I think “belonging” is a hot topic in churches right now. I want to say that it always has been, but we did go through several centuries where obligation, requirement and fear were pretty powerful motivators. Maybe they still are, for some. But, in these days of declining attendance and participation, churches that thrive do so, I think, because they cultivate a sense of belonging.
It’s not just churches, of course. Any institution, organization or group that wants to create community, especially sustainable community, needs to pay attention to what it means to belong. And you know what that means. It means there’s experts, surveys, studies and reports and everyone has an opinion. If you’re keen to look into it, just Google it and see.
One, in particular, is a multi-year study begun in 2015 by Community Foundations of Canada as part of their Vital Signs initiative. I’m sure that everyone has their own definition of belonging, with varying degrees of complexity, but they began with two very simple points: belonging is about “being part of a collective we” and that it’s a two way street. It’s not just about the community being welcoming, it’s about how a person feels they’re a part of it. Then they went in depth through a variety of lenses, including social, arts, sport, community systems and more.
I’m not an expert, but I do have some thoughts on it. As you might imagine, that springs from something Jesus said. Or maybe I mean intended.
Let me just clarify that. There’s a passage in John’s gospel in which Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd and attempts to describe his relationship with his followers as that of a shepherd and sheep. It’s a rather testy exchange with a divided crowd and towards the end of it, John writes that Jesus says to them “you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
It could just be our 21st century sensibilities, but there’s lots of people who struggle with the whole sheep and shepherd image from the start. But even if you’re not concerned about the connotation of being a sheep, it can be easy to hear that passage as Jesus saying the sheep are mine and they follow me. And that can quickly become all sorts of negative. It can sound like ownership and unthinking allegiance or, at best, blind faith. Not to mention, exclusive.
But hang on a minute. I don’t think that’s what Jesus intended.
I don’t want to get into a debate about different translations of the Bible (another time perhaps), but reading this in a variety of them, I notice most say what I quoted above from the New International Version. The New Revised Standard Version, though, throws in a little something extra here. It says “you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
Do you see it? I think that’s what Jesus is talking about. It’s not about ownership or control, it’s not about follow-the-leader, it’s about belonging. It’s about being part of “we” and the two-way street that makes it a “we.” It’s about a relationship with Jesus. And that means how we live our relationships with each other, too.
I think Jesus wants us to be who we truly are, in our hearts. You know, created in the image of God. And I think Jesus show us how to do that by showing us how to love, fully and openly. To follow Jesus means living that, not just an hour a week, but every moment. Not just in church, but everywhere.
I hope churches want to be welcoming, as should anyone who aims to create community. I’d also like us to be open and inclusive and engage people where they’re at, not just wait for them to come to us and do what we do. I think a welcoming community is one that respects people for who they are, engages them and encourages them to grow and live positive and affirming relationships, honours the gifts and the questions that they bring with them, and recognizes what they contribute to the wholeness of the community. The common ground of how we understand God is just the start.
And for those who seek belonging - and I’m pretty sure that’s all of us - I’d suggest that it’s not just about fitting in, it’s not about always agreeing with everyone, and it’s certainly not about being all the same or even doing as you’re told. Real belonging comes from knowing that you bring something to the community that impacts the community, just as it impacts you. You being there is part of what makes it what it is or can be, just as what it is impacts who you are and what you can be. Respecting and honouring that in others is part of making the community. Any community. Any flock.