“I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere…”
Most of us are familiar with (and have overly quoted…) the movie Elf. In its emotional crux, Buddy looks at New York City and says, “I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere…” If that line hit you in the gut like it did us, it’s probably because you’ve felt this same sting of rejection and the desire to belong at one point or another. While you may have found your community already, the students you’re serving may still be searching for a place to belong.
Everywhere we look, there are broken relationships, fractured families, and an anthem of loneliness that echoes from the hearts of adolescents who are craving genuine community and true belonging. According to Global Youth Culture – A OneHope research study, the U.S. ranked in the top 5 out of 20 countries when it came to teens with the highest rates of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. While the research may look dim, we know church can be a place where they feel loved, seen, and accepted. Instead of leaving church saying, “I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere,” our desire is for teens to leave knowing they have a safe place to attend, serve, grow, and belong.
What is Belonging?
Researchers from the Fuller Youth Institute define belonging as: “The sense that one is connected to and can trust a community in which one can exert influence, have one’s needs met, and mutually share emotional connection with others.” From this definition, we can see that belonging is not just having a community around us, but rather having a community where you can influence others, have your needs met, and share genuine emotional connections with those around you. When all three factors are present, students continually come back to church, because they will feel a sense of belonging they haven’t found anywhere else.
Here are two things to keep in mind as you continue to work towards creating a welcoming culture in your youth ministry that will help students feel like they belong:
1. Find new ways to keep them engaged
In the research project, Churches Engaging Young People, students were asked what keeps them engaged in their church. The majority of responses were related to the idea of a “welcoming community.” One teen shared:
“I think what really keeps me involved is the sense of community… I think really the biggest aspect that keeps me involved is the sense of support, and that I feel like everyone is there for me, and no one is going to be mean to me, no one is going to bully me, because everyone is on my side, and I think that is really what keeps me involved.”
In another story, youth leaders discovered that students struggled to feel a sense of belonging within their Christian communities. In response, leaders worked with students to develop a student-led prayer group where they practiced praying with each other consistently over ten weeks as a way of helping students feel like they belonged. The goal was not to just pray, but to pray alone, together, and with expectancy. Instead of the leader taking charge, they trained the students to lead. Over time, this group became a trusted community in which students “felt connected, exerted a high degree of influence, had relational needs met, and mutually shared emotional connection.” They built lasting and meaningful friendships with those from other churches, which increased their sense of belonging beyond the limits of separate prayer group meetings, and by the end of the semester, the group was attending social events together. One student reflected, “I finally feel like I have a group to be part of.” Others voiced that they felt “free” and felt “real ownership” of the group.
2. Create Spaces of Vulnerability and Transparency in Youth Ministry
Students need a safe place to ask questions. They may ask these difficult questions in a small group setting so it is vital to make these spaces feel safe. When they feel safe, they will be more inclined to share their thoughts and questions. Small group leaders will need to be able to answer these questions with grace and when they do not have an answer, they can come along the student as they wrestle to find answers.
Students long to belong, and if the local church cannot provide a safe sense of community, they will go on to find identity, belonging, and purpose in someone or something else.
- Create spaces of vulnerability and transparency in your ministry
- Create opportunities for student-led groups
- Want to know if your students feel like they belong in your youth ministry? Use our Youth Group Relatability Insights survey to measure how your ministry is doing
- We know that making shifts in the way you do youth ministry can be tough. The Feed Team has your back and would love to connect. Reach out to us at [email protected] to find out how we can partner with and support you in your ministry.
Argue, Steven C., Caleb W. Roose, and Tyler S. Greenway. 2020. “Identity, Belonging, and Purpose as Lenses for Empathizing with Adolescents.” Journal of Youth Ministry 18 (1): 73–87. https://www.aymeducators.org/journal-youth-ministry/
Favreau, Jon, Director. Elf. 2003. New Line Cinema.
Greenway, Tyler S., Kara E. Powell, and Steven C. Argue. 2018. “Getting Warmer: What Growing Young Research on the Importance of Relational Warmth Reveals about Churches’ Self-Assessment with Implications for Future Youth Ministry Practitioners.” Journal of Youth Ministry 16, no. 3: 86–105https://www.aymeducators.org/journal-youth-ministry/