What makes us belong?

Back to belonging. It’s been exactly a year, I see, since I last posted. In that time I’ve had plenty of other things to think about, but this word keeps drawing me back. What does it mean to belong? What does it mean to belong to a church?

Here’s what some of the people in the church I worked with told me.

It’s very accepting of wherever you’re at and there’s no pressure to be more or less than you are. So I’m allowed to just do the little bit I do, and I’m welcomed for that and that’s nice…

On one level fully engaged, busy, and on another level, estranged…

Sometimes I do feel part of the church, that I belong, and sometimes I feel I shouldn’t be here at all, it’s not the right kind of place for me…

An invaluable friendship and support network…

It’s the place where I belong because I don’t belong anywhere else…

Being involved and loved and appreciated…

I feel on the edge, not being allowed to break in, not being allowed to break out…

Sometimes the older members feel marginalised…

Backgrounds make a big difference…

Loving family…

It doesn’t matter whether you sit, stand, kneel, lay on the floor, nobody’s bothered…

Safe place…

This is a tiny fraction of the thoughts and emotions expressed, and even these suggest a multitude of different elements determining how and how far we experience belonging. It varies from moment to moment. It’s to do with our demographic profile – how old we are, where we come from. Or how tolerant and accepting and supportive other people are. Or how active and involved we are. Or how active and involved we are allowed to be. Or how well we fit elsewhere. Or how safe we feel. Or how much we are loved.

In fact, the participants in this study articulated six general factors relating to their sense of belonging (or of marginalisation):

First, their role in the church. As one person put it, ‘I feel part of the church when I’m able to contribute. Less so when I’m a passenger’.

Second, a sense of acceptance, with the focus on being valued for who they are, rather than for what they do.

Third, connectedness: meaningful interaction and relationships with other people in the church.

Fourth, ritual: familiarity with such things as services, structures, songs and liturgy.

Fifth, personality and the interaction and fit between individual personality types and preferences on the one hand, and the social and stylistic context of the church on the other.

Sixth, their immediate personal situation in terms of, among other things, health, family, social networks, work, money and faith.

These elements overlap, interweave, contradict and reinforce each other, working in different ways and on different levels for different people. I’ll write more on each of them later.

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