Diana Butler Bass (along with others) is publishing frequently about the sociological shifts occurring in churches. She’s helped us see that church growth used to be based on the formula: “Believe. Behave. Belong.”
If you believe what we believe and behave the way we behave, then you will eventually come to belong. Unfortunately, for some Protestants, this formula no longer works.
It’s not because the variables are wrong – they’re just out of order for some of us. Instead of “Believing. Behaving. Belonging,” Bass believes it should read “Belonging. Behaving. Believing.”
This re-ordering is a way to reach those in “Generation Y” for whom belonging is crucial.
As a member of Generation Y, and as someone who works daily with future church leaders, here is my take on this ideological shift.
Too often we’re picked on as being narcissistic, entitled and disengaged. The reality is we carry a deep longing to be held, to be fulfilled and to belong.
We’re in search of identity and, as a result, have created online personalities, connected to thousands over Twitter and redefined what it means to be spiritual (without being religious).
Therefore, emphasizing belonging is important, as it may just make the difference on whether or not churches lose their moral influence on those of us for whom belonging is central.
But the motive for belonging needs to be parsed out.
If the primary expressed purpose is to recruit us in order to increase church attendance or stabilize financial burdens, you can count Generation Ys out.
We don’t want to belong to something just so we can contribute to numerical or financial growth or both. We want to belong to an organization that deepens, strengthens and challenges who we are as individuals. This is why (unfairly, but perhaps rightly) we are called narcissistic.
But don’t read this as disengagement. We are, rather, disenchanted.
We want to belong. We want meaning, purpose and hope. We care about justice and want to participate in acts of self-sacrifice.
And we want to contribute a portion of the little money we have, but we want to know that our tithes will be used not only to maintain buildings but also to enact justice, mercy and compassion in our neighborhood and beyond.
Sure, the reality is buildings need maintenance, insurance premiums, electricity and running water. Generation Ys understand that these are essential, but we want to know that our giving is contributing to a larger mission that shapes and informs how we maintain our church facilities.
But there are two glaring catches.
First, the church will be inviting Generation Ys to the table who most certainly think differently. This is okay. Church can be (and should be) a beautiful tapestry of God’s people working out their salvation – together.
Everybody understands God differently. Everybody carries preconceived notions of what the Divine looks like. So why not share them and invite others to do the same?
Second, some of the old patterns will have to change. Worship can’t be boring. Discipleship must be more in-depth. Missions must become less about raising money and sending checks, and more about hands-on partnerships.
Every generation has something to offer. If churches can create space for the several generations to sit down and dream together, then the church will not die – it will thrive.
So my take on belonging is this: Generation Ys want it, but it has to be for something bigger than ourselves (which is going to be hard since we’re so narcissistic).
Barrett Owen serves as the admissions associate at McAfee School of Theology as well as pastor of National Heights Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga.