By Justin Rossow
In his book Organic Community, Joseph Myers describes four different “patterns of belonging” we all need in order to experience a sense of community. Myers doesn’t tell us what to do to experience belonging; he describes how belonging takes place. And he doesn’t suggest we necessarily move from more loosely connected relationships to more intimate ones: we all need a variety of relationships to feel like we belong.
Based on the aspects of community described by Myers, you can think of your faith family as a place to connect in vital ways to a variety of other disciples on this same Journey of Faith.
1. PUBLIC BELONGING
You know what it’s like to be connected to a group of people you may or may not know because you share something in common; whether you are a Michigan fan or an Ohio State fan, you wear the colors, know the lingo, watch the game, high-five the fellow fan you’ve never seen before as you celebrate a victory.
This kind of “public belonging” is an important aspect of your social life, also at church. You may simply find comfort in being in your sanctuary with other people who are on the same journey of faith. Covid reminded us of how good it is just to gather together as a group, even if you don’t know every individual.
As a part of a congregation, you know some of the “lingo,” you like going to the “game,” you’ll smile and shake hands with a stranger (once social distancing restrictions have been lifted) because they are also a part of your church home.
You have more of these public relationships than any other kind of connection, and that’s OK. It’s good to belong to the family of God at a specific local congregation, even if you never get to know everybody’s name. You’re glad to be around other Christians and they’re glad you’re here!
2. SOCIAL BELONGING
After Public Belonging, the most relationships you have belong to the category of “Social Belonging.” These relationships are people you know well enough to ask a smaller favor of them. They might be people who share your pew or who sit at your table in Bible class. They might be people you sing next to in choir, serve next to on a board, or ride next to in our motorcycle club.
These kinds of social relationships are important because they allow you to express who you are and tell your story to other people in a way that strengthens your own sense of identity. One reason social distancing has been difficult is that you don’t get a chance to be yourself in different social contexts; you need those different settings in order to get a sense of who you are as an individual.
For Christians, being able to speak about your faith walk comfortably with those in your social group at church helps you understand better what God is doing in your life. It also makes it easier to share your faith with others when the opportunity arises.
You don’t have to know everyone to feel like you belong at your local congregation, but as you become more and more connected, it’s important to have some people who know you on a first name, social level. After all, sometimes you want to go where at least somebody knows your name . . .
3. PERSONAL BELONGING
Just as social belonging can grow out of public relationships, personal belonging can grow out of social relationships. Everybody needs a few people that are willing to listen and interact with their own private (though not intimate) opinions or views. You might call these kinds of people “close friends,” and friendships don’t develop over night.
Some of the people in your social community get connected to you over time until you find yourself sharing your own personal joys and sorrows. You don’t need to be close friends with everyone at your local congregation, but you do need some people in your life who will share your burdens, prayers, and joys.
Do you have someone you would call if you had to go into the hospital, or if you found out your mother was going in for surgery? Who would visit you if you were stuck in bed for a month, or bring you a meal if your oven blew up? Though you might smile at everyone in worship, and you might call a few people by name, you also need a small number of Christian friends that can support you in times of difficulty or sorrow, success or joy. These are the travelers to whom we are most closely connected on this faith journey. Who’s on your rope?
4. INTIMATE BELONGING
In Organic Community, Joseph Myers wants you to know that people don’t need to progress from the less intimate to the more intimate relationships to be good Christians or even to be healthy people. Everybody needs a variety of patterns of belonging to have a sense of community in their lives.
Your most intimate relationships may not be with people at your local church, and that’s OK—but, just like everyone else, you do need one or two “best friends” that can share your most personal hurts and joys.
A fellow Christian who knows you well enough to listen to your failings and offer forgiveness, listen to your struggles and offer encouragement, or just plain listen when you’re having a bad day—they are a gift from God and one of the ways the Spirit works in your life through God’s Word.
So where are you on this journey?
Take a moment to assess where you are in each of these areas. Who comes immediately to mind in these different categories? Do you find any gaping holes in your patterns of belonging? What gets in the way of building positive relationships with others in your life?
Go a step further and consider how these patters of belonging relate not only to your church family, but to your relationship with Jesus. Are the patterns of belonging you currently experience encouraging you to cling to Jesus and follow Him just a little closer this week? Or do your most important relationships seem to lead you father away from God and from God’s Word?
Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t mean you have to get rid of all your relationships that aren’t church-based; in fact, Jesus was known as a “friend of sinners!” But if none of your patterns of belonging support your faith walk, you will find it hard to grow. (In fact, you’ll likely find yourself moving backwards!)
So what do you think? Do you need to develop more relationships with people who don’t know Jesus? Or do you need to find the support of a few fellow travelers on the Way? God’s intention is that we have both.
Where have you felt the social distancing related to Covid-19 most acutely? Do you need more social belonging in your life? Or is your next step to spend some quality time with your best friend? How does prayerfully considering your patterns of belonging help you see what Jesus is up to in your life?
God created us to be social beings. You need a variety of community experiences in your life. And your faith needs relationships that help you follow Jesus. How are you doing when it comes to belonging? Jesus meets you right where you are.