Creating a place of belonging: going it alone isn’t an option

 In Blog, Connection

In our pop culture, we tend to celebrate stories of people going it alone and beating the odds. One of the most common images of Americana is the cowboy. He rides off into the sunset alone, living on the outskirts of town, needing nothing and asking nothing of others. This is the quintessential picture of the rugged individual. They can go it alone. The only problem is that’s a lie. Going it alone was never part of the plan. We are designed for relationship and connection. Like it or not folks, we need each other.

If you take a look at how we come into this world, the very first thing we have is connection to other humans. A three-day-old baby can distinguish their mother from others solely by how she smells. According to researcher and Ph.D., Alice Sterling, babies will snuggle their mothers, pressing their face into the mother’s skin because they are seeking out her scent. We are hardwired for connection from birth.

As we grow older, our dependence on needing others for our very survival changes into increased self-reliance. This is a normal and needed transition, but we never lose the hardwired need for connection. Today we are living in what some have called the “Age of Loneliness”. Despite having more access to each other thanks to technological advancements, one out of five Americans suffer from persistent loneliness.

Isolation has physical, emotional and spiritual implications, and as the church, we are uniquely positioned to provide a different path. We can create an environment of belonging. Not only do we have the ability, we have a responsibility to do it.  In fact, it is the paradigm-shifting, worldview-altering welcome that the Gospel is built upon. So, if we want meaningful connection and have the tools at our disposal to support those connections, then why  do we still feel so disconnected from each other?  Perhaps it is that we are not finding communities that make us feel safe enough to connect.

If our communities are going to be places of belonging, then they need to have the 6 common elements that people are searching for:

To be seen and known

For many of us, our deepest desire and greatest fear is to be truly known. Meaningful connection requires vulnerability and a level of transparency. That can be scary stuff. Most of us fear that if people really knew us, that they wouldn’t like what they find. That’s one reason social media is so popular. We have the ability to ‘feel’ known, but to control what people actually see. Christ presents us with an alternate way. He sees us with all our crap, our fear, and shame and fully embraces us. He is a safe place to be vulnerable.  If our churches are going to create a place for connection, we must emulate this posture. We must be a safe space for people and all of their flaws. In our rush to deal with our own flaws, we can unintentionally create a place where others don’t feel uncomfortable exposing their own. The highest forms of bravery include vulnerability.

To be a part of something

In addition to being known, people want to have a tribe. It is human nature that we divide the world into insiders and outsiders. As the church, the only barrier to becoming an insider should be the person’s desire.  For many, inclusion has become a code word for a specific agenda. But the inclusion of the Gospel can be seen in the Samaritans care for a foreigner, in perfume poured on feet by a disreputable woman, and by stones that are dropped in the dust instead of hurled at an adulteress. It is not easy to live out this posture of invitation and embrace, but there are some simple steps that can create an environment which helps people feel included. Using common language, intentionally extending invitations to others, and showing gratitude for people participating are a few simple places to start.

“A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”
-Seth Godin, Tribes: We need you to lead us.

To be part of a narrative

We all want to live a story that is worthy of being retold. Nobody wants to be forgotten or irrelevant. If we have a safe group of people whom you can be vulnerable with, but no unifying cause, then it won’t last. As people of faith, we get to play a role in a story that extends back to the dawn of time itself and has eternal significance. The challenge is identifying and communicating how we fit into that narrative.  People need help connecting the dots between volunteering as a parking lot attendant and the transformative mission of the church. The best leaders help to cast a vision of how their role matters in the bigger picture.

To be a contributor

If people are part of a community that they care for and feel cared for by, then they want to be involved. Connection helps people move from ‘sit back and relax’ to ‘lean in and engage’. We need to begin recognizing that people’s involvement in their faith communities is directly related to the sense of connection and belonging that we as church leaders are creating. Too often, we are worried about filling positions and less concerned about finding ways to facilitate involvement for people that aligns with their gifts and interests. This process begins by listening to and truly knowing the people in the community.

To leave their mark

People want to know that they made a difference. God doesn’t create people by accident. Each person has a unique and personal value that they can contribute to the community. The most powerful leaders, allows others to lead. To do this well, we must be willing to relinquish a bit of control and allow others to have ownership in our collective work. This allows people to explore their possibilities and to grow beyond who they are today.

At aware3, we know that church connection isn’t just about getting your first-time visitors to fill out a form so that you can send them a follow-up message. Connection is a posture of extravagant welcome and open-armed embrace. The goal isn’t to get another body to sit in the pews, it is to help a searching soul find a home within their tribe.

How are you creating a community of belonging?