Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe

By Wills, Anne Blue | The Christian Century, December 23, 2015 | Go to article overview

Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe


Wills, Anne Blue, The Christian Century


Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe

By Erin S. Lane

IVP Books, 208 pp., $16.00 paperback

I don't think I've ever looked forward to going to church for the people." You have to love a book that makes this declaration. Erin Lane tells a good story about her curious condition as an incurable introvert who nonetheless loves the church--and is married to a pastor to boot. Part church history, part spiritual memoir, part theological treatise on Christian community, Lessons in Belonging suggests how we might shed "illusions of how belonging should happen."

Lane, who blogs at holyhellions.com, works at the Center for Courage and Renewal in Seattle. The center was founded by Parker Palmer, who wrote the book's foreword. Lane grew up with a devoted Catholic dad and a determined seeker mom nicknamed Perk. Her dad modeled the importance of the sacraments, and Perk was "the binoculars" through which Lane "understood the shape of God." They eventually divorced, and Lane reports that the "concept of a church home feels as fleeting to me as that of a stable family." She has developed her understanding of commitment to her husband as she has wrestled to make a livable commitment to church. (Full disclosure: I taught Lane at Davidson College.)

A millennial herself, Lane hopes to explain the reluctance of people of her generation to join a church. "Soft on responsibility. High on narcissism.... I say we're scared out of our minds to be disappointed." She defines the local church as a "vehicle of disillusionment." Intimate community works when it pries us away from the illusions of difference, control, scarcity, and separateness. But millennial, who have "forgotten how" to belong, occupy a middle place between "the hyperreligious, who sometimes belong without questioning, and the non-religious, who often question without belonging." Lane asks readers to imagine what congregations can be for such a population.

Lane contends that church communities can be "where we get to be the people we really are." Such a pronouncement might sound like a vapid pop psychology affirmation, but Lane gives her idea flesh by recounting how she came to take her first communion two years early after convincing her mother and the parish's (female) head of religious education that her desire was sincere. In admitting her to Holy Communion, Lane writes, the parish "allowed me to witness my own strength and the strength of the church to endure me." The congregation made room for her to be real--to be inconvenient, an upstart--in its midst.

Lane moves from meaty historical and theological exposition to funny-human confessions to withering critique without much warning. Readers from the digital generation to which she belongs--multitaskers with attention spans that turn on a dime--may respond well to this approach. Lane takes a risk here, though. Her nonmillennial readers may lose patience trying to keep track of the intertwining narrative threads. It is a little disorienting, these sudden shifts from personal narrative to theology to laugh-out-loud zinger. On the other hand, reading her book presents nonmillennials with an opportunity to practice millennial habits. And Lane's disarming approach may gain the attention of her comillennials while smashing the self-assured nay-saying of the People in Charge--us middle-aged session and vestry members and the pastors, priests, and ministers who lead us. …

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