A few weeks ago I was on a late an evening walk through the park talking to a dear friend on the phone about how lockdown and social distancing have affected us this year. Both of us are people that have always been good at long-distance friendships, and we’ve both managed to stay closely connected to our friends this year through phone calls, video calls, 1-1 catchups and small group gatherings.
But something was missing.
As we explored more about why things still didn’t feel right, my friend shared how much he missed large group gatherings: walking into a church service of several hundred people, throwing big dinner parties, and attending social events with more people than you could possibly talk to (yes, he’s an extrovert). Personally, I’m introverted enough that I find large groups quite draining, but even so, something about what he said resonated deeply with me.
I realised I missed it too. I missed walking into a room of people and feeling that reassuring familiarity: “These are my people.” I missed existing in a space where, even though I couldn’t interact with every single person individually, I knew that in that moment we shared a space and a group identity that made us an “us” and not just a “me.”
I missed belonging.
See, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to connect to people individually this year, and I am deeply grateful for the 1-1 friendships that have deepened in 2020. At almost every point this year, I have felt loved. I have felt connected. I am so grateful for that. But even as I’ve felt loved by specific friends, I’ve missed the experience of being an “us” with a wider group of people. I’ve missed existing in a shared space with “my people.”
I’ve missed belonging.
I imagine I’m not the only one who’s felt like that this year, and I reckon it’s not even a new 2020 problem. For me, it’s just been one of those things that this year’s disruption has helped me see more consciously.
As a Christian, the place where the rubber hits the road for me is probably my church family. I have always found that I have a very high tolerance threshold for not-belonging in every other sphere of my life provided I have a deep sense of belonging to my church family. They keep me grounded and give me a place to ‘come home’ to, making it feel safer to venture out into unfamiliar territory. More than anyone, my church family are ‘my people’ and they will be for eternity, so it’s essential for my well-being that I feel connected with them.
The problem that we gay/SSA/queer people have a complicated relationship with ‘belonging’ in the Church. There are a few layers to this:
There is the idea that belonging is more than just being known and loved by individual people. We can feel loved by the people who make up our church family, but still lack a sense of belonging in the group because our queerness feels like a liability and a source of shame that sets us apart.
Deeper than that is the idea that belonging is not the same as fitting in. We often talk about ‘fitting in’ synonymously with belonging, measuring how comfortable we are in a group by how well we ‘fit in.’ I’m sympathetic to the desire to fit in, to feel a deep similarity to the people around you. But I think what we need—and what God wants for us—is not to fit in, but to belong.
Fitting in is about conformity: you have a place because of how you are.Tweet
Belonging is about relationship: you have a place because of who you are.
Too often the church feels like the world—it feels like a place where we need to fit in so we can belong. In the last week, I’ve seen a dear friend face the possibility of being fired from his church employment for being openly gay, and I’ve seen another friend distance themselves from me in order to protect themselves from being outed by association and becoming unsafe in their Christian community. And that’s literally this week alone. A gay person in the church might experience belonging only if they meet all the criteria for acceptance: they must use dress a particular way, use the right adjectives to describe themselves, and have all the right answers to all the right theological questions… and if they tick all the boxes, then they may ‘fit in’ and be accepted. The other option (and the more popular one for gay Christians in Australia) is to avoid jumping through all the hoops by remaining closeted. It’s easier to gain acceptance if you resemble the majority culture, so as long as you are seen as straight, you have a chance of ‘fitting in’.
Do you see the problem with ‘fitting in’? A community of people cannot be healthy and transparent for as long as they are forced to present in particular ways to earn their place. Fitting in requires conformity to superficial standards imposed by the majority. Fitting in says “you have a place here because of how well you perform.” But Belonging says “you have a place here because you are one of us.”
Belonging is profoundly relational; it’s like how in a family, people can be radically different from each other but still belong to the family on the basis of their relationship to each other. Sometimes I look at my siblings and realise that if we weren’t related, there’s no way I would have naturally become friends with them. We don’t ‘fit in’. Yet we belong together as a family, with all our differences and all our conflict. We belong because of who we are.
The Church needs to be like this too. Because the reality is, whether we recognise it or not, those who follow Jesus have already been brought together into one family. We belong. Like a family, we belong because of who we are, and nothing can take that belongingness away from us because it runs much deeper than how we feel or how we perform. We belong because of relationship, and our relationship to God is fixed and immoveable:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”Romans 8:35, 37-29
And, just like the nuclear family, belonging to God as our Father means belonging to the whole family. We belong. Paul uses the imagery of a body to show that if we are connected to the head (Jesus) then we are connected to the rest of the body – because that’s just how bodies work!
“For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”Romans 12:4-5 (emphasis added)
Each member belongs to all the others. We belong to each other because we belong to Jesus Christ. Even though all the members have different functions and are markedly different from each other, in their diversity they belong together. Diversity is not a liability, and seeking conformity by ‘fitting in’ is never the goal. Neither fitting in nor standing out matters, because we already belong.
This is a real game-changer for me. It makes belonging not just a pipe dream to aspire to, but a fixed reality that has already happened. Having a place of belonging in my church family is an inalienable truth.
No matter how much homophobia and corrupt power systems in the Church might make queer people feel marginalised, we belong. The straight folks might not realise we belong, but we belong. Even we might not feel we belong, but we belong. We will continue to belong and we will insist on our dignity as queer children of God.
We belong because God says we belong. He says we belong to him—we have “union with Christ” or literally, as Paul says, we are “in Christ,” and that union is an inalienable truth that binds us together with every other person who shares union with Christ.
We are an “us” and these are “my people,” and we would do well to act like it.
I don’t want to fit in.
I don’t want to stand out.
I want to belong.
I do belong.