Belonging, Behaving, and Believing

Recently I participated in a “Teach-In” with Diana Butler Bass. Over the course of three seminars, we revisited Diana’s seminal work entitled, “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and The Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.” This book was first published in 2012 so we are approaching its tenth anniversary. Some of the statistics have changed but overall, the foundation of this book has propelled Diana to write three additional books delving deeper into some of the key themes she explores in the original book.

As a sociological statistician, I am intrigued by the numbers and even more so by the updated statistics for 2020 that suggest that the American religious landscape has changed and is continuing to shift. The story the numbers tell is one of a more religiously pluralistic country. However, what we are beginning to realize is that people are not talking as much about being “spiritual but not religious.” On more recent surveys, people are more likely to say they are religious, and many say they are both religious and spiritual. This is important in the life of our congregations. It also challenges us to have a better sense of identity as we move forward.

Bass believes there are three specific questions we often ask when seeking to define our identity as Christians: What do I believe? How should I act? Who am I? These are the basic questions that every religion can answer, that every great spiritual teacher preaches, that every congregation must engage to prompt the most human spiritual stirrings. These three questions provide a process by which we choose our faith and offer a framework in which to negotiate which tradition fits you the best. Sociologists refer to believing, behaving, and belonging as the three dimensions of religion.

It is also interesting to observe that the order of how this process is currently shaping our congregations has changed. In the early part of the 21st century, people found a church to attend that mirrored and valued the same beliefs they had about God and religion. Once they located a church that looked a lot like them, they began to engage in the practices of that congregation. Finally, feeling that the church was a good fit and participating in that congregation was fulfilling, people chose to belong.

What Bass finds in her research is that the shaping of our congregations does not happen along these same lines with the current demographics of our congregations. What we are beginning to see is that people make a connection with others in a congregation and develop a sense of belonging first. Then they begin to spend time in small groups and activities with those with whom they have connected. The final step in the process is an experiential knowledge of God and religion. Relationships lead to a true, experienced identity.

As a sociologist, I think understanding these three concepts from a sociological perspective can help us to understand how Stewardship works in our congregations. Here is how I would envision a model of Stewardship from this framework:

Belonging – being good stewards of relationships

  • Make sure everyone is welcomed in such a way that they never feel alone
  • Connect people to one another through various ways of introduction
  • Take note when someone is no longer engaged in any way and reach out to them to see if they have a need or concern
  • Measure belonging by connections and not membership numbers
  • Provide care for those whose situation has changed due to illness, loss of a loved one, financial stress, etc.

Behaving – being good stewards of practices

  • Get to know people’s passions and interests one-on-one
  • Invite people to join you in activities and ministries that fit their passion
  • Always be open to fresh ideas from new people who want to begin something that is not currently available at your church
  • Listen for the places where people express emptiness and a desire to be included; give them space to provide leadership in that area
  • Help people make a connection between their giving of their time and their money with how your ministries are making a difference

Believing – being good stewards of identity

  • Create a mission statement that is brief and clear and easy to embrace
  • Help people to see how every ministry is a way to live out your mission
  • Celebrate the things that matter most in your congregation
  • Educate and train people to know what makes your congregation unique in the community
  • Encourage people to deepen their spiritual lives with disciplines of hospitality, worship, prayer, study, and giving.

Diana Butler Bass often reflects on the possibility that we are experiencing a new awakening. Awakenings happen because we embody more fully the love of God and share it with one another. In doing so God’s dream for creation is more complete. Let’s find new ways to help people who are entrusted into our care to belong, behave, and believe.

Deborah Rexrode
POJ Associate for Stewardship

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