A couple of years ago, I was sitting down to lunch with a younger guy in his mid-twenties who I was mentoring. After we ordered our food and settled in, I could tell that he wasn't doing well. I asked him what was wrong.
With a heavy sigh, he said, "I've recently come to the realization that I've lost my family. I don't have a place to belong."
His parents divorced when he was young. He never had a great relationship with his dad. Even if there was hope that it could get better, his dad now lived on the other side of the world. He had one younger brother who lived with his dad and his relationship with his mom was, at times, challenging. He felt alone and disconnected. This realization was also starting to affect his sense of identity.
Our sense of belonging is closely tied to our sense of identity. We are all looking for something outside ourselves to tell us who we are. Many people look to achievements, accomplishments, and the accolades of others to form their identity.
The movie Rocky is a great example of this. In the first Rocky movie, in speaking to Adrian about fighting Apollo Creed, Rocky says, "I just want to go the distance. If I'm still standing when the bell rings I'll know for the first time in my life I wasn't just another bum from the neighborhood."
Essentially, Rocky is saying, "If I can achieve this milestone I'll know that I'm a somebody." He's looking to an accomplishment to give him an understanding of who he is."
However, accomplishments and achievements come and go. They are also easily surpassed by other people. Developing an identity based on what you achieve is like running a race on a treadmill. You're not going anywhere and it never really ends. How do you know you've reached a point when you have achieved and accomplished enough?
Therefore, I would submit that a better place to understand who you are is in a sense of belonging. If I look to my career to define me, what happens when my career changes or ends? I may be a pastor today but may end up selling used cars ten years from now (although I really hope not). However, there are certain relationships in my life that will never change. For example, I will always be the son of Mark and Jama, my parents. I will always be the dad of Kate, Emma, and Lucy. While a career may change, or accomplishments may fade or be surpassed, those relationships will never change.
Our family is intended to give us a sense of belonging and therefore help to build our identity.
However, this raises a problem. Just like the young man I was mentoring, what happens when our families break down or break apart?
Two major epidemics in our world are the breakdown of families and loneliness due to a lack of family. In part, this is why people run to accomplishments and achievements to build an identity. And for some, their pursuit of achievement is actually motivated by a connection to family, or rather, a lack thereof. In many cases, when the family unit has broken down the child, whether adolescent or adult, is longing for affirmation from their parents and he or she comes to believe that achievement, accomplishment, and accolades might bring it about.
I believe this is another vital reason why we need the church. In cases where an individual is in need of belonging, the church has the potential to offer it.
All throughout the New Testament, the church is said to be a family. Brother, sister, mother, and father language is used to describe our relationships with one another.
And while your relationships with the different members of the family are important, it's the relationship with the head of the family, Jesus, who gives you your sense of belonging and identity.
So, if you find yourself isolated and alone, my prayer is that you can find deep and meaningful relationships with a spiritual family that fosters intimacy and growth. And if you are a part of a church family, I pray that you would have compassion to open up and extend your family to people needing a place to belong.