We all have a fundamental human need to belong to a community. We need “our people” who understand us, support us, encourage us, and challenge us to grow. Secular communities fulfill some of these needs. Yet secular communities leave a gap in our sense of meaning and purpose as Christians; we know and feel that we’re called to a community that has a deeper purpose and a higher good. The new family of God is rooted in the love of the Trinity and is the paradigmatic expression of community—the ultimate group to which we desire to belong. As children of God, we know we belong to the body of Christ. But we also need to feel like we belong to God’s new family—to be part of the ultimate family that is centered around God’s love.
Yet this experience of belonging too often eludes us as we feel disappointment in our church communities, which to some extent reflects the connection crisis in our larger society. This was part of our story during our major moves while I was in the Army. My wife Liz and I attended a church in Washington, DC, where I was first stationed. It was a good church, but as outsiders who were new to the area, it was difficult to break in and feel truly connected to the body of Christ there. Knowing we would likely be moving a year later made it all the more difficult. After the next move, we again settled on a new church and attended regularly. We built a few relationships there and tried to get involved in ministry. For a variety of reasons, it felt like a struggle to gain traction in serving and becoming more deeply connected with the congregation. Looking back, I think there were many factors, including my own unrealistic expectations as a young adult and some particular areas of dysfunction within that church. Regardless of the causes, we were left feeling disconnected and longing for a deeper sense of community.
Struggles in finding strong spiritual community are not uncommon.
When we encounter such struggles, it’s natural to become disillusioned with our spiritual community. At times, we may feel overlooked, not included, or not valued. We may feel the community isn’t meeting our needs, doesn’t reflect our values, or has too much conflict. I have worked with many clients who felt this way at times, and I’ve struggled with this myself. Communities in the early New Testament church also struggled with conflict and tension among their various members. When we become disillusioned, the temptation we face is to disengage in various ways: (1) we search for a “better” church community; (2) we stay on the edges of community; or (3) we convince ourselves that we’re better off practicing “solo Christianity.” These temptations are almost automatic due to the individualistic and consumeristic culture in the Western world. When we disengage from Christian community, it becomes fragmented, and we collectively fail to create a new social order of love and to shine God’s light to the world.
This raises a crucial question: how do we go about building a sense of belonging in our spiritual communities, especially in the face of the conflict and disappointments that will inevitably occur? The answer is, in a word: together. We build spiritual community—a place of belonging— as we travel together along the journey with one another. Moreover, this side of heaven, we will always be transforming our church communities so they increasingly reflect God and provide a contrast-society that shines God’s light to the world.
Adapted from The Connected Life by Todd W. Hall. ©2022 by Todd W. Hall. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com.
Todd W. Hall (PhD, Rosemead School of Psychology) is professor of psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University, where he teaches courses on the integration of psychology and theology, psychodynamic psychotherapy, and positive psychology. He is a faculty affiliate at the Harvard Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University and a founding partner at Flourishing Metrics. Hall is an award-winning researcher, focusing on relational approaches to spirituality, virtue, and leadership. He is a coauthor of Psychology in the Spirit and Relational Spirituality, developer of several widely used spiritual assessments, and codeveloper of the Flourish Assessment. He is the author of The Connected Life (6/2022).