By Andrea Stephens
How ironic is it that a school playground could act as a training ground for the rest of life?
I can vividly recall the torment of being picked last for dodgeball. I can still taste the bitterness of sitting alone at the lunch table.
And now, nearly 40 years later, I can recall the ache of not getting the party invitation—of being left out or not included.
Not belonging is miserable. And for good reason—we’ve been created to belong.
God made us in His image as His very own. Those who are in Christ are His chosen, His children, His treasured possession. We’ve been designed for relationship, both with Him and with people.
And no matter how hard our individualistic culture fights against the notion, we were never meant to walk alone. The Lord didn’t intend for our Christian walk to be one of isolation, but of belonging.
The Lord paints this vision for connectedness with a broad stroke over the whole of Scripture. It starts in the garden, when the Lord declared man’s alone-ness not good (Genesis 2:18).
We see it in Revelation 19, when the end of all things culminates in a marriage feast, at which we will be the honored guests. And we see it throughout Scripture:
- “Do not neglect to gather together” (Hebrews 10:25).
- “How delightfully good when brothers live together in harmony!” (Psalm 133:1).
- “Two are better than one…and a chord of three strands is not easily broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9,12).
Jesus even tells us this Christian love will mark us as His disciples: “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another” (John 13:34).
Congregational life ministry, in which I serve, is the business of connecting people. In assimilation ministry, we greet visitors and walk alongside them until they’ve been woven into the fabric of our church body, finding their place of discipleship and mission.
In small group ministry, we cultivate space where we can build the Christ-centered community Jesus has set as our very watermark and find a place to be seen and known.
It’s a ministry of belonging—a holy calling and deep need in our churches.
God sets the lonely in families
Much has been said of how disconnected we truly are in this age of so-called connection. Loneliness has reached epidemic proportions, and our society is veritably filled with lonely people.
So much so that healthcare giant Cigna has taken note and developed a loneliness index, conducting a national online survey of 20,000 adults to explore the impact of loneliness in the U.S.
In its initial release in 2018, Cigna discovered nearly half of Americans sometimes or always felt alone (46%) or left out (47%).
According to its 2020 release, those numbers have increased to a shocking 61% in only two years.
The findings reveal a majority of Americans feel “their relationships are not meaningful” and “they are isolated from others.” Most also “rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.”
As church leaders, this should be a splash of cold water to the face. We must recognize these statistics include the very people sitting in our pews on Sunday morning.
And we must acknowledge this was never the Lord’s intention, and that in His grace, He’s already offered the remedy.
Psalm 68:6 tells us, “God sets the lonely in families.” And James 1:27 says, “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”
The image of the early church we see in Acts 2 is one of rich, abiding community devoted to prayer, fellowship and teaching, of shared meals and possessions, and of daily time together.
God’s design for His church is belonging in a loving family.
A culture of inviting
In a ministry of belonging we cultivate a culture of inviting—inviting people to Jesus, to His Kingdom, and to His church. The triune God sets our example of the perfect, loving community that existed before creation.
And through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Lord invites us into this perfect, loving relationship—like ragamuffins to an elegant gala.
“The aim of God in history,” Dallas Willard once said, “is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with himself included in that community as its prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant.”
In our ministry of belonging we have the privilege of extending that same invitation for people to join us in this dynamic kinship.
We leave the 99 for the one
When the Pharisees bashed Jesus for His associating with “tax collectors and sinners,” He compared His mission to that of a shepherd who’d lost one of his precious sheep.
Jesus points out that anyone among them would have left their herd to go in search of the one wandering lamb.
I was that very lamb Jesus sought to rescue, and so were you.
As wayfaring sheep who’ve been brought home on the shoulders of our Shepherd, we rightly view each person who enters our church doors as a beloved, image bearer of the Lord and draw them into His flock and ours.
This ministry of belonging that leaves the 99 for the one has deep evangelistic undertones. For newcomers to our church, their visit might not only be their first taste of our individual church, but their first taste of the Church and of the Lord.
Christina Walker with the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism said, “the first and most important activity of effective evangelistic churches is to offer a welcoming, inclusive environment most importantly on a Sunday morning, but extending into all of the endeavors of the church.”
We belong before we believe
There’s ample buzz amid church circles of a shift in the American evangelistic process. At one time, someone first believed the message of Christ and then sought out a church community in which to belong.
But with growing mistrust of Christians, and in an age when biblical values are no longer mainstream, this is no longer the chronology.
Rick Richardson says in his book, Evangelism Outside the Box, “Today people are looking for a community to belong to more than a message to believe in.
“Evangelism is about helping people belong so that they come to believe. Most people do not ‘decide’ to believe. In community they ‘discover’ that they believe and then decide to affirm that publicly and to follow Christ intentionally.”
A ministry of belonging can be the canvas upon which someone can discern the loving brushstrokes of the Master Artist and embrace their lives as His masterpiece. So, the launching pad for evangelism and discipleship can be our ministry of belonging.
We see our ministry of belonging at work in an umbrella-wielding greeter escorting a newcomer into the Lord’s house on a soggy morning.
We see it in an usher’s genuine smile and embrace that says to a visitor, “We’re so glad you are here!”
ANDREA STEPHENS is the minister of congregational life at St. John Lutheran Church in Roanoke, Virginia.