I’ve been thinking about belonging…
Recently, a good friend of mine decided to step away from his role in his church leadership. In our conversation he talked about how he feels the church will be stronger in the long-run. He attributes this to the culture they’ve created that isn’t dependent on him, but on their vision.
Their vision is one where people “belong” at the church so they can “become” new through Jesus.
The idea is this, people who are not currently part of their community of faith would be invited, loved, known, and eventually see themselves as part of the community, even before they begin to trust Jesus. This is a lofty goal. Most people don’t really connect to a church without already feeling “in.” And belief, for many churches, is what makes you “in” or “out.”
I got to thinking about this vision they have. This goal to see people in their city feeling they belong in their faith community is no easy task in 2019 America. To say the least, people are starting to see church and churches as irrelevant, unnecessary, and even in some circumstances…the problem.
For anyone who’s been to a new place, surrounded by new people and struggling to “fit in” the idea of feeling like you don’t belong is familiar and maybe even painful. There’s a very real, deep need to feel like we belong. We come into this world belonging to a family, at least we are supposed to. I remember the day I realized that the source of so much hurt in a close friend’s life was the rejection he felt from a father who walked away early and never wanted him. One of the two people who were supposed to love him unconditionally…didn’t. And that hurts.
There’s power in belonging to things. Feeling you belong with your family, friends, teams, clubs, groups, church, neighborhood, city, etc. is important. Belonging has the power to heal. The power to help. Belonging has the ability to transform a person at their very core.
This is why I believe in “table building.”
A table is a tool we use to help people believe they belong. An invitation to a table says, “You are welcome. Here. With me, with us.” Sure, there may be differences. But at a table we demonstrate that it doesn’t really matter. There’s food and drink. There’s games and conversation. Building bigger tables creates more opportunity for more people to belong.
Helping people feel they belong…
As I think further about belonging and table building, it moves me to consider people and understand how they feel and how I feel when it comes to being “outside” of something I’m being invited “inside.” Because when it comes down to it, belonging is a feeling. You aren’t told “you belong” and believe you belong. You feel it, then you know it, even if it’s never been said.
People don’t feel they belong where they feel…
- JUDGED – This might be the biggest deterrent for people when it comes to church. Many people I talk to have very real stories of a church or “church-person” who judged them as lesser, unworthy, or unlovable. I’ve heard stories from teenagers who watched a church defend her abusive father and judge her abused mother right out of the church. Needless to say this teenager wasn’t eager to jump back into a group like that, and for her, every church group was like that.
- INAUTHENTIC – We all wear masks. We all have areas of our life we hide from plain sight. We all have secrets. We all have thought-lives we’d be ashamed to publicize. And we are all looking for places that will love us in spite of these things we know about ourselves are unlovable. In my experience, while churches say they want to be that place, it’s just not a reality for most. I remember coming to my church internship here in Las Vegas. Martha and I both felt the exact same thing…this place was a place to be real. We could be ourselves and we would be loved. We felt we belonged almost immediately.
- LOST – In any sub-culture or sub-community there’s an element of being “in” or “out” based on language, ceremony, ritual, storytelling, and more. This is unavoidable. Which is another reason avoid churches. They simply don’t know when or how to say or do the “right” things. In short, they feel lost. This is a very real problem that many churches just aren’t interested in solving. They do what they do and people can come be a part of it or not. They won’t acknowledge the awkwardness and do little to avoid it for people. There’s no greater feeling of separation from a group than feeling lost in their space.
Fortunately, there’s another side of the coin. There is a way to help people feel they belong. A way to help them feel “in” even though they just walked “in.” Much of this happens first with the people who are inviting them to the gathering, service, serving project, or event. But then there’s intentional ways churches can “build bigger tables” and help them feel they belong no matter what!
People feel they belong where they…
- FEEL ENGAGED – This is a big one for me. It’s one thing to show up. It’s quite another to feel compelled to participate. That’s what engagement really is for people. They are invited in and encouraged to participate. If they don’t know the songs or like the music, it won’t feel like an invitation to participate. If the announcements are filled with insider-language and inside jokes, they won’t feel compelled to take next steps. And if the person preaching uses illustrations, stories, and “Christianese” language people will feel on the outside looking in. But if things feel a little more familiar they will be more likely to welcome the things that still feel foreign. Churches must engage those they want to feel they belong.
- FEEL HEARD – Honestly, if your voice is stifled, opinions don’t matter, and your worldview is immediately rejected as “evil” you won’t be inclined to believe you belong. Church must create more space for meaningful dialogue. Let’s set aside for a moment the potential for growing empathy in your community of faith as they learn to listen. Let’s focus on the potential for people to believe they belong because they believe they are heard. Their opinions matter. They are allowed time and space to process spiritual matters. They are even given space to be wrong on their way to being more right. If people feel heard they feel they truly belong.
- ARE WITH OTHERS WHO FEEL THEY BELONG – We cannot minimize the group culture and atmosphere that is developed when people all feel they belong no matter what. That kind of culture is visible and relatable. That kind of atmosphere is palatable. You know when you walk into the room when people love each other and others like you. You can actually feel it. There’s a physiological response that happens in us. You feel welcome. You know it’s all going to be okay. And you know this because you can sense that everyone in the room feels the same way. That’s a powerful culture. That’s a place where people know they belong.
People feel they most belong where they feel most loved!
Have you ever been in a place that made you feel you instantly belonged? Share your story below and join the discussion!