“You belong here.”
We find these words on the walls of fitness clubs, in social media groups, and throughout coworking spaces. From psychologists and therapists to retail store advertisers, everywhere we turn there are promises of belonging. Why has this need become a trending topic and marketing hook in our culture? We’re busy, lonely, and overwhelmed. Building and keeping relationships is much harder than it should be.
How can we find a place to belong in a culture like ours? What, if anything, does Scripture have to say about belonging? And how might Christian believers and churches cultivate places of belonging?
Core Human Need
Belonging is a core human need. Beyond food and shelter, nothing promotes human flourishing like having a people and a place. Research confirms that income level, marriage and children, and perceived security all pale in comparison to belonging for promoting sustained happiness in one’s life. We long to belong. And we need a belonging deeper than what the world can offer. True belonging means being fully known and fully loved by God and one another.
True belonging means being fully known and fully loved by God and one another.
About seven years ago, I had lunch with a church member, and he mentioned that his previous graduate research (in education theory) was focused on belonging. I admitted I had no idea what that meant. He explained that throughout the 20th century, the reigning psychological hypothesis stated that individuals were most fully satisfied when they had a high sense of self-esteem—when individuals believed in and thought highly of themselves. But later research came to a startling conclusion: self-esteem had little to no positive effect on individuals’ lives, and for many it had a negative effect.
That led researchers to ask, If not self-esteem, then what single quality is most identified with satisfaction and well-being? In 1995, social psychologist Roy Baumeister published a substantial article that demonstrated the healthiest, most satisfied individuals in life are those who have a place to belong. Our deepest satisfaction comes not from achieving personal autonomy but through acceptance into unconditional love and an unbreakable connection to a people.
As Christians, we don’t find this surprising. The Bible shows us that we’ve been created in the image of a relational God, that belonging is a significant blessing of life in the family of God, and that even our best human relationships remind us of our ultimate relationship—communion with God.
Belonging in Biblical History
Belonging has deep roots in the biblical story and Christian theology: we belong to God and his family through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The Bible invites us into something far deeper than mere religious belief. God’s grand story shows us he created us to know him, worship him, and dwell with him forever. Yet our sin severed this relationship. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve’s sin caused a break in the most beautiful relationship, and they were removed from God’s immediate presence. But even then, a promise was given: You are my people, and I will bring you back to me (see Gen. 3:1–24).
Many years later, God spoke to Abraham and promised to make him a great people. Though Abraham had no children and no idea where God was leading him, he received another promise: You will be my people, and I will be your God (see Gen. 12:1–3 and 15:1–6).
Income level, marriage and children, and perceived security all pale in comparison to belonging for promoting sustained happiness in one’s life.
Still later, God’s beloved people were enslaved in Egypt by a brutal oppressor. Again, God spoke a promise of blessing: I am your God, and I will set you free to worship and dwell with me (see Ex. 3:1–15).
Centuries later still, David and Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem, and God filled it powerfully with his presence. For Israel, this was a new phase of God’s promise being fulfilled: I am your God, and you are my treasured people (see 2 Chron. 7:1–22).
Across the Old Testament, God remained with his people, and they belonged to him—but something more was needed. God’s people couldn’t keep his laws and couldn’t save themselves.
Belonging to Jesus
In sending his Son, God made a way for us to dwell with him forever. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, took on flesh and entered our darkness, loneliness, and hopelessness. He kept the law perfectly—thus fulfilling its righteous requirement. Throughout his earthly life, Jesus honored the Father and ministered to the poor and needy in the power and compassion of the Spirit. Yet his ultimate mission was to bear the penalty for our sins in dying on the cross. He lived the life we couldn’t live and died the death we deserved to die. Most of all, Jesus suffered the worst possible loss: he bore the full wrath of God, forsaken according to his Father’s plan (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34).
Then, on the third day, the sun rose, the darkness fled, and the Son of God walked out of the grave. Jesus appeared to his disciples and friends; he shared a meal with them and promised to always be with them. The mission was complete. He came to set the captives free, to form a new family, to atone for our sins, and to make a way for us to return to God. Jesus then ascended to heaven and gave his Holy Spirit to his followers. They were now full of his presence and would never be alone again.
We who believe in Christ and turn from our sins are welcomed with open arms by the Father and filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus suffered the greatest pain—being forsaken by the Father—so we’d never have to. He was thrust into darkness so we could walk in the light. Jesus was forsaken so we could be included. He suffered profound loneliness so we could belong forever.
Belonging to the Church
Now all the children of God belong to his family forever (John 8:35).
We who believe in Christ and turn from our sins are welcomed with open arms by the Father.
In Christ, we form one body, and every member belongs to all the others (Rom. 12:5). We do good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers (Gal. 6:10). We cannot stop belonging to the body (1 Cor. 12:15–16). At the end of time, we’ll be among the diverse multitude in the ultimate and eternal place of belonging—the holy city (Rev. 21–22).
This is the Scripture’s message of true belonging: we belong to God, not to ourselves or the world. Belonging to God means we find our place with this family, the church.