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Four types of belonging

28 March 2014

People feel that they belong to the Church in different ways. David Walker examines how each can be deepened

A METHODIST tutor at my theological college defined Anglicans pithily as people who wanted there to be an active, local church, so that they did not need to go to it.

His words stuck. They left me with an abiding interest in people who say that they belong to the Church of England, but only rarely appear in its attendance figures. I want to understand them better, and to encourage them to deepen their faith and sense of belonging.

Four different dimensions of belonging have emerged as I have studied churchgoing. I have named them activities, events, people, and places. The central idea is that all four are present in each of us but, for most individuals, a particular one is dominant. I have grounded this theory in two large statistical surveys, and tested it in a series of published academic papers. I am now submitting it for a doctoral degree.

My own nature is to belong through activities: they are things we commit ourselves to doing regularly. Sunday churchgoing is a prime example. Most people who turn up expect to come again fairly soon, and they sense that both the priest and their neighbours along the pew expect them back, too.

People like me sit on committees, attend study groups, and join planned-giving schemes. It is a biblical pattern, reflected in the synagogue worship that Jesus shared, and in the weekly eucharistic gatherings of the first disciples. We are the backbone of any organisation. But the backbone is not the whole body - especially if it is the body of Christ.

Event-belongers are much more comfortable with one-off occasions. They are wary of being drawn into a regular time commitment. Midnight mass, carol services, harvest festival, church fairs and social nights, baptisms, and weddings are fine, as is going to a normal Sunday service when on holiday.

My research suggests that, when they come, they are genuinely seeking spiritual refreshment and closeness to God, not just a cultural experience. Moreover, event belonging is also a biblical pattern, as is evident in initiation rituals such as circumcision and baptism, but also through special occasions in the Jerusalem Temple.

People-belongers identify through relationships. I have found that even ones who only rarely come to church often declare that the vicar knows them well. In one parish, my churchwarden, Mavis, who had lived in the village and taught at its school for many years, played a crucial part: people felt close to God when they were close to Mavis.

When we hear phrases such as "Children of Abraham", look at the importance of Moses in the scriptures, or read Paul pressing his personal credentials on the recipients of his epistles - here we are deep into people territory.

The final dimension is that of place. Whether it is the iconic building that gives the village its identity, or the place where I made my marriage vows, particular locations heighten our awareness of God. Biblically, we can think of the Temple, of the city of Jerusalem, of the River Jordan, and of the Old Testament shrines.

SEVEN years of studying belonging has taught me that a preference for events, people, or places above activity is not a proof of nominal or weak faith - at least, no more than is a preference for Evangelical or Catholic styles of worship. It reflects a different way of engaging with God.

To the extent that it can be shallow, then the same is true for regular churchgoing. Whichever dimension of belonging motivates it, the engagement with God can be real and profound. And it is there in the Bible as much as in the present day.

I suspect that the reason why we do not take belonging more seriously is because churches are mostly run by the activity set; so there is a tendency for leaders and councils to assume that good mission is about more and better activities. It is a strategy that makes sense if the purpose of mission is restricted to growing those dimensions of Christian faith that look good as part of attendance statistics, or if we are doing mission primarily to improve levels of regular, direct giving.

But if mission is, as I hope it is, about calling people into a deeper relationship with God through Christ, then to focus exclusively on activity-belonging is to write many of our brothers and sisters out of the script. Put bluntly, if we are serious about being mission-shaped, we should be looking to build fresh expressions of mission, not just of church attendance and finance.

TO BE part of the Anglican Communion is to affirm the holistic vision that is captured by the Five Marks of Mission: evangelism, nurture, justice, care for human need, and sustaining creation. Armed by the marks, it becomes possible to translate them into a programme for mission that reaches out to all four belonging types.

It is a vision where activity-belongers take regular shifts for the local foodbank; where place-belongers support efforts to help the building be a focus for meeting needs; where people-belongers cook the meals for the nurture group, because that special individual took the trouble to invite them; where event-belongers run a stall at the fête, or join a procession of witness.

Sitting, standing, or walking side by side as mission co-workers in these kinds of engagements, people naturally reflect on why they are doing what they do. When the task is demanding, they are especially drawn to share and deepen each other's faith. It does not matter that they may belong in different ways.

So, with five marks of mission, and four styles of belonging, there is a rich agenda for any church to get stuck into.

My former tutor's acerbic comment contained more than a grain of truth, but then and now, I take it as a grain to work with, not against, as we reach out into our parishes and communities to help each other grow in God's love.

The Rt Revd David Walker is the Bishop of Manchester.

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