The Importance of Belonging

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.

BelongThat’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?

Notes: Westerhoff, J.W. (2012). Will our children have faith? (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Morehouse Publishing.
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And A Little Child Shall Lead Them

One Sunday, the children of our congregation opened the worship service with a few songs.  As they gathered on stage, a few of the boys were in their glory – poking and bumping each other, giggling, picking noses, pointing out to the congregation.  One little boy, in particular, had this mischievous twinkle in his eye.  I leaned over to my husband, pointing him out, and whispered, “now there goes some trouble.”

The singing commenced and for the most part the children sang their praises with gusto with some fidgeting.  And as expected, the mischievous imp did a little prodding and poking of his fellow choir members, trying to get them to laugh or join him in his mischievousness.  At the end of the singing, as the children were leaving, the pastor reminded the congregation that the children were leading us – leading us in worship and praise, and more importantly, leading us to the throne of God.

This thought could have been just a simple reminder that the pastor says to provide support and encouragement to the children’s ministry team each year.  Knowing my pastor, I think he believes this to be true and was graciously reminding us of this biblical truth – “…and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6, NIV).  As a congregational member, I could have easily accepted this illustration as a sweet reminder, smiling at how adorable the children are, and moved on.  Except for that mischievous twinkle…

For whatever reason, I have always been drawn to those kids in my ministry who were a little mischievous.  This probably stems from self-identification.  According to family stories, I, too, was a little bit of an imp growing up.  And on that Sunday morning, I could not get that image out of my mind.  Here were these children who were leaning, bumping, giggling, and poking each other.  And they were, according to the pastor, leading us to the throne of the Almighty God.

The sermon for that Sunday was not for the faint of heart.  Our pastor preached the gospel in such a way that both truth and grace were bestowed.  Personally, the Holy Spirit moved in such a way that I got a view of my own brokenness, its impact on me, and on others.  And it wasn’t a pretty view.  Thankful for the significant words of grace, I was reminded once again of that mischievous little imp from the children’s choir.

And a little child shall lead them.  

If I was planning a processional into a throne room, I think I would recruit those who can lead strongly and march in formation.  I would want responsible people whose voices were commanding and strong.  Beauty would be important with people dressed in robes that glitter with gold thread.  Only the best and brightest among us would do.  But instead, that morning I was led into the throne room by a mischievous little imp who really could care less about singing and was more focused on getting his other friends in trouble.

How grateful I am for that experience.  This was a reminder of what God values.  In contrast to my need for strength, I was reminded that we can approach the throne in our brokenness.  Instead of the importance of marching in formation, I was reminded that we can still come to the throne when we can’t stay within the lines and have broken all the rules.  Instead of commanding voices, I am able to approach God Almighty in tears or anger or in a state that has no words.  And most importantly, instead of coming all dressed up in what I think is a beautiful robe, my tattered clothing is covered by Jesus and his righteousness.

And what meets me there is love – a love so profound and real.  The unexplainable love I have for the little mischievous children in my life is nothing compared to the deep love God has for me.  He sees me poking and bumping into others, not focusing but instead looking around and ignoring the task before me.  He sees me approaching the throne probably with no shoes because I have kicked them off somewhere along the way and with blue jeans that probably have grass stains.  Yet, his loves pours out, calling and enticing me to run into his arms as a child would their loving earthly Father.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are!  (1 John 3:1a, NIV)

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