How to Find Where You Belong in Church
By Alice Clarke
“It is not good for the man to be alone.” Genesis 2:18 NIV
Right at the beginning of the Bible, at the start of the human narrative, God decided it was not good for Adam to be alone. So God made Eve. Millennia later, God’s words still hold true. It’s not good for humans to be alone.
We are made to experience belonging. But we find ourselves in an era where loneliness is a widespread social problem. It affects people from all backgrounds and all ages, and that includes people in church. So how do we find a sense of belonging in church?
Take The Shame out of Loneliness
A recent article from the CBC discusses the devastating mental and physical effects that loneliness can have on our bodies. It includes stories of people who suffer with loneliness, including elementary school children, and what they’re doing to overcome it. In order to combat loneliness in the church, we’ve got to be open with our stories too.
Loneliness often comes with feelings of shame, when we believe that we’re lonely because people don’t want to be with us, or because there’s something wrong with us. Shame is the age-old tactic that Satan uses to stop us from loving ourselves, connecting with God and with other people. He tries to keep us isolated, whispering lies like, “When I lose weight, I’ll be worthy of love and belonging,” or “My opinions are different from other people in my church. I don’t fit in, so I can’t belong here.” These lies stop us taking risks, opening up to others, and pursuing connection and community.
Understand your Need for Belonging
Every single person needs to feel a sense of belonging. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown describes belonging:
“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.”
We can’t skip out on belonging, just like we can’t avoid our inbuilt need for love. Belonging isn’t the same as fitting in. Brown describes how when we try to adjust to become like others, we’re actually harming our ability to belong. To truly belong, we need to be honest with who we are. We need to accept ourselves as God made us.
Accept Who You Are
King David said, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14 NIV) David had a profound sense of his identity in God. Do you feel the same about yourself? Do you look in the mirror and know that you really are wonderful? Do you accept yourself, with your strengths and limitations, and see that what God made is good?
Brene Brown writes, “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” (The Gifts of Imperfection).
If you’re hungry for a sense of belonging, learn to see yourself as Father God sees you. Build self-awareness so that you can see how you’re similar to others, and embrace the ways that you’re different.
Fix Harmful Thought Patterns
Social Psychologist Gregory Watson studies belonging. He’s done a number of research projects looking at how a sense of belonging can affect college student’s engagement and performance.
He takes them through a “social belonging intervention.” It’s a simple process where students identify their feelings of “unbelonging”, and learn that they’re not alone in their experiences. It also helps them see that the feelings aren’t permanent. The students that went through this process ended up with higher grades and more positive social engagement at school. The results were strongest with students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In Romans 12:2, we read that we’re transformed by the renewing of our mind. Gregory Watson’s social belonging intervention is a great example of how our thought patterns can change our lives.
If you’ve been stuck feeling that you don’t belong, then it’s important to realise that most people struggle with the same feelings, too. Even if someone else seems totally fine. Even if they’ve been part of your church for 20 years and it’s your second week. Even if they’re the church pastor. They have likely experienced periods of loneliness just like you.
You’re not alone, and perhaps what that other person needs, just as much as you, is for you to reach out and offer kindness and friendship.
Finding belonging requires courage. You’ve got to take risks to build connection with others. Jonathan Puddle and Melissa Joy Boerger, both leaders at Catch The Fire church in Kitchener, Canada, recently blogged about making adult friends. They highlight two keys to building community: vulnerability and availability.
Vulnerability is the willingness to be open with who you are, to be your authentic self around others. Availability is being open with your time. It takes time to get to know people and build memories together. And when you’re available to help other people, or be ‘inconvenienced’ by their needs, it builds trust and deeper connection.
Deep bonds of friendship don’t happen overnight, but they begin with little steps toward others and toward loving yourself more completely.
What practical steps are you going to take this week to build a sense of belonging? Invite a friend to dinner? Work on your self-acceptance? Remind yourself that you’re not alone and reach out to a newcomer at church with a smile? Whatever you do, remember that you have a lot to offer. God has made you to enrich and bless the lives of people in your community.