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27 June 2018

Chosen by God to belong

Chosen by God to belong

God loved us before the creation of the world, and He called each and every one of us, by name, to belong to Him in Christ Jesus. Kay Morgan-Gurr, chair of Children Matter, considers this truth.

If we read through different passages in the Bible, we will see many examples of God showing men, women and children that they belong to Him, despite how they may be treated by members of their communities.

Take, for example, the woman who was caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11). The crowd wanted to stone her, but Jesus demonstrated God's love and mercy and sent her on her way, saying she should sin no more. The Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), meanwhile, was shunned by her community but accepted by Jesus, who showed her how she, too, could belong.

Again, the little children, who were brought to Jesus for a blessing (Mark 10:13), and were received by Jesus, who said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them", after His disciples had rebuked them. I want to stress: this was no gentle pat on the head; this was the Creator of the world showing the children that "the kingdom of God belongs to such as these".

And, as recorded in Mark 2, four friends carried a paralysed man on a bed, in the heat, to a house so that Jesus could heal him. They made a hole in the roof and lowered him through it, to ensure he received a touch from God. Now, that's belonging in action. These are just a few examples, but the theme runs throughout the Bible, which exemplifies what should be happening in our homes, our churches, and wherever we have influence.

A human need

For many years, I've heard people mention the importance of feeling as though they belong when they talk about the journey to faith. This makes it worth considering: when those who are searching for Jesus visit our churches, do they belong before they come to faith, or do they come to faith and then belong? I believe, like the examples mentioned show, that they ought to belong first. For, in our showing that they belong, we demonstrate that they too are chosen by God to belong.

The desire to belong is a basic human need. When we belong, we find security and unconditional acceptance. As part of my role as co-founder of the Additional Needs Alliance (ANA), which helps churches create places of belonging for children, young people and young adults with additional needs or disabilities, I asked parents: what would show you that your child with additional needs belonged in their particular faith communities? The answers, although varied, had two consistent threads: their child being asked to serve, and their child being invited to parties. In my view, being asked to serve and not being overlooked implies trust, and being invited to parties shows acceptance for who you are.

I have found that belonging, for children in church, is more than being provided with some form of children's work. It is acceptance within a welcoming, intergenerational community. They need to belong to more than a Sunday school; they require the engagement of the whole community. Belonging in a church context blossoms best in an active, worshipping, intergenerational community, where there is dynamic discipleship – regardless of age or ability – and where all are encouraged to serve within their gifting, also regardless of age or ability.

More to be done

I wonder if a lack of belonging is one reason for the exodus of children and youth from our churches today. If church has ceased to be that place of belonging, why indeed would you bother to go? Where there is no belonging, difference is more apparent and less accepted. This results in people walking, limping or rolling away from the church. 

In my role at the ANA, I regularly receive messages and comments from parents of children who have additional needs and disabilities. The majority are from those who have been asked to leave their church due to their child's additional needs. They have been told to find somewhere more suitable to their child's needs.

Some parents never find that place of welcome, and for their child, church is just another place where they don't belong, in the same way they feel they don't belong in school, or with friends. For many families in the world of additional needs and disability, there is no place of belonging where there should be one. Meanwhile, for those with additional needs and disabilities who do stay in our churches, there is often difficulty in accessing discipleship support and training, meaning that belonging starts to be more about being in the building than being part of a nurturing community.

We, the church, have much to do to make our churches places of belonging for everyone, regardless of age and ability. Belonging in the church context can be a powerful and beautiful experience. People who have felt they have not fitted in elsewhere, now finding a place to flourish and grow is wonderful. But it shouldn't be left there; it needs to keep growing.

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