The believing/belonging debate…

For the past two decades, the terms ‘believing’ and ‘belonging’ have been continually opposed and juxtaposed as sociologists have sought to explore and explain trends in religious belief and affiliation in the UK. In the early 1990s Grace Davie coined the term ‘believing without belonging’, arguing that as church membership declined, citizens of post-war Britain were becoming less inclined to affiliate themselves to institutional religion although many still retained religious beliefs. Winter and Short (1993) countered this with ‘believing and belonging’, widening the boundaries of ‘belonging’ to include any kind of denominational allegiance rather than formal church membership only, and finding that, in rural England, ‘commitment to a specific denomination may be even more striking than the level of religious belief but that this is not necessarily translated into formal religious observance’ (p. 638). Both positions have been refuted by Voas and Crockett (2005), who use data from the British Household Panel Survey (1991-2000) and the British Social Attitudes surveys (1983-2002) to argue that levels of belief are eroding at a similar rate to levels of affiliation, and that a more accurate slogan is therefore ‘neither believing nor belonging’.

The debate has broadened as authors have explored the meanings of the two terms beyond the confines of the Christian Church. Glendinning & Bruce (2006) discuss ‘new ways of believing or belonging’, using the 2001 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey to assess the claim made by Heelas et al. (2005) that ‘religion’ in the UK is giving way to ‘spirituality’ as belief becomes less about organised religion and more about the self. Day (2011) complicates this with her thesis ‘believing in belonging’, finding that it is belonging itself that is most important to people, rather than doctrine, and that people who are not religious may find religion meaningful in the way that it enables them to belong socially and culturally.

So, do people believe or belong? Is believing enough for people without belonging? Are people who go to church there because they want to belong, or in spite of it?

Talking exclusively to members of a church obviously limits the scope of how far such questions can be addressed: we only see the perspective of people who do belong (at least, as far as ‘belonging’ means attending church), whether they feel it or like it or not. However, the word ‘belonging’, or ‘belong’, occurred 57 times in the group discussions and on the questionnaires and was mentioned by every adult group, sometimes as the very first response to the first question, ‘what does the church mean to you?’. It is clear that belonging, whatever its relationship to believing, is highly important to people in this church. Perhaps it will be interesting to consider which groups (if any) within the church place greater emphasis on belonging, and whether there are those for whom it is not important at all. Given that this is a growing church, the perspectives of its members appear to be somewhat at odds with some of the sociological trends identified above.

2 thoughts on “Believing…belonging

  1. I think there are different levels and types of belonging within the church. In my old church there were people and families who wanted close contact with the minister and would not leave church on a Sunday without exchanging some social chit chat with him. He would be surrounded with admirers, leaving him with less time to encourage the less confident and sometimes vulnerable people on the peripheral of the congregation.

    • Thanks, Joe.
      Yes, absolutely.
      Some people expressed an appreciation of churches where the minister stands at the door at the end of the service to say goodbye to everyone and refuses to allow him/herself to be monopolised. Even just a few words from the vicar, recognising their presence and wishing them well, are extremely valuable to many people. I was struck by how important the clergy themselves are to their church members (and non-members), even at the same time as ‘every member ministry’ is advocated and the ‘family’ or ‘community’ nature of church is emphasised.
      Must be a different kettle of fish in very big churches, where presumably the head minister has even higher status but is more difficult to access.
      Hope you’re well!

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