The ‘Belonging’ Magnet


As ministry leaders, it’s wise to consider the young people of Gen Z the church’s “canaries in the coal mine.” Young people are driving the steep decline in church participation in our culture. But rather than treating their exodus as a problem to solve, what if we paid attention to their experience of church as an early-warning sign for all of the church?

According to a Springtide research report, most young people identify as “religious” or “spiritual”—for those of us who are regularly involved in their lives, that’s not such a surprising revelation. But it is surprising that more than a quarter of young people say they’ve grown more religious or spiritual over the last three years (the pandemic years). Two-thirds say their belief in God overrides their doubts. But as their hunger for God increases, their participation in church worship and youth activities has not. Why? The answer is vitally important…

More than half of Gen Z (58%) say they “do not feel like I need to be connected to one specific religion.” Instead, what drives their participation in religious or spiritual communities is belonging.

The Mechanics of Belonging
When Springtide researchers asked Catholic school students when and where they feel their greatest sense of belonging, their answers revealed both “deserts” and “oases.” Essentially, prescribed religious environments represented the deserts of belonging, while chosen social environments represented oases of belonging. The study spotlighted three reasons for this…

  1. “Religion can feel pressure-filled.” When religious activities and commitments are framed as “shoulds” (or leveraged responsibilities) instead of relational and experiential pursuits tied to their everyday life, they devolve into belonging deserts. All welcoming spaces are relationally safe, naturally attracting kids to the authenticity, warmth, and convictions of the community.
  2. “Religion can feel forced.” If their religious participation is demanded or expected, the chances young people will sink their roots into that community are weak. We need magnet environments, where kids’ voices matter and a shared pursuit of Jesus and His truths are the norm.
  3. “Religion can feel exclusive.” Springtide researchers say: “Young people feel truly seen and understood when the trusted adults in their lives acknowledge who they are and value their presence.” Put another way, when young people feel seen, enjoyed, and pursued, they’re likely to feel like they belong.

The Vibrant Faith Way
Our team just returned from a three-day retreat in Colorado. Our mission was to clarify and simplify what we call the Vibrant Faith Way—our convictions and commitments about faith formation and discipleship. One of our shared takeaways is important for this belonging conversation…

The way that churches thrive is through the intentional nurturing of deeper relationships—both “vertically” with Jesus and “horizontally” with others. Together, these drivers of thriving invite people of all ages into a transformational community, where they feel supported as they grow.  

To get at the heart of transformation, our team spent time immersed in five chapters of the gospel of Matthew, paying close attention to the way Jesus catalyzed growth in the people He engaged. We extracted 14 observations from this pursuit:

  1. Jesus asked questions as a primary way to disrupt and engage people—and often answered questions with more questions.
  2. Jesus used experiences and “teachable moments” to frame a new way of living. He used everyday experiences and miraculous experiences inter-changeably.
  3. Jesus reminded people of God’s truths.
  4. Jesus treated tension and disruption as normal, and used it as growth-leverage.
  5. Jesus named the fears and dangers and realities of people, exposing the limits of their faith.
  6. Jesus spoke truth to power, surfacing the corruptive practices of the powerful, and did so among those who had no power.
  7. Jesus challenged assumptions and mindsets and “givens.”
  8. Jesus often left people challenges and disruptions to wrestle with.
  9. Jesus used a gamut of sensory experiences to engage people.
  10. Jesus spoke prophetic truth over people—about their true identity.
  11. Jesus plunged people into situations that invited them to trust God and each other.
  12. Jesus disrupted passivity in people, challenging them to step up.
  13. Jesus used stories and metaphors to engage people.
  14. Jesus sparked debate and argument as a way to invite people into transformation.

The Dignifying DNA of Belonging
Jesus engaged people in transformational ways by dignifying them—meaning, He paid close attention to their reality and felt very comfortable challenging them to grow and pursue truth in a collaborative relational environment. He said and did things that funneled people toward a trusting relationship with God and others. This is what a magnet for belonging feels like. As we sense the deep dignity of a shared pursuit of Jesus, partnered with others who also feel seen and valued, we experience vertical intimacy with God and horizontal intimacy with others. When young people are invited into these kinds of religious spaces, they feel the deep pull of belonging. And these “canaries” are simply revealing what’s important for all the rest of us…

If you would like help as you explore a more vigorous belonging environment, reach out to connect with a Vibrant Faith Ministry Leadership Coach. Just CLICK HERE for more information. Coaching is an intentional process that moves you forward into the future you long for.  

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In the Spring of 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.







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