable as they begin the adventure of belonging in a church community.
Through telling her own story of her quest for belonging, Erin S. Lane brings fundamental questions of Christian practice into focus. The author wants to make the case that both the church and young adults should belong to one another, even when they seem to be on radically different trajectories. Ultimately, this belonging is rooted in the understanding that we are God’s people and our God is a God of belonging. Lane takes readers through six lessons she discovered on her own journey as a guide for the rest of us to explore our own stories. Included below are the six lesson breakdowns. Each lesson has interwoven smaller themes that are also noted.
- Lesson One: The Importance of Being Earnest
Beginning with the realization that she wanted to find belonging but didn’t know how, the author speaks of her journey. In the first lesson, Lane lays out definitions of belonging and commitment. Belonging is defined as discerning ourselves in the context of a community—a web of relationships, both horizontal and vertical, that gives us meaning, purpose and identity. Commitment includes the realization that what was once a romantic possibility is now a real thing, with real flaws one couldn’t have predicted, and worse, can’t be avoided.
Ultimately, Lane affirms that belonging is hard. It begs commitment and compromise. The author uses her marriage and church “dating” as a lens through which to begin this story. As a millennial, she describes herself as commitment-shy and sees no issue with this reality. Yet the longing for belonging is real. Through the process of considering a church home, Lane realizes that fear often captures her. If she stops moving, life stops being an adventure. She wonders, “what if the adventure is staying put?” It occurs to her that that is an adventure she hasn’t tried yet.
- Lesson Two: The Art of Reading Charitably
In this second section, Lane explores realities of millenials that make belonging difficult. Commitments are no longer driven by our desire to fulfill a duty but to fulfill ourselves; millenials are afraid of disappointment, and they are taught they can be anything they want to be (but someone forgot to mention that if you are brown, poor, queer or disabled the deck was stacked against you). Additionally, millenials have become adults during a widespread epidemic of mistrust in both each other and the institutions that were meant to support them. As Lane describes, they are a generation trapped between the twin terrors of freedom and fear.
As a response to these realities, Lane explores the idea of charity. Charity is an ancient word for Christian love. So instead of dismissing someone or the church, she wonders, what if the gift of “otherness” is to be in relationships of love and friendship where we choose to be with people who complement rather than match our strengths? Continuing to trace her personal history, Lane considers this understanding of the “other” in her quest for belonging.
- Lesson Three: The Discipline of Showing Up
In this third section, the author wrestles with the question, “Have I ever not belonged to God?” Considering baptism and communion, she makes the case that we have the gift of belonging already. We’re “pre-approved.” The question therefore is not, can we belong, but will we belong? It seems that finding belonging has more to do with our ability to show up—often and fully—than it does on what happens once we get there.
Here, Lane explores paradoxes of faith: God is both friend and stranger, God is both knowable and unknowable, the church exists to comfort and disrupt, to give rest and rile up, and to make us feel known and make us feel small in the wake of what we cannot know. After all of her lessons in showing up, Lane writes about making the decision that it is time to stick around.
- Lesson Four: The Risk of Vulnerability
What makes relationships form? What makes us interconnected? What separates us? In this section, the author looks at her relationships from childhood through high school, her marriage, and her new church friendships. In looking for a small group of Christians with whom she can risk showing up in the flesh, she realizes that this requires real vulnerability. To welcome the vulnerable means to welcome suffering, and who wants to suffer? As she considers church membership and its marriage-ceremony feeling, Lane continues to explore belonging and its connection to vulnerability.
- Lesson Five: The Edge of Discernment
In this fifth lesson, the author talks about how community should refine us, not consume us. Feeling unsure about joining her new church, she is thrown into a wider panic, wondering, “did I/have I made the right choices?” Questioning everything from her career to her husband, she asks questions about where home really is. Here, the longing for belonging is most evident, even in the midst of Lane’s confusion.
- Lesson Six: Offering My Portion
Lane takes a step back in this last section to recognize how much we all need the church. Not so much the buildings, but the people. We need church because it helps us remember who we are, and to Whom we belong, over and over again. We need the church to remind us of what is real. To stop the illusions that take hold of us when we least expect it. Belonging, Lane says, happens when we choose to give ourselves away, saying, “Take. Eat. If you’ll have me, I belong to you.” Belonging to God compels us to share our offering in community. The offering is our true selves. Offering ourselves in community is not only the response to our belonging in Christ but the seal. The author says, “If I am to join a church, any church, maybe even your church, I need to believe that you want me to belong.” The church with a sense of urgency to us needs to say, “Stay with us” and our response should be “we will try.”
Erin S. Lane is a millennial in her late twenties at the time of writing this book. She currently works for Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage & Renewal and is a published writer in other faith publications such as OnBeing and Patheos. She has a masters in theology from Duke Divinity School and is married to Rush, who is a youth pastor.
Lane grew up in the Catholic faith promoted by her dad’s side of the family. After her parents divorced, she visited Non-Denominational/Pentecostal churches with her mom. She currently attends a Methodist church. Lane felt compelled to address the subject of belonging because she felt herself not belonging and knew she must not be the only one.
Lane makes a few presuppositions in the book. She assumes most of her readers will have a similar experience of church and the search for belonging that she has had. To counterbalance her experience she uses stories and theology to try to encompass everyone. Sometimes I believe it works and other times it falls short. The divide is too wide when it comes to relating an experience from her history to someone who grew up in a different culture, socio-economic class, etc.
Lane assumes that everyone will find belonging or should find belonging in a local church. This is a belief due to her theological understanding of who God is. I wonder if someone without the theological knowledge and theological language would be able to find belonging in the ways she suggests it should happen.
The author present theological terms and explanations throughout each lesson. At times it is fleshed out, but other times readers are left trying to understand theology through her experience. Some theological topics that are explored are God’s omnipotence, Body of Christ, human nature, trust, worship, baptism, communion, fellowship, hospitality, and church membership. Each is woven within the author’s story with about a paragraph or two of explanation. Lesson six is the most theologically driven piece of the book in seeking to hammer home the need for belonging.
AIM OF BOOK
The author hopes to help young adults and the church understand that they both belong to God and to each other. This is done through community, worship, and our very lives as they have been given to us by God. She wants to remind everyone that belonging is hard. Even Lane’s own journey could be summed up by saying that she gets it right and wrong at the same time. Yet her lasting words are to stick with it. “To Take. Eat. If you’ll have me, I belong to you.”
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
This book does a great job of using personal stories to illustrate the subject of what it means to belong to each other and to God. Lane uses not only the stories, but theological doctrines to help explain why it is that we should belong to one another. She approaches each experience and each theological doctrine with humility and caution that she may have it all wrong.
A weakness of the book is that theological language runs the risk of not being fleshed out enough for everyone who might read this book. Each lesson is interwoven with so many stories that sometimes it is easy to get lost in which story you are in. I found myself wanting fewer stories but having deeper reflection on a couple of transformative stories. In the last section, there was a dramatic shift from storytelling to scripture-heavy reflection. While the references were helpful, the change in tone might throw readers off guard.
Overall, I think this book could be successful for guided, small group studies with young adults. The key to unleashing the potential of this book would be to open up the Lesson Topics for more general discussion. Vulnerability, Community, Relationships/Friendships, Church, Discernment, and Offering (ourselves). These topics could bring fruitful conversations with groups of students who are discerning belonging on all kinds of levels: what major should I choose, who am I, what church should I go to, or what organizations do I want to belong to.