There’s almost no human need more basic than our need to be loved and to belong. Psychologists tell us that once we have what it takes to keep us physically alive and safe from harm, our deepest need is to be truly valued and to know we belong to a community: a family, a network of friends, a work group, or something greater.
That’s why the letter to the Ephesians is such good news. “God’s unchanging plan,” it states, “has always been to adopt us into the divine family by bringing us to God through Jesus Christ. Now you are no longer visitors or strangers. Now you are citizens with all God’s people; now you belong to the family of God” (Eph. 1:5; 2:19 alt.). God first calls us to be loved, and now God calls us to belong – to belong to the church, the family of God. God blesses us with belonging.
Being part of the church is more than thinking alike or worshiping alike or even living alike with others. It’s about belonging to an intentional community of people who, in sharing the journey of life together, value one another deeply, in spite of deep differences in thought or worship or lifestyle, as essential participants in God’s unfolding will for creation. Denominations – United Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic, the list goes on – denominations can be expressions of church but they do not define church. The real church is bigger than all the little expressions we call churches.
It’s common today to talk about church as an event or a building: “I’m going to attend church this morning,” or “There’s a meeting at the church Wednesday evening.” But when the Bible talks about church, it’s not a place you go to; it’s a holy community you belong to. In meeting our basic needs, God not only loves us; God also calls us to belong to the church – not an ecclesiastical organization but the mystical body of the risen Christ. Church is not a Sunday-morning event; it’s an everyday relationship.
And the relationship is a blessing from God. Sometimes the belonging in relationship is perversely distorted, as in the case of street gangs, the KKK, or the Arian Nation. But at its heart all belonging, especially belonging to the church, is a blessing from God, and I have found some great blessings in it.
One blessing is that in belonging to God’s family I learn who I truly am. I don’t learn that from the world; from the world I learn who the world wants me to be. I can even learn that from some congregations when they function more like a business or social network whose first priority is to serve its members. That’s when the church, too, teaches me what the world wants me to be. It tries to make me, as a pastor, the custodian of its own local values rather than a representative of the gospel.
But when the congregation is rooted and empowered in the Holy Spirit, when it functions as a family of faith whose identity is rooted in doing the will of God, then the values of the world give way to the values of God’s reign on earth. And while the values of God’s reign seem to be in fundamental conflict with those of the world, it is a conflict that is illuminating and defining and ultimately healing.
Here’s the difference. The world tries to put a label on you generally according to what you do or how you are burdened. For example, it tells you, you’re a carpenter or a teacher, or a wife or husband. It says you are poor or rich, or black or white or brown, or handicapped, or an alcoholic. The world labels us to establish our value and help keep us in our places, and pretty soon we start believing the labels.
For example, if you were to go to an AA meeting, you’d stand up and say, “Hi, my name is Rich, and I’m an alcoholic,” and you’d say that for the rest of your life. The way you are burdened would define who you are. But as a member of the family of God, you’d say, “Hi, my name is Rich, and I’m a child of God who struggles with alcohol.” Not “I’m a paraplegic” but “I’m a child of God who lives with a handicapping condition.” Not “I’m a carpenter” but “I’m an heir to God’s kingdom who works with wood.”
See the difference? My identity is based on knowing that God loves me and has adopted me into a holy relationship. Your identity is grounded in God’s love for you and on the relationship into which God called you. God loved us and called us to belong. Our belonging to God defines our true identities.
Here’s another blessing of belonging. With the discovery of identity comes the blessing of direction in life. Knowing who I am, I know where I’m going. My call to seminary and parish ministry came because, in making a difficult decision about changing jobs, I made a choice to listen for God’s guidance. That guidance led me to a congregation where for three years I wrestled in the company of other disciples with who we are and what it means to live faithfully.
And so my direction began to emerge. To this day, I still don’t know the details of my final destination. I don’t even know where my next step will take me. But I know my journey is the direction of personal wholeness and toward the fullness, the perfection, of God’s will for all creation.
A third blessing of being part of God’s family is that the relationship comes with an extraordinary support system you won’t find anywhere else. That same letter to the Ephesians tells me that I and all members of the church are joined and grow together spiritually to become a holy temple, a dwelling place for God (Eph. 2:21-22). And when we are connected with one another, like the parts of the body are connected with each other (1 Cor. 12:12-27), we can do extraordinary things.
“Share each other’s troubles and problems,” Paul writes (Gal. 6:2); “encourage each other and build each other up” (1 Thess. 5:11). Part of what it means to belong to the church, when we’re at our best, is that we care for each other to a degree not found anywhere else. Are you facing great difficulty in life, and in that difficulty are you consoled by God? That’s so you can share your consolation with someone else who is going through something similar (1 Cor. 1:3-7).
Who is better at helping someone deal with cancer than someone who has overcome cancer? Who can offer better support to someone facing divorce than a person who has been healed following divorce? Who is better at helping someone deal with addiction than someone who has triumphed over addiction? God’s presence in the church turns our challenges and triumphs with things like that into resources we can use in ministry to others. God’s healing presence in this human temple becomes indistinguishable from the healing presence we offer to one another.
I don’t have time to list the many other blessings we share because we belong to the church. You’re probably already thinking of some. So I’ll close with this description of the early church as it began to spread throughout the world. “So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles (Acts 2:41-43).
It’s a simple formula: a routine of Bible study, fellowship, shared meals that include the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. Imagine what blessings we could harvest with such commitment. We might not welcome 3,000 members in a single day, but can you imagine the wonders we might work because we belong to the family of God?