Essential: Belonging

Pastor Craig Carter

This spring when government officials issued “stay at home” orders there was a great deal of debate about what were considered essential services.

Remember, you couldn’t go to stores selling clothing, jewelry, or sporting goods, but you could still buy lottery tickets, liquor, and firearms (all deemed essential).

You could get your car serviced or your pool cleaned, but you couldn’t get a haircut, have your nails done, or go for routine dental visits.

Sorry to bring up those painful memories and start the debate all over again.

As a pastor, I was glad that Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis deemed “attending religious services” as an essential activity (even though it was put on equal footing with “participating in recreational activities” like fishing, hunting, boating, and golfing).

With or without the governor’s stamp of approval, I am sure the church is an essential and a necessary part of life.

In the first message of this series, we noted that Jesus said the two most important things in the world are loving God and loving others (see Mark 12:29-31). So what is absolutely critical to our existence? God and the Church.

In fact, the church is where the Great Commandment is best lived out as we are able to wholeheartedly love God and love our neighbor as our self.

Over the course of this summer, we’ve looked at some of the essential things that God provides – His presence, His perspective and His power to name a few. Over the last three weeks in this series, we’ll turn our attention to the essential benefits provided by the Church.

Before we go any further, let me remind you that, as we’ve learned and said since the hurricane, the church is more than a building. But that’s not just true for congregations that are homeless or without any facilities to call home.

The New Testament word for church is a compound Greek word compromised of a preposition that means “out of” and a verb that means “to call.”  So the church is literally “the called out” people of God. We are called out of the world and are “called to belong to Jesus Christ…and each member belongs to one another.” (Romans 1:6; 12:5 BSB)

The church is not a place, but a people who belong to Jesus Christ and to one another. So the first essential benefit provided by the Church is a sense of belonging.

Early in my ministry, I preached a sermon on the church that described it as a place to believe, become, and belong (a notion I’m sure I stole from a church sign I read somewhere). That formula was used by many evangelical churches in America and became their mantra for the way they operated.

Here’s how the “Believe/Become/Belong” process worked:

First, using a gospel presentation like the Four Spiritual Laws, unbelievers were given a chance to BELIEVE in Jesus and accept Him as Lord and Savior. Next, the new converts were invited to BECOME a Christian and join the church. Finally, once on the church roll, those persons would be made to feel like they BELONG.

But in recent years, a more effective model has been employed. In our broken, dysfunctional world, people are looking for relationships, not religion, so the process has been turned on its ear and re-ordered.

With the new model, first, unbelievers experience a connection with others who love and care for them just the way they are and invite them to BELONG to their community. Next, the sense of belonging is so strong, it shapes their values and convictions and leads them to BELIEVE in Jesus. And lastly, once believers, they BECOME followers of Christ and join in the mission.

So the most important thing the church can do today is give people a sense of BELONGING, so they start BELIEVING in God and His ways and BECOMING all they can be in Christ.

Belonging, believing, becoming – all are necessary parts of life and essential benefits provided by the Church. I know that is true because I’ve seen it work again and again.

One example is a young lady named Jo who decades ago joined a Montgomery church simply to bolster her resume. She figured it was a nice Southern thing to do. Through relationships she formed in that congregation, she came to genuine faith in Christ and ultimately felt a call into ministry, leaving behind the career she had worked so hard to build. She ultimately went to seminary, was ordained a minister, and became a Christian writer.

Another example is Johnny, an avowed atheist who wanted to help with Hurricane Katrina relief so he went with a co-worker on mission trips to Mississippi. His heart was captured by the Christian community so he decided to check out a church in Alabama where I happened to serve as pastor. Soon after his arrival, we built a huge community playground on church property as an outreach tool and Johnny took a week’s vacation to help out. He was welcomed with open arms, with no judgment. He started tithing and serving in a variety of ways and then, months later professed his faith in Christ and was baptized. Fifteen years later, he has become a church leader and mentor to others.

I can add to those stories my own personal experience that followed this pattern.

This morning I want to describe how we can create an environment that provides the essential sense of belonging that people all want and need by using several New Testament metaphors for the church – a family, a temple, and a body.

1) The church is essential because it makes us part of a FAMILY.

As I’ve already mentioned, Jesus claimed the two most important things in life are loving God and loving others.

In his bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren points out that we can’t learn to love in isolation so we have to be around people – irritating, imperfect, frustrating people.

And where do we find those kind of folks? In our family!

I’m not just talking about at home with our biological family members. No, we also find people to bump into in God’s family which He calls the church:

“I am writing to you…[so] you will know how to live in the family of God. That family is the church of the living God…” (1 Timothy 3:14-15 NCV)

Or, as Paul puts it, “You are members of God’s very own family…and you belong in God’s household with every other Christian.” (Ephesians 2:19b TLB)

The Church provides a sense of belonging because it puts us in a family, God’s family.

And while our biological family won’t last forever, our spiritual family is eternal. That’s because we are adopted into God’s family through faith in Jesus Christ.

So long before most of us belong to Christ, we first feel like we belong to others. I know that has certainly been the case for me.

