the featherweightiness of belonging

more than fifteen years ago, i identified three 7th and 8th grade guys in my junior high ministry and started meeting with them, as a group, as guys i wanted to mentor. i saw both a spiritual interest and leadership potential in each of them. i think back on this little group as one of my many fond memories over my 30 years in middle school ministry.

one of those guys was michael. other than one or two facebook connections in recent years, i’d mostly lost touch with michael. until a week ago. all i knew was that michael had, in the years since, seemed to drift away from the church (and maybe his faith?).

last week, while visiting the city michael now lives in, i got to have coffee with him. it was a blast to reconnect and hear his story. he’s a highly committed volunteer youth worker at his church these days, which–of course–brings me great joy.

but hearing michael’s story fascinated me. his freshman year of high school, michael had a traumatic skateboard accident and was incapacitated for three months. even though he’d been extremely involved in the youth ministry, no students called him while he was out, or came by to visit him. a couple leaders reached out, but no students.

the sunday morning he returned, not one person asked him where he’d been or how he was, or expressed that they’d missed him. a switch flipped, and michael suddenly, in that space (remember: he was a 14 year-old 9th grader at the time), saw that he didn’t belong. and he never came back.

a dozen years passed. michael got involved in a bunch of destructive habits, dropped out of high school (even though he was always an extremely intelligent guy), got his G.E.D., moved to another city, and sort of drifted through life. he said he never really dropped his belief in god, but he was very angry with the church. over time, this anger at the church grew to a calcified belief that the church was a joke, and merely a collective of hypocrites.

after a dozen years, michael felt the pull to try out a local church he’d heard about. funny thing is, while it might have been god’s spirit prompting him to return, michael’s entire reason for giving it a shot was to prove, to himself, that he was right about how cold and hypocritical the church was. by this time, michael had tattoos up and down his arms. he purposely wore a sleeveless shirt that morning, as an intentional dare to whoever would look at him funny or say something negative about his tattoos.

michael was walking across the parking lot of this church, steeling himself for the negative response he was confident he would receive. but the first person he encountered said, “great tats, man. who does your work?”

that was it. michael was back.

here’s what i find stunning about this story. the actions that caused michael to leave, and the action that opened the door to his return, were so very, very minor. they weren’t about structures or methodologies or programming or curriculum or buildings or youth rooms. they were both–negative and positive–about expressing (or not expressing), “you belong, and we want you here.”

amazing. seems life a puff of air — something so featherweight. but in negative and, thankfully, redemptive ways, these seemingly minor expressions shaped michael’s story more than anything else over the last 15 years.

how is your youth ministry embodying the value of belonging?

10 thoughts on “the featherweightiness of belonging”

  1. Amen! Well said. If the 21st century church in America will embrace this simple, loving message of “welcome home, you belong with us, you’re loved and accepted here” I believe that one simple “puff of air” will lead to national revival. We in the church sing,and are moved by the words “Just As I Am” but we refuse to extend that simple but powerful grace of unconditional love and acceptance to anyone – inside or outside the church. May God forgive us.

  2. I am so struck by this – as the mom of a sometimes shy seventh grade boy. Not that he is at risk, but are there kids that he is not “reaching out to” who need to know that he does indeed consider them friends? I see him as just a bit clueless as to how to communicate acceptance and belonging to others – even those he does consider friends.

    I can picture him not really thinking to call or visit an injured friend – mostly because he would have no idea what to say. (his texting conversations are usually one word per text…) I try to ask about his friends and to encourage him to text those he hasn’t seen in a while. I had been thinking of it as just social skills training, but this is a reminder that it really matters.

  3. I am weary of paradigms, structures and methodologies. I am tired of much of the newer academia surrounding youth ministry. I am fed up with critics.

    Youth ministry is mostly about helping teenagers find a safe community in which to belong. Pretty basic stuff. Sadly, it seems our collective community would rather write, read and debate each other about all the other not-so-essentials.

    Thanks for this powerful and convicting reminder!

  4. Love this!
    I think belonging is not just an issue our students feel, but I think it can generate back to even our belonging as youth workers in the church. I recently wrote a blog regarding my struggle as a children’s and youth worker – battling an illness that has taken me out of the office as well as cost me my mobility in many ways. I based my inclusion on my job…as long as I can effectively serve here I will be included. When I lost that, I lost my purpose. It was then that my church family surrounded me and communicated to our entire family that we belonged just as we are…regardless of my ministry role. This is still a huge pride pill to swallow for me. I’ve always worked at a church…this is the first time I really feel like I’m a part of a church family. Our church is growing…from the inside out.

  5. I guess I disagree that what drove him away while a freshman was minor. Are you kidding me? Not one person noted his absence of three months, not one kid welcomed him back? That’s minor? Nope, that’s major, and I don’t think it matters whether the person is 14 or 44. We all long to belong, to have a place. Thank God for his redemption, for his capturing us with open arms. Now if only the rest of us would learn to show that to each other in a more complete way.

  6. So blessed by this story today. Thanks to Michael for sharing and to you for writing! I am encouraged and challenged!

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