August 27, 2012 by cbbeard
Think about the “communities” you are a part of. These can be work-based, location-based, and even virtual communities online. For me, I consider my church, my neighborhood, the cohort of my PhD program, and even my Facebook network. Obviously, some of these are more “communing” than others, but all of these are examples of communities.
Now, think about your involvement in those communities. Do any of those communities help define your identity? In those communities, are you simply a part of the community or do you belong to the community? Let me explain the difference…
Looking back over my church experience (both in the context of church member and compensated minister), I can identify several times when I felt like I “belonged” in the context I existed in. Each time I experienced this sense of belonging had one thing in common; I felt like I was an integral part of the mission of the church. Certainly I did not consider myself irreplaceable, but at the same time I was not expendable either. My absence would have left a void that would be noticeable and require filling. That’s when I felt like I “belonged”; when it was clear that I was “needed.”
I also look back at communities I was involved in that I was merely part of the community, I didn’t really belong. Being part of a community is about the connection you have with others within that community. In fact, one can be a part of a large community while maintaining only surface connections with individuals. A sense of community does not require the same feeling of being needed as belonging does, it simply requires common connection. For example, a few years ago I was a part of an online community of Chevrolet Colorado owners. It was a forum where people discussed all aspects of owning one of those little pickups; maintenance, modifications, and tips and tricks to get the most out of the truck. I knew a lot of the members and interacted with them regularly. However, when my family outgrew that truck and traded it in for a Ford, I stopped participating in that community. I just checked up on that forum, and amazingly, they’ve continued on without me! I was a part of that community, but I wasn’t really needed. I didn’t really belong.
The difference is subtle; both belonging and being a part of community appeal to the desire to go “where everybody knows your name,” and that both belonging and being a part of a community might give us the sense that if we were not a part of that group that we would leave a void and be missed. But I believe there should be some separation between the concept of having a role in a community or simply being a part of a community; the difference between activity and passivity, vulnerability and superficiality.
The Apostle Paul spoke much about belonging in his writings found in the New Testament. Perhaps most exhaustively is his description of the church as the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. Paul repeatedly uses the phrase “in Christ” throughout his writings, indicating the connection that all believers have to and through Jesus. Indeed, Paul considered being “in Christ” the belonging of utmost importance, surpassing any other ethnic, gender, or national belonging (as found in 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:28, and Colossians 3:11).
But, in the church, we are also susceptible to the differences between being a part and truly belonging; and once again the difference is activity and passivity, as well as vulnerability and superficiality. But we must also forsaking the individualistic concept of spirituality that has infiltrated the Western Church. God intended the church to be a community in the truest sense of the word. He built the church for the purpose of fulfilling his mission for the world, as well as a gift to his people who are to fulfill that mission together. And it is God’s desire that we truly belong to a local body of believers; to live in such a way that we are truly needed and if we were absent, a noticeable void would be left.
Croucher (2004) talked in her book about “layers of belonging,” a concept effectively applied to the church by Mike Breen and Alex Absalom in Launching Missional Communities: A Field Guide. They talk about the four different layers of belonging that occur naturally due to our social tendencies, and then equate it with the Old and New Testament examples:
What is true for the Old and New Testament is true for us in the church today. We will naturally form these four levels of socialization, but it is up to us as to whether we will truly belong to an intimate, personal, social, and public community, or whether we just pick and choose a group to be a part of. Here is Breen and Absalom’s parallel for the church today:
I believe that if we are to be the church God intended, we must truly belong. I also believe that these “layers of belonging” must be present for us in the church both for our own growth and maturity as well as the for the purpose of making NEW disciples for Jesus as well! In the future we will talk more about what these four social groups mean for the church, and how they benefit our mission. But in the meantime, let’s move from being a part to belonging!
What do you think? Being a part is a lot easier than truly belonging; why is that? What can we do to remove barriers in the church that keep people from truly belonging? Which of the four “types of space” is most lacking in your church?