We want someone to notice us, someone to see us, someone to hear us, someone to accept us.
We long to have someone else identify with us in ways that validate our existence.
What that identification looks and feels like, though, can be quite different from person to person.
Environments, expressions, and actions that make some people feel like they belong can equally make other people feel like they don't.
The key is understanding that "belonging" happens in 3 distinct spaces, all of which are important in their own rite:
1) PUBLIC SPACE
This space is where our site-specific, episodic relationships occur. In the church, this space is typically entered in the Sunday morning worship service. It's there that people see each other and casually greet one another. There is no real sharing of stories, just an ongoing familiarity of presence - you'll be there and they'll be there, same time and same place, week in and week out.
2) SOCIAL SPACE
This space is where our informal and brief sharing occurs. It's strictly limited to surface-level snapshots of who we are - where we work, what we're interested in, etc. In the church, this space is typically entered in the time before/after the worship service or before/after other events. This space is often minimized, but it's important because human beings are social creatures. Social space allows people to discover if "this person" or "these people" will be invited into their personal space.
3) PERSONAL SPACE
This space is where our opening up occurs. We feel secure enough to share our experiences, feelings, and thoughts in this space because it's comprised of close friends. In the church, this space is typically (ideally) found in off-campus home groups, where people find that they are more comfortable and at ease with one another.
From these spaces I want to make 3 observations:
1) Many churches give the impression that the "Public" and "Personal" spaces are the only spaces that matter. They act as if people will go from near anonymity in the sanctuary to sharing their deepest feelings in someone's living room without missing a beat. That's not the case. By minimizing "Social" space, we leave out the bridge that connects the other two spaces! I want to emphasize that social space should NOT be considered "unspiritual space." In fact, social space is deeply spiritual because because human beings are social beings who are made in the image of God (it doesn't get more spiritual than that).
2) People sense that they belong in different ways, so it cannot be said that one space (ie. "Personal") is populated by the "committed people" while the others are filled with the "uncommitted people." I know a guy who has never attended a home group or entered anyone's "Personal" space, but he's present every week helping set up chairs, making coffee, and cleaning up paper towels off the floor in the bathroom. Even though plenty of churches would insist that to really "connect" (ie. belong) he should be involved in a home group, this guy already belongs in ways that many of those in home groups only talk about.
3) Part of the church's task in our fragmented, isolated, and lonely society must surely include cultivating environments that allow for such spaces to exist. These are the spaces in which people sense they belong. It's in these spaces that people can know and be known by others (publicly, socially, or personally) as they follow Jesus together.
All this is tied together by Joseph Myers, author of The Search to Belong. He writes, "Belonging is multidimensional, people can belong on different levels....As we help people we need to allow them to belong in the spaces they choose" (20, 54).
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