I’ve shared my story of wandering into First United Methodist Church in Fort Walton Beach as a lost soul years ago. If I believed in Christ at a time, I certainly didn’t act like it. But that didn’t seem to matter to the people I met there – they loved and accepted me just the way I was and made me feel like I belonged.

I met a young lady named Lee Flores at about the same time and her dogged pursuit of me led her to the church as well. 🙂

They made us feel like family. In fact, we were adopted by a couple that we call our spiritual parents. Other members became our brothers and sisters in Christ.

And when I said “yes” to Lee’s proposal a year later, it only made sense for us to get married there.

So our biological families traveled from Missouri and Southern California to meet our church family that hosted the event and took care of all of the details.

From the age of 17 onward, Lee and I have never lived within 800 miles of our homes of origin, but we’ve never been without a family, including here at Lynn Haven UMC. 

In a world where dysfunction and estrangement reign supreme in many, if not most, families, people are looking for a sense of belonging so it’s essential we provide it.

I think we do and that will continue to be the case if we take to heart the words of the great Methodist missionary and evangelist, E. Stanley Jones: “Everybody who belongs to Christ, belongs to everybody who belongs to Christ.”

I hope and pray we operate according to that principle.

I’ve got an assignment for you… What is one thing you can do to reach out to a fellow family member to give them a sense of belonging? Will you do that one thing today?

Need ideas? Contact our Care Minister, Heather Howell at heather@mylhumc.net.

2) The church is essential because it makes us part of a TEMPLE.

“You are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple.” (1 Peter 2:5a NLT)

Notice that you and I are “living stones” that are used to build something wonderful. Alone we are just a pile of bricks, but together we become a temple for God.

I grew up in the age of Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs. They were okay but I wish I had grown up a generation later in the age of Legos.

Each Lego has only one purpose – to connect with others. By themselves, they are not too pretty and pretty useless (ever stepped on one?) But in the right hands, they can become a masterpiece. Search “Lego art” on Google.

I don’t know about you but I want to be a part of something beautiful…and a temple sounds nice. So it’s essential that we find our missing pieces that belong together with us. And when that happens…

“In Christ the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:21-22 NIV)

That’s a pretty neat image for the image for the church, isn’t it? Connected to God and to one another, besides being built into something beautiful, we also experience strength and stability.

There are times in our lives when the winds of turmoil and trouble are going to blow. Can anyone say Hurricane Michael or the COVID-19 pandemic?

What’s going to keep us standing? The strength, stability, and support we get from God and others in the church.

I know that’s true because I’ve experienced it time and time again.

The second church Lee and I joined was Aldersgate UMC in Montgomery, AL. About a year after we joined, we got the tragic news that Lee’s sister had been killed by a drunk driver, leaving behind a 10-month old daughter.

Within hours, that congregation rallied around us as a family. And, as a temple in the Lord, they brought us strength and stability.  

Friends, I don’t need to tell you we live in a dangerous and destructive world. And if any of us are going to endure the storms of life and the howling winds of death, disease, and despair, it is essential that we connect to one another and allow ourselves to be built into God’s temple.

When that happens, we become a beautiful dwelling place for God that brings strength and stability to our lives.

Peter says we’re to see ourselves as “living stones.” I’d say we’re “Lego Christians.” Either way, we belong together.

3) The church is essential because it makes us part of a body.

In the New Testament the church is most often described as the “Body of Christ.”

“All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27 NLT)

What does this metaphor tell us about belonging and how essential it is? Well, it tells us that the church is not a building, it’s a living body. In other words, it is not an organization, it is a living organism.

And when we’re a part of it, it means that we find our unique value and contribution in the greater whole. Individual organs and body parts have no intrinsic value in and of themselves. In fact, separated from the whole body, individual parts are useless and grotesque.

But when put together, there is enormous potential to do something good.

You and I discover our true value through our relationships with other Christians as we work together for the common good.

It’s why Paul made this statement to the Romans:

“Just as there are many parts to our bodies, so it is with Christ’s body. We are all parts of it, and it takes every one of us to make it complete, for we each have different work to do. So we belong to each other, and each needs all the others.” (Romans 12:4-5 TLB)

We may all be different but that’s because each of us has different work to do. And to complete what God wants us to do as His Body, we need one another and we even “belong to each other,” like peanut butter and jelly or a fig and a newton.

I need you and you need me and we all need each other. It is essential that we see ourselves as belonging together as one body.

That means everyone has to do his or her part. Everyone has a role to play.

A big part of feeling like we belong comes when we’re given something to do.

For Lee and I, we knew we truly belonged at First UMC FWB when we were asked to serve … as directors of the children’s Christmas program. We were 23 and 21 at the time and we didn’t know what we were doing, nor did we know what we were getting into. But through that experience, we were able to find our place in the Body.

Before believing in Jesus and becoming like Christ, people must first feel a sense of belonging. I hope and pray we provide it – for everyone who is already here and for those yet to come. We have to be creative to form such an environment in our COVID-19 world. But with God’s help it can and will be done.

It’s absolutely essential because someone without a sense of belonging is like a child without a family, a loose stone without a building, and an organ without a body.

Since the church is not a noun but a verb, let’s not wait for folks to come to us, but instead, let’s go and church our community and world for Christ.