The essence of belonging
What do 'membership', 'community' and 'belonging' mean?
Do you want your church to be a place where people feel like they belong? Where there is a close sense of mutual dependence and love, and where there is a genuine experience of Christian community?
(Well, there are times when I don’t, and wish that everyone on the planet would just leave me alone, but let’s not get into my problems.)
How could we pursue or promote this kind of community?
The small contribution I want to make in this week’s post is to pause and ponder what we mean by ‘belonging’, ‘membership’ and ‘community’.
Like me, you probably have a range of different memberships. There are overlapping families I belong to (immediate and extended, on my side and Ali’s side). I belong to the Christian communities at St Paul’s Carlingford and at Campus Bible Study. But I’d also say that some part of my heart will always belong to Matthias Media, and the team that still pursues that vision. I’m a member of Concord Golf Club and of the Qantas Frequent Flyer program—one of them of far more importance than the other. I guess I’d also say that I’m part of the little community in my street here in West Ryde, and of the broader communities of Sydney, New South Wales and Australia.
So far I’ve been using the words ‘belong’ and ‘member’ and ‘community’ pretty much interchangeably, and in everyday speech we often do.
But these three words are also subtly different. They describe the same kind of thing from different angles, with different metaphors. It’s worth teasing out their nuances, even if we have room to do so only briefly.
To be a ‘member’ of something is to be a part of a body; to be an arm or a nose or a spleen that derives its identity and function from the interconnected organism of which it is a part. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12, being baptized into Christ means becoming one of his body parts, which should put an end to all arrogance, divisions, jealousy, partiality and selfishness in general. You make no sense and you’re of no use as a member of this body unless you realise that you’re part of an interconnected whole, with Christ as the head. Being a ‘member’ is about seeking the well-being and benefit of the whole body, according to the direction and rule of its head. The body strengthens and builds itself as all the individual parts speak the truth of Christ to one another in love (Eph 4:14-16).
I guess being a member of the body of Christ looks kind of like this …
To be in a ‘community’ is a different metaphor. A community is a group of people who love or participate in a common object or person. A community is not one organic whole, like a body. It’s a group of people who share something, who are united by their ‘fellowship’ or ‘partnership’ in something. As Oliver O’Donovan puts it, a community has a “common object of love”. (He gets this from Augustine, who distinguished the City of God from the Earthly City by their different objects of love.)
Now for Christians, that centre or common object of love is Jesus Christ. Our fellowship or communion is with God through Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-4). Because we know him and love him and have him in common, we are a community or fellowship of Christ. This means that whatever else we might share—common demographics, language, interests, or even just a common desire for friendship and mutuality—Christian community is not about any of these. It is fellowship in Jesus Christ. He is what we have in common, and through him we love one another. To build our community, therefore, we need to encounter each other more often and more deeply through him (that is, through his word, which is how he is present with us).
We might picture it like this …
What about ‘belonging’? To belong to something means that we fit there, most often because some person or organization has a claim on us. My iPhone belongs in my pocket because I own it and it is mine—although I often absent-mindedly leave it on the kitchen counter on silent (so good luck trying to get through to me).
In saying I belong to a family, I mean that I have responsibilities and ties of blood and affection that bind me to that group of people. It’s not just that they are mine; I am theirs. I can’t ever stop belonging to them.
I belong to something because I am of it—in the sense of it being my source or origin or master or place. My belonging is defined not by me but by that Other person or group who identifies me and claims me as theirs.
We see this in our English Bibles where they speak of us belonging to God or to Jesus Christ. There isn’t actually a word ‘belong’ in the Greek text. Instead, there’s a kind of relation set up in the grammar that is ‘of’ or ‘from’ or ‘unto’ God or Christ. For example, here are two verses that are often translated with ‘belong’, rendered very literally:
And those who are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:24)
For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are of the Lord. (Romans 14:8)
We belong to God in Christ because he claims us as our creator and redeemer. We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. I can’t really choose to belong to him any more than my iPhone can choose to belong to me.
I’m not sure if the New Testament ever says that we belong to each other. We are certainly members of one another (Rom 12:5; Eph 4:25), and we are in communion or fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7). Perhaps it is better to say that we belong to Jesus Christ, and therefore we belong with each other in that space where he keeps his belongings—that is, in the congregation of people that he purchased for himself with his own blood (Acts 20:28).
Perhaps we could visualise it like this …
It needs saying that in each of the three metaphors—member, community, belonging—God is the initiator by his grace through the gospel. He grafts us into Christ to be members of his body; he calls us into fellowship and communion with himself through Christ, and thus with each other; he claims us as his own, and thus gives us a place where we profoundly belong because we belong to him.
In each case, it is something that we gratefully receive, and joyfully participate in by faith. We need to recognize that these realities can’t be manufactured or massaged into existence through any human initiative or technique. Belonging and membership and community are spiritual joys, created by God through his Son by his Spirit.
All the same, God’s action incorporates our action—both as we preach the gospel and as the Spirit calls forth our response. As we hear the gospel, and the Spirit works, we leave behind our old master in the dominion of darkness to begin a new life belonging to our Lord; we repent of the inwardly-curved independence that shuts us off from others and joyfully become members of a new body in Christ; we blaspheme and reject the false gods and powers that we used to love and unite around, and instead share together in our love for the Christ who first loved us.
What does all this mean for our experience of belonging and membership and community in our congregations? If belonging-membership-community is something God creates by the gospel, what we can do to participate in it? To experience it and help others experience it?
First, some things we can do as a congregation:
We can clearly and regularly teach and urge one another on (through sermons and other congregational teaching) in what it means to belong together, to fellowship together, to be members of one another.
We can follow Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 12 and honour all parts of the body, not just the strongest or most spectacular. We should keep celebrating and honouring the weakest members—all are needed and valuable—because this is how God has composed and ordered the body. This also means teaching and training and helping everyone to become active in making their own contribution to the body.
We can create the optimum number and variety of contexts where people can be together as those who share, belong to and are members together of Jesus Christ. These ‘contexts’ are different opportunities or spaces (large, medium, small and personal) where we can build each other as members according to the different parts of the body that we are, or where we can meet in community around Jesus himself (as we speak his word to each other).
And as individuals who want to contribute to this community-belonging-membership, and experience it more ourselves, what should we do?
We should make sure we keep turning up to those gatherings where the people who belong to Jesus get together.
We should take every opportunity we can (formal or informal) to love others through Jesus Christ: to serve them, speak to them, encourage them, suffer with them, comfort them, rejoice with them, pray for them, practically care for them. This is what it means to be a ‘fellowship’ of Jesus Christ—to share a love of him together, and to love each other through him and by his word.
Likewise, we should take every opportunity open to us to make our particular contribution to the body, whether as an arm, a nose or a spleen.
In other words, when we feel a lack of community-membership-belonging—perhaps as someone who feels a bit on the outer at church—there are things that the congregation as a whole can do to facilitate our inclusion, but it will also unavoidably depend on how we ourselves respond and keep in step with the Spirit’s work within us.
We can only experience what it is like to really be a member of a body when we are active as contributing members of that body. We can only experience the ‘community’ of Christ when we put into practice the only thing that truly matters in our fellowship: faith in Jesus Christ that is active in love.
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