The second chapter of Joseph Myers’ The Search to Belong focuses on the deep longing all human seem to have to “belong.” But defining what it means to belong, and what it means for others to belong to us, turns out to be more complicated than you might think.
It all comes back to the fragmentation of family and community that has characterized American life for over 50 years now, and Myers seems to present this crisis as the issue the church must address if it is going to be salt and light in the West.
The expert in the law who asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” was essentially asking perhaps the most fundamental question of life; the question of belonging. “Who belongs to me? To whom do I belong? For whom am I responsible–and to what extent?” This search for community is a basic human drive and it especially haunts us today when all the foundations seem to be crumbling beneath us.
It’s one of life’s most important questions, but for the most part it is bewildering for most of us. How does belonging work? How does “community” happen? Small groups work for some people but not for others. Some people seem to connect spontaneously and there’s wonderful chemistry, but it doesn’t always last. There doesn’t seem to be a “magic bullet” or basic principle to turn to.
In many ways the church is trying to help (small groups! seeker worship! Sunday school!) but “it seems that in many ways we are not helping people with their life search. Rather, we are merely supplying them with another numbing thing to do that masks the real, nagging ache of their search for a neighbor, for family, for belonging.”
It seems what many people are seeking is what Elton Trueblood called “bold fellowship.” Myers quotes Trueblood: “Many contemporary seekers cannot abide the Church as they see it. their dissatisfaction arising not from the fact that membership demands too much, but rather from the fact that the demands are too small.” So it would seem that, to quote Jason Coker’s comment on the previous post, “belonging is a measure of commitment in one form or another.”
So where are those boundary markers? How do we define who belongs, and at what level? (Incidentally Jason poses the same question on his blog.) Myers quotes the Roman Emperor Julian to illustrate how the early church was somehow able to provide outsiders with a deep sense of belonging:
Atheism [Christianity] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar; and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.
I’ll pose a few of Myers’ questions here:
- How do you define who belongs? Who fits this definition and who does not?
- Identify those who would say they belong but you do not consider “members” of the “family.”
- Make a list of all the things you belong to, and consider how significant they are to your life. Does everyone (person, club, organization, informal connections) know you belong?
- Have you ever been told you don’t belong? What were the implications?