We’ve all experienced times when we felt we didn’t belong. That feeling can range from uncomfortable to excruciating. The human need to belong and form relationships refers to our need to associate with, be accepted by, supported by, and known by a group. We feel this need in many areas of life: our profession, family, school, on teams, among friends, and in our churches. The need to belong is a natural and universal need. We all want to be heard, loved, and cared for.
God, who has eternally existed as Father, Son, and Spirit, created humans in His image. As God’s image bearers, we long for the sense of belonging that exists in the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit. This need to belong is wired into our DNA and plays a critical role in our overall wellness. When we feel that we don’t belong, we may experience emotional, psychological distress and isolation.
Belonging influences motivation and behavior.
The desire to belong motivates us. This motivation can be both positive and negative. For instance, a longing to belong to a group may motivate us to conform to norms and relate positively to others. However, when our desire to belong is out of balance, we may conform to the point of compromising our values or identity.
We can also over-emphasize comparing ourselves to others in a group. This can create self-doubt and self-criticism. However, comparing ourselves can also be a positive motivator and initiate self-reflection and personal growth.
We are wired for relationships.
A sense of belonging increases happiness and reduces isolation. Belonging instills a sense of safety, where people feel they can be heard, understood, and known. Belonging encourages creativity and problem-solving because people in healthy relationships thrive. A sense of belonging promotes avenues for fellowship, service, learning, and stimulates personal and professional growth.
In the fellowship of belonging, we cultivate and restore our sense of humanity. A healthy sense of belonging impels us to seek out healthy relationships. It motivates us to participate in clubs, teams, community service, and faith-based activities. Community is cultivated upon the foundation of belonging. This is because we are spiritual beings, and our need for love and acceptance lie at the core of our being.
Build a sense of belonging.
- Building a sense of belonging requires personal investment. Look for people with similar interests or aspects of life (children, marital status, vocation, etc.). Take a class or join a Bible study. Join a yoga or swimming class. Enroll in a college course or seek out specialized training.
- Work on accepting others. Get to know people who are different from you. Serve in an inner city ministry. Visit nursing homes and shut-ins. Participate in a prison/jail ministry. ‘Adopt’ a widow or single mother. Volunteer at a hospital, school, or community outreach.
- Focus on serving. It’s always possible to find someone to serve. Offer respite breaks to a caregiving parent or spouse. Offer free child care to a single parent. Become a mentor. Teach your special gifts/talents to someone who would appreciate learning.
- Take time for self-assessment. What do you enjoy? What kind of people do you enjoy being around? What special abilities do you have? What groups interest you? Pray and ask God to direct you to an area of need.
- Seek out churches, community activities, and ministries that create a sense of belonging.
- Be open to change. Ask friends and family who know and love you where you might fit and how you can best reach out to others.
- Evaluate your effectiveness at helping others feel that they belong. What qualities do you possess that create a sense of belonging in others? Where could you improve?
Tips for Churches and Organizations
- Foster an environment of service. Organize groups that offer practical help to widows, single mothers, the sick or injured, caregivers, people who are moving or need transitional housing or home maintenance. Wherever there are people, we find needs.
- Teach your team to communicate compassion and grace. Train greeters, teachers, staff, and personnel in your church/organization how to nurture an environment of belonging. Training should be ongoing and be modeled by leaders who lovingly and graciously instill a sense of acceptance and care for others.
- Teach your people to put themselves aside and reach out. Offer opportunities for service as part of membership training. Incorporate media clips that teach about and show your people reaching out to others and thriving in groups. Model compassion and soul care in leadership.
- Know and pray over the needs of your members. Involve your church or organization in prayer chains and ongoing posting of prayer needs.
- Walk alongside people. Create a sense of safety by living out a culture of transparency, welcome, and grace.
- Inventory the groups in your organization and evaluate how their need for belonging is being met: married, divorced, single, widowed, chronically ill, caregivers, parents, those without children, students, etc.
- Become knowledgeable about barriers to belonging: health challenges, power imbalance, discrimination, shame, loneliness, emotional wounds, and lack of social attunement, socioeconomic and cultural factors, to name a few. Seek out training from experts about how to meet these people where they are.
- Create environments for people to fulfill the “one another” commands of fellowship, confession, repentance, encouragement, forgiveness, friendship, and walking together in love: small groups, accountability, breaking bread together, prayer groups, hosting others, service groups, etc.
What about you? I’d love to hear how the need to belong has influenced your personal or professional growth.
What does your organization do to foster a culture of belonging? I’d also welcome your story of helping someone else gain a sense of belonging.
Peace and hope,