After a long month, my husband and I were able to get away recently to visit dear friends and celebrate the wedding of one couple’s daughter. It was a wonderful weekend where we were able to reconnect with old friends, share our lives, and celebrate with one another. As you can imagine, there was much laughter, storytelling, and encouragement, all nestled in acceptance, love, and just pure joy in being together. Our friends, all who have the gracious gift of hospitality, made us feel that our presence mattered in their lives and that life was a little better because we were together. At the end of the weekend, as we were basking in all that we had experienced, my husband looked at me and expressed something that caught my attention. This weekend was about being home, someplace where we belong.
That’s really a profound concept since we were someplace we had never been before. What was it that made such an impact on us? How did a good time visiting friends become a soul-touching, life-giving experience? As we flew home, exhausted but joy-filled, I started reflecting on this concept of “belonging.” This phrase pops up a lot in our culture. One of my favorite coffee shops, Blackberry Market, has “belong” as their motto. A favorite television show has theme music that talks about coming home. There is research discussing a student’s need for belonging in educational settings and that a sense of belonging contributes to an individual’s health and well-being.
In the church, we often focus on the concept of belonging and hospitality in terms of visitors and newcomers. We want them to experience community, intimacy, acceptance, and love. We want them to find a place in the church family – a place where they belong. And in a healthy church community, there is room for those who are new. We welcome them in and are shaped by their presence as we interact and shape them.
John Westerhoff, in his book Will Our Children Have Faith?, says that faith expands in four particular styles, one being what he calls Affiliative or Belonging Faith. As he describes, “all of us need to feel that we belong to a self-conscious community and that through our active participation can make a contribution to its life” (94). According to Westerhoff’s faith paradigm, Belonging or Affiliative Faith usually occurs in childhood and early adolescence. It is through these early experiences of belonging where we internalize the gospel story as our own, ultimately providing a foundation for faith. Just like my husband and I experienced this weekend, children in the church need to sense they are wanted, needed, accepted, and important to the community. They need to feel that their presence and contribution makes a difference in the lives of others. This sense of belonging is essential in a child’s faith formation.
The question I am wondering about is, are we encouraging this type of belonging and acceptance with children in the church? Of course, we say children belong and that they are part of the church family, but do children truly have those profound life-giving experiences where they sense joy in being loved and valued as an essential part of our faith community? Do children know down deep in their souls that their presence enhances the life of the faith community? Do they understand that without them, our faith community is less and not as strong as it is with them there? This isn’t just about affirming a child’s self-esteem. This is valuing their personhood as an essential part of a community’s identity and faith, and in turn, nurturing this faith as part of their identity.
Why is this so easy to do with friends? Why is this a priority for a healthy church to do with visitors? And why do we so often forget to do this with our children?