Diana Butler Bass, one of our favorite teachers, speakers, and authors here at Convergence, has long said that we need to rethink how we form spiritual communities. Old models insisted that someone new to a community or tradition must first believe, or intellectually assent to, the stated creed or theology. Then, they must behave in a way to be worthy of membership. Perhaps they attend a membership class or give an appropriate testimony. It is only then that they are allowed to belong fully to the community. Bass suggests that this order should be reversed to speak to the spiritual longings of our times. She says:
We must reverse the order in which the questions are asked. Instead of believing, behaving, and belonging, we need to reverse the order to belonging, behaving, and believing. …The shift is from an external and individual sense of belonging toward an internalized and relational identity. The shift is also far more biblical than the older model. After all, Jesus said, “Follow me,” not “join a church.” And, as in the New Testament, following comes first. Friendship comes first. Leaving your old self at the side of the lake and discovering who you really are in a community of love, learning, and service is the vision of the gospels. “Behaving” and “believing” come as you find yourself on the journey.
She asks in another recent post: How might a church or political party move away from the idea of “membership” toward an organic, relational sense of belonging?
As I read her thoughts on all this in her recent blog posts over at The Cottage, I found myself thinking about my daily work with churches across the country. Our CONVERGENCE VITALITY ASSESSMENT is grounded in rich scholarship about church and organizational health, yet all of those studies look backward rather than forward. In our consulting we often share things we have seen work in thriving churches, but again, that is a rear-view mirror.
I felt convicted. Am I helping maintain old models or helping congregations give birth to the new?
Bass is not the only one thinking about church and belonging in new ways. Dr Ruth Powell, the director of the National Church Life Survey in Australia, says that particularly younger adults often belong before they believe when new to a church, as reported in The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, in 2021.
Two stories from religious leaders in that same article bear this out. Father Hien Vu, a Catholic priest in Victoria, said he has found among new parishioners that “they all talk about looking for community, a sense of belonging.” … Father Hien doesn’t hear the word faith much. “Maybe they don’t use that word, but they express that by the way they communicate. They want to be together.” Similarly, Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann “would love to say they had found God or were there for his sermons… but ‘they were coming for the camaraderie.’”
So, what does all this mean for congregations today, and how I and Convergence help congregations thrive?
Going forward, I want to help each congregation determine whether their way of integrating new people matches their values. To figure out what values you are communicating in integrating new folks into your community, I might ask:
- What are the steps for someone new to join your congregation?
- How do you describe membership?
- What are the words in the ritual you use to welcome new members or participants?
- If having particular beliefs or behaviors is not the most important part of your congregation’s values, are you still doing membership as if it is?
- Finally, what would it look like if you were to shift toward a model that puts belonging first?
Bass argues that membership is not even the right terminology for a new model. In our Vital Church Assessment, we tend to use participant, but that can feel sterile and detached. A congregation might be better off using partner or friend to reflect a belonging mentality.
In terms of welcoming newcomers, a congregation that values belonging might invite people into relationships first and foremost. Coffee dates before newcomer classes, dinner invitations before pledge pitches, carpooling before committees, etc. Jesus was great at this – meals are a great equalizer (even if you don’t follow his example of inviting yourself to dinner at their house). Knowing and being known becomes paramount before any other aspect of “joining.”
When someone seeks to deepen their commitment, a congregation could invite them to write their own “vows” for committing to the faith community, or to tell their story of how they came to value the community. Testimony not as a test of faith or right belief, but as a way of joining their story with yours. The community could then make promises to support the new partner in their spiritual journey, even if it doesn’t look just like yours.
And rather than stop there, after they officially join the community, you can treat that as the launch date for intentional seasons of practicing life together, never neglecting the relationship that is foundational to it all. Share your struggles with them and welcome their authenticity, listen when they share their own struggles and help wherever you can, and invite them into relationships with others in the community. Share your stories of faith with them and what they mean to you so they might understand what you believe, still respecting their own spiritual paths however they unfold.
Can you picture your congregation living belonging-first? What would have to change for you to do so?
I conduct our Convergence Vitality Assessments and one of my specialties is helping churches navigate change, so if you’d like to work on some of the ideas in this article, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.