Two weeks ago, I began Lent by reflecting on a recent set of talks I attended about the impact on the church of recent cultural trends. Last week, I outlined a series of unhelpful ways that churches are responding to these trends. With this post, I share the first of three significant shifts in the way our culture is impacting the way we think about church: a shift from belonging as identity to being in relationship.

So, what does Diana Butler Bass mean by this shift? It’s a change from committing to membership in a specific denomination to a focus on ties of love, loyalty, and experience. It’s no longer about officially joining a specific type of church. Instead, it’s about building community.

Think about it. Most Americans participate in multiple communities through the Internet—a trend that was accelerated during the pandemic, when “everything went online.” We are created for connection—and the number of specific interest groups available on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other online platforms (gathering everyone from knitters and train buffs to people seeking to reform or create chaos in their homelands) illustrates the powerful need we feel to connect with like-minded others.

I’ve talked with younger people who say that many of their friends did a lot of church shopping online during the pandemic. Once churches were “forced” to livestream their services, people could “check them out” without taking the risk of showing up in person. And it turns out that what they were searching for was genuine community and relationship, not a badge of membership. Finding community in church also helps to counteract the very real epidemic of loneliness in America today.

So, what does this mean for churches? It means people (especially those under 40 years of age) don’t want membership classes where they gain status by joining, memorize the right terminology, and listen to clergy tell them what to do. Instead, they want places to develop relationships, weave networks (rather than secure their place in hierarchies), and find out what it means to belong to Jesus alongside other Christian disciples.

Diana Butler Bass puts this in terms of finding neighbors to relate to rather than leaders to follow. It means we can create a vital church by focusing on building community and fostering relationships. It means inviting people to retain agency (another word for power) over how they show up and what they want church to look like. It means clergy encouraging and inviting people in the church community to join in leadership at all levels.

It also means the church will need to change to look inviting to people seeking relationships.

What thoughts, feelings, and experiences rise for you as you read this? In what ways have you seen this focus on relationship rather than identity happening in your own communities? How might you become more relationship-minded?

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