Why belonging is important

The topic of church leaving has already for some considerable time weighed heavily on my heart and mind. And thus, when I see a book that addresses this issue I am instantly interested. When during a recent visit to Blackwell in Oxford I saw a book entitled Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II(by Stephen Bullivant, published by Oxford University Press, 2019), I was interested enough to give it a thorough look-through and to buy it. The book analyses the exodus from the Roman Catholic Church in a number of dioceses in the UK and in the United States and reaches some conclusions which can safely be applied to the two countries as a whole, and even in other areas of the world. It is true that the Catholic Church has suffered some severe setbacks because of the much-publicized sexual scandals, which made may people ashamed to be Catholics. But the exodus has a number of other causes and one major element is, as this book emphasizes, the loss of community. Lapsation is not mainly caused by doctrinal dissatisfaction or intellectual doubt, but by becoming gradually detached from the community where one found one’s spiritual home.

In the Adventist context Professor Richard Rice (School of Religion, Loma Linda University) has emphasized the radical change in the religious attitudes of the postmodern generations. In his book: Believing, Behaving, Belonging: Finding New Love for the Church(2002) he explained how former generations put ‘believing’ before ‘belonging’, whereas today truly belonging to a community has priority. It is essential that people have a close tie with the church as a place where they feel at home–where they are accepted as who and what they are, with all their questions and doubts. Building and maintaining that sense of community is a two-way street. It must be treasured and nourished by the individual. But the community must also do what it can to make each church member feel truly safe and at home. It must consistently give each member the sense of being important and being valued. It must be aware of crises in the lives of individuals and ‘be there’ for them.

Last week my wife and I met with someone who told us the story of her relationship with her church community. It was not a Seventh-day Adventist faith community and I will refrain from identifying her denomination. She told us how she had grown up in her church, but as she went through life she had gradually stopped attending church and being actively involved with her church. But she was never visited and even when there was a death in the family there was hardly any real support. Because she no longer attended she was at some point contacted with the message that her membership was now being discontinued as she seemed not to be interested to be part of the church.

Through the years I have heard far too many stories of this kind. And whenever someone tells me such a story I feel ashamed. It hurts and to some extent I take it personally. Why is the church (and why is also my church?) not doing a better job in making people feel they are valued as part of the community.

I hope I have through some of the things that I write helped some people to actually stay with my church and even find a new way to (re-)connect with the church (and with their faith). A few weeks ago I was at Newbold College in the UK. When getting my meal in the cafeteria I was approached by a gentleman. He said: ‘I am so-and-so. You probably do not know me. But now that I happen to see you I want you to know that I read everything you write and that you have kept me in the Adventist Church.’ Something like this happens perhaps a few times each year. This morning someone became my ‘friend’ on Facebook for a similar reason. Such things give me a lot of satisfaction. But when I think of all the people I know, and have known, who have distanced themselves from the church, I wonder: Has the church done what it should and could have done to stay close to these people? And I realize: that question also impacts on me? Have I done what I could do to look out for these people, to make contact with them and assure them that the community is still there and, in spite of its many imperfections, it is still worthwhile to be part of it? It is a sobering thought.


4 thoughts on “Why belonging is important

  1. Ulf

    More than twenty years ago I and my wife stopped the regular attendance of the Church community we had given three very active decades to. Not once have we been contacted, personally! We may receive a general letter once every other year about whom to contact – ”if we need”… I have myself contacted the leadership of the Church but without any form of change or follow up. So there is no belonging…

    1. Gordon Macintosh

      Greetings Reinder, I remember you all those years back when you gave me a one-hour session on Ventura Publisher at Malamulo Publishing House. I so appreciated your help at that time.

      Yes, belonging is important. I recall attending a grand Baptist church in Brighton years back – just a short visit – I suppose I was inquisitive at that time. On leaving the church that evening I was about to shake hands with the ‘greeter’ on the way out. Suddenly the ‘greeter’ noticed a young man – obviously a stranger to the church – on his way out and passing us in the queue. The ‘greeter’s’ hand quickly shot past mine as he said rather loudly “I haven’t seen you here before!” to the young man, and warmly shook his hand.

      I could hardly blame the ‘greeter’ – my being a silver-haired man of seventy years I was surely not as important as this young man who would surely be an excellent catch for the church. Being a Christian of just over fifty years at that time ‘experience’, I knew just how most churches ‘work’ and it did not particularly bother me. And perhaps the church needed two queues – one for established and well grounded seniors in the Christian mysteries, and one for teenagers, but less acquainted with the object of our worship. We would call those young visitors possible catachumens . . .

      There are – as you write above – many reasons why people go out the back door. You speak of the book you purchased at Blackwells – an old haunt of mine – and of the Catholic revolving door problem spoken of in the book you purchased there. I was received into the Catholic church six years ago – probably at the height of the pedophilia enquiries into some of the Catholic dioceses. So I was moving in the opposite direction to others in the Catholic church at that time. My attraction to the Catholic church was based on so many aspects – and that was after spending thirty-two years in the SDA church where I taught the Sabbath School lesson and had read the Great Controversy at least twice; quite aside from the few thousand GC quotations found in the SSQ’s in my time.

      I suppose it was ‘The White Lie’ written at a much earlier date and causing a flurry of foolish polemic activity by the SDA church which first set me off on a journey of enquiry which would take years to resolve. The other was, of course, an EGW comment found in ‘The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan’ – a statement both arrogant and ignorant, where she tells us that “This outward splendor, pomp, and ceremony, that only mocks the longings of the sin-sick soul, is an evidence of inward corruption. The religion of Christ needs not such attractions to recommend it. In the light shining from the cross, true Christianity appears so pure and lovely that no external decorations can enhance its true worth. It is the beauty of holiness, a meek and quiet spirit, which is of value with God”. Who was Ellen White to speak on behalf of God and the ‘sin-sick soul’? I questioned whether EGW had ever read any of the great Christian classics written by Catholic writers over the centuries who had a personal experience with God and loved the ‘pomp and ceremony’.

      I recall a Catholic in the church in Cartago, Costa Rica. I was astonished to find a suited gentleman, kneeling before a statue of the crucified Christ, wildly gesticulating but talking in a quiet voice nevertheless, before the life-size image. His family was standing by chatting among themselves. After having had a conversation with our Lord for perhaps ten minutes he stood up and joined in the conversation with his family. At first, I had thought it would have been more appropriate if he had walked into the arms of mental health nurses who would have garbed him in restrictive clothing. But who are we to question the deeply devout who wish to have a public discussion with the lovely Jesus, the One who stands behind the image, and who longs to have his disciples pour out their sorrows and their joys in so spontaneous a manner.

      Fortunately, I could not complain of the SDA church’s indifference – many pleas were made in my direction. But the church’s revolving door rotates in the direction of the street for many reasons, and as a consequence of unwelcome, intolerant and ignorant attitudes as well – quite apart from a lack of pastoral visits . . .

  2. hernry firus

    What would the owner of a large sheep station do if each year half of the increase flock was lost, would he blame the old sheep, or the shepherds for the loss ?
    What would uncle Laban say to Jacob if this happened to the sheep in Jacobs care?
    There is sufficient instruction in the Bible, specifically in the “new wine” section of the Bible, to structure Christian congregation, so that it grows, and no member is lost.
    New wine of the Gospel is to undergo fermentation, to become the wedding wine that Jesus made.
    How sweet and Spirit filled is the wine in your congregation? mine is a bit flat, less then .05%, very difficult to get spiritually high on it.
    But i live in hope, lets put in more sugar, and yeast, maybe the fermentation will restart.

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