Being a member of a parish is not the same as belonging to a parish. Being a member is as simple as filling out the registration card. Belonging means being actively involved in the life and spirit of a community.
Pope Francis compares our life in the Church to being invited to a joyful feast: “You have to party with others, with family, with friends, with those who have been invited, as I was invited. Being Christian means belonging, belonging to this body, to the people that have been invited to the feast: this is Christian belonging.”
That type of belonging is the result of a process. In his book Growing an Engaged Church, Albert L. Winseman highlights his research on the stages of how people grow in their sense of belonging to a congregation. He describes the four questions that are typically asked during the process that leads to greater belonging:
- What do I get? People start by looking at what the parish can do for them. They may have personal or spiritual needs such as getting married or planning a funeral.
- What do I give? As people grow in their encounter with Christ within the parish community, they begin to seek opportunities to use their gifts and talents.
- Do I belong? With this question, people are seeking assurance that they do belong and that their gifts and talents are appreciated. When parishioners become faith-filled friends in Christ, they begin to see themselves as missionary disciples who want to help the parish grow and reach out.
- How can we grow? At this stage, the word “I” changes to “we.” People see themselves as members of the Body of Christ and seek opportunities to work together to build the kingdom of God in their parishes, their homes, and the broader community.
How parish leaders respond throughout the process can either set the stage for people to be drawn more deeply into the community or turned off. Pope Francis addresses the potential consequences in The Joy of the Gospel: “We must recognize that if part of our baptized people lack a sense of belonging to the Church, this is also due to certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems, be they simple or complex, in the lives of our people” (The Joy of the Gospel, 63).
In the moment, it may not seem convenient to deal with people’s requests or suggestions. However, our gracious assistance, or our acceptance of offers to help, sows the seeds of belonging and ultimately leads people on the path to discipleship.
For more on this topic, read Belonging and Why It Matters.
 Albert L. Winseman: Growing an Engaged Church, (New York, Gallup Press, 2006).