Junior high lunch room. Yikes. I had a fear of sitting alone, so I worked hard to find a table where I could belong. I shudder at my memories of trying to earn a place at the lunch table–which involved drinking a bottle of Tabasco Sauce in less than a minute. It took multiple days, but I did earn my seat at the table I wanted—it just came at a steep price. But, I had a hunger to belong.
That longing for belonging continues on through life—hopefully minus the Tabasco Sauce. We are often so quick to think about everyone living such individualistic, personal lives as adults that we forget that God has planted a desire for belonging within each of us.
But, what exactly is a 21st century sense of belonging for adults? And, what role do churches play in meeting this hunger for belonging? Rather than assuming that belonging simply happens by joining a church, it is important to uncover the hunger for belonging that God has placed in people’s hearts.
Joseph Myers defines belonging as what “happens when you identify with another entity—a person or organization, or perhaps a species, culture, or ethnic group.” (Myers 2003, 25) Myers offers a rural anecdote to drive this point home:
“Being alone. This was something that never concerned most farmers of the past. The family stayed home. As life progressed, no one ever thought about being alone. The kids were given plots ‘on the back forty’ to build a home and raise a family. When mom and dad could no longer work, the boys took over and cared for the land and the old folks as well. Not so today. And this cultural shift is a major factor in our struggle to belong. People are trying to find their place in this world, not in individualist ways but in ways that connect. They are searching for the ‘back forty,” for a place to belong. They are searching for family.” (Myers 2003, 26)
Today, there is not only a hunger to belong, but to belong to an extended family (Breen 2013, 29). There is a hunger to move from being a stranger in need who receives hospitality to becoming “fictive kin”, or one who has been accepted as a part of the family (Jipp 2017, 3). This fictive kinship refers to individuals who have family-like relationships, yet are not connected by blood, marriage, or adoption. This kinship is developed through shared experiences in the past and on-going functioning together in the present (Taylor, et. al 2013, 609). This hunger for fictive kinship is a key to seeing the importance of the small membership church.
Our small membership churches should be a greenhouse for growing a sense of belonging! However, there is a dark side to close-knit belonging: in-groups and out-groups. When there is a close inner group of a church that loves one another deeply, there might be an unnoticed out-group that is not connected to the church family. And let’s be honest–if we are part of the in-group, we likely do not even realize that there is an out-group.
Do we aim for intentionally creating a place for people to belong in our churches, or do we assume they will “feel the family atmosphere” without any extra investment? Do we take into account the needs of those who are coming with a hunger for belonging, or do we only offer a sense of belonging to people who are like us? We have great opportunities to carve out space for people to belong—but it requires the intentionality of truly listening to the hunger for belonging of the people around us.
Carl Greene, Executive Director, SDB General Conference of USA and Canada, ltd
Breen, Mike. 2013. Leading Missional Communities: Rediscovering the Power of Living on Mission Together. Pawleys Island, SC: 3DM.
Jipp, Joshua W. 2017. Saved by Faith and Hospitality. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Myers, Joseph R. 2003. The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Taylor, Robert Joseph, Chatters, Linda M., Woodward, Amanda Toler, and Edna Brown. 2013. “Racial and Ethnic Differences in Extended Family, Friendship, Fictive Kin, and Congregational Informal Support Networks.” Family Relations 62: 609 – 624.