Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them, “What are you looking for?”
Today’s column is the second of a six-part series. Last week I thought about all life here in the parish and all the ways that we “believe in, sign up, show up, and chip in.” I think our parishioners comprise every permutation and combination of these characteristics. But is any one of these characteristics the key characteristics to belonging and being engaged in our parish? What makes our parish healthy?
There is a lot of “evidence” about what seems to indicate belonging and parish spiritual health. Here at Sacred Heart we are healthy by almost any indicator which is easily measured: increased attendance at Mass, sacraments, numbers of people volunteering, folks coming to community events, offertory, and more. It is tempting, as pastor and the pastoral staff, to sit back and say, “People have a sense of belonging and are spiritually committed.” The problem is this: it is hard to know what is cause and what is effect. So, we discern and create “myths” – best explanations that make sense of what we are seeing. These stories get repeated, and soon become “gospel.” Mark Twain had good insight about such situations: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” I wonder about all the easily discerned indicators of parish life. Are they cause or effect? Are they really true and point to a deep movement of the Spirit? Are they old measures hiding a newly emerging paradigm? What does it really mean to belong?
Myth #1: Believing leads to Belonging. According to common wisdom, a person’s spiritual commitment naturally leads to a desire to belong to a faith community. In other words, a believer wants to be part of others in a believing community. If true, that means we should work on enhancing every parishioner’s spiritual commitment so that they will feel a greater sense of belonging and thus become more engaged. If it were true. This question has been thoroughly studied and it turns out that the opposite is true. In fact, it is a strong sense of belonging that leads to an increase in believing, spiritual commitment, and engagement.
Myth #2: An active member is a faithful member. Again, common wisdom is that the most active parishioners are those that have a real sense of ownership and are deeply committed and spiritual people. If true, that means we should have lots of ministry and activities in order to get people active, meeting other parishioners, becoming involved, committed, and engaged. If it were true. Studies are clear: activity that is not rooted in belonging leads to burnout. People who are engaged and have a sense of belonging don’t think of ministry or activity as a “duty” or “responsibility,” but rather as a joy. Again it is the sense of belonging that is critical.
Myth #3: Personal faith leads to public action. Acts of service, charity, goodwill, and the like happen as a result of and in response to, the depth of one’s individual spiritual commitment. After all, as people grow spiritually, don’t they naturally desire to reach out in concern and service to the world? Aren’t they more likely to invite others to join them? Aren’t they more likely to tithe and be financial anchors of the community? It is true that people who are more spiritually committed do these things more than others with low spiritual commitment, but research shows that again it is the sense of belonging that sustains growth in our faith community.
It seems that belonging is the gateway and critical factor leading to deeper spiritual commitment, more active and engaged parishioners, and living out our mission as Disciples of Christ in a public and visible way. Perhaps that is the dynamic played out in today’s gospel: Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them, “What are you looking for?” – they were looking to belong to something greater than themselves.