I almost quit Cru.
My freshman year, I dragged myself to weekly meeting because I knew it was “good for me” and better than spending another evening watching Netflix in bed. But each week, after the closing announcements, it would happen.
Like some sort of choreographed dance I had missed the lesson for, the room would shift into circles. People would run to greet friends, embraces and questions were exchanged, laughter filled the room. And I stood on the outside, watching.
It wasn’t always lonely. Every now and then, I’d find a friend on the outside and we’d wonder aloud how someone got initiated into one of these intimate groups. We’d position ourselves close to one of them on the off chance that someone would leave and there would be a gap to fill. But more often than not, we would stand there staring at people’s backs until we felt enough time had passed to walk back to our dorms without seeming like loners.
I ended up making friends eventually, I even stayed in Cru (spoiler!), but that feeling of being on the outside looking in never left me.
At first I thought it was me: I was just different, I wasn’t a social butterfly, maybe I was awkward. Then I thought it was the people: they were clique-y; they were shallow and self-focused. Sometimes, I thought it was God: that maybe this was a sign the Christian thing wasn’t for me.
But the truth is that I’ve seen this same phenomenon in every community I’ve been in ever since. It’s not a Cru problem or a Christian problem; it's a human problem.
Also my freshman year, during one of my classes that I managed to stay awake in, I learned about the “belongingness hypothesis.” This idea that every single person is born with a deep, innate need to belong to someone or something. It explains why our lives are driven by relationships: dependent upon and shaped by our families of origin, developed and challenged by our friendships, driven by a pursuit of a significant other or desire for children (or a puppy! That’s what I really want). Our identities are rooted in the relationships to which we belong--which makes complete sense when you think about how every single person was created to belong to Someone.
This is why the sense of not belonging is so crippling. It’s the reason why I almost gave up on not just Cru, but Christian community altogether.
The need to belong is God-given, God-shaped, and God-fulfilled. But like all our needs, it can get distorted. The dark side of needing to belong is we often pursue it at someone else’s expense.
Usually, this isn’t intentional. Sometimes, we’re so busy looking at the backs that face us that we don’t realize our backs are also facing someone else. Or we finally have that sweet moment of connection with someone, finally find those kindred spirits that make us feel wanted, known, and liked.
But like a drowning swimmer who’s been fished out of the ocean, our first instinct is to relish in the safety of the boat--not to jump back in and look for survivors.
There have been moments when I have consciously cherished the feeling of being on the inside--and then never turned around. Let’s have a moment of honest confession: even as a staff member, I am drawn to people who talk like me, live like me, think like me... because I feel like these are MY people. These are the people who get me, the people with whom