One hundred religious persons knit into a unity by careful organization do not constitute a church any more than eleven dead men make a football team. The first requisite is life, always. –A.W. Tozer
In all the different places I grew up—from trailer parks to apartment divisions to little yellow houses—the word that wouldn’t describe any of them is “peaceful.” But that’s pretty common where abuse, addiction and financial scarcity cast their shadows. To me, “home” wasn’t a place of safety or refuge but a source of secrecy, seclusion and shame.
Not to say that I have zero happy memories from that time: I grew up in the country and spent my childhood outside, picking wild blackberries, jumping on hay bales and playing in the woods. I read a lot. I had friends. But the good parts of childhood often seemed like tealights placed in a storm cellar, small flames swallowed by the dark. I looked forward to leaving my town (and secretly, my home) and going to college.
With a scholarship offer and not much else to go on, I ended up in Denton, Texas. I made friends with a group of Christian women, and, because I didn’t have a car, I ended up tagging along with them to The Village Church on Sundays. I was a “baby believer,” seeking after God and what it meant to be a Christian, something I’d heard a lot about but had seen conflicting examples of. And here, for the first time, I found a place and a people who truly felt like home.
A Place to Belong
It took several years of being a part of the church, but one day I realized that there was nowhere I wanted to go more than to worship with that body of believers each Sunday. Walking in, I felt peace, love and acceptance. This had nothing to do with the building, no magical line over which I stepped that ushered me into instant beatitude. In fact, if you saw the church—the none-too-appealing orange brick, its sad lack of natural light—you’d probably wonder why people wanted to go there at all. The appeal didn’t come from the aesthetic surroundings. It came from the people gathered there.
Edmund Clowney knew this when he said, “The congregation, not the building, is holy….The church is holy because the congregation is the house of God.” Just as there’s no substitute for mankind’s savior other than Jesus Christ, there’s no substitute for belonging to the people of God. No group or club or organization will do as much for the Christian’s soul and spiritual growth.
Churches should not be places of wounding; they should facilitate healing.
It’s the elder who texts you to say they prayed for you that morning. The member you’ve met once—twice?—but who listens to your fears about motherhood anyway. The pastor who asks, “But how are you really?” because he wants a deeper answer after, “Fine.” I felt a sense of belonging at my church because the people there knew me, loved me and wanted to continue knowing the state of my mind, my heart and my soul. Like most good things, it took time for this to develop, but it did.
I know this is not every person’s experience. Like the hurts I carry from my childhood, others have been scarred by their experiences at churches, hurt by the people there. This is true, and it is devastating. It is devastating because it shouldn’t be so.
Churches should not be places of wounding; they should facilitate healing. They should be where the neglected, the voiceless, the broken-hearted, the crushed in spirit and the weary find love, kindness and the hope of Jesus Christ. When you find a people and a place like that, you yearn to belong.
How to Belong
But today, especially in the Western world, wanting fulfillment outside yourself isn’t a desirable trait; no one hopes to be described as “dependent” or “needy.” Yet, inside us all, no matter what image we project, there is a deep longing to belong. Christians should recognize this longing as part of the way God made us—to live in community with Himself and with other people—rather than trying to hide or deny it, as we’re often tempted to do. We shouldn’t embrace the world’s virtues of independence and self-sufficiency. More than 300 years ago, the poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And, going back almost 2,000 years: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12).
If you want to belong, you must make a commitment.
Belonging is hard. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it can’t be forced. So how does someone who wants to belong move toward it? I have three initial suggestions to offer, and you’ll probably think, “Well, duh. That’s obvious,” when you read them. In theory, each is incredibly simple to do, but in practice, can be incredibly difficult.
Show up to weekend services. Show up to prayer nights. Show up to Home Group. Show up to picnics, holiday parties, baby dedications, worship nights and everything else. Show up when you don’t want to. Especially when you don’t want to. You know that saying about how familiarity breeds contempt? I would like to counter with my own experience: that familiarity can also breed a depth of love like I didn’t know was possible. Being in and around the Church grew me in my knowledge of and subsequently my love for the Lord, for the Bible, for His mission—and my love for the Church. If the Church offers both the most hopeful and most joyous message to transform lives, why wouldn’t you want to be a part of it as often as possible?
Serve in Little Village. Serve in Connections. Serve on the parking team. Serve in your group. Serve in your group member’s ministry. Serve in your group member’s ministry’s ministry. The first place I served at the church was with the greeting team. This is like the 101 of serving—just smile and say hello as people walk into church—but it felt like an advanced step at the time. Talking to people, especially strangers, didn’t come naturally to me (or smiling, to be honest). But the more I served at weekend services, the more I got to know people and the more they got to know me. Being “known” by others was huge for me, someone who, as a child, felt like I always had to be on guard and keep secrets about my family and my home life. Taking that first step with the welcome team led me to serve with students later on and also helped me find a Home Group. Serving led me to greater involvement and even greater relationships.
Become a member.
Become a member of a local church. There’s no other “become” suggestion here; it’s pretty straightforward. If you want to belong, you must make a commitment. This gets twisted in our culture in small and big ways, from cancelling plans at the last minute to no-hard-feelings, no-strings-attached hookups to opting out of marriage altogether. Shockingly, “keep it loose, keep it casual,” isn’t really the ethos of the Bible. And while the Bible doesn't outright give believers a command to be a member of a local church, it does call them to community and to belong to other believers in deep ways (1 Cor. 12; Rom. 12:4-16; Col. 3:16). Being vulnerable isn’t easy, but commitment requires it. It took me three years of attending The Village, getting to know people, joining a Home Group, going to events and serving before I became a member (partially because the membership class was always full!). But when I did, I committed with my whole self.
Belonging for Good
This isn’t to say that once you belong to a church, you always will. That’s okay, too. There are times for change, for new relationships, for new jobs and new towns, for shifts that a person can’t predict. Life isn’t static; why would your relationship to God and His Church be?
The safe, peaceful home that I desired as a child never came to be, but as an adult, I found that and more within my local church. I found the Church. I pray that those who are seeking a place to belong do, too, and that it reflects what Paul calls for in Romans 15:5-7:
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
You may belong to a place for a time, or you may belong for your life. But when it comes to the Church, to the body of Christ, you will always belong.