Coming back to Chicago for Christmas means gatherings where I catch up with a lot of people. As someone who is a low-level Facebook user, I find it refreshing to hear “how things are going” in summary form. (And I miss some of those Christmas card updates, too.) This year, I got an unusual surprise: a cousin eager to make use of the theology Ph.D. in the family, asking questions like “what is the difference between the Apostle’s creed and the Nicene creed?” and “what did Luther do?” and “where can I find a summary of the whole story of the Bible?” (I welcome suggestions on that last one.)

The surprise is the demographic identity of my cousin: a 22-year-old recent state university business grad, who is single, who grew up mainline Protestant, who had shipped off to a distant city to take a management training job. Over the summer she found a nice trendy urban apartment complex in a city neighborhood. Shops and restaurants. The whole thing. And somehow she not only found her way to a Lutheran church, but also came home over Christmas with these questions noted down in her smartphone. All the surveys say: this is not supposed to happen. I wanted to joke that sociologists of religion would want to do in-depth interviews and publish a study. Data on this group is usually dismal: Christian Smith’s most recent results from his massive longitudinal survey continue to suggest the rise of the “nones.”

Did my cousin’s case provide an answer? I think the answer to what drives people to show up at church is individual and complex. I wouldn’t presume to know why people check out possible church involvement. There are many reasons. But what keeps them there isn’t nearly as complicated. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my cousin reported that she was welcomed personally by the pastor and her name was remembered. And that the pastor preached substantial messages that were meaningful and delivered with real care and conviction. The congregation, led by the pastor, was providing meaningful belonging. Not just belonging, and not just meaning, but both. The result? Someone asking good questions and growing in faith.

That’s the kind of gift a theologian likes to discover on the trip home. It doesn’t even take up any extra space in the luggage on the flight back…

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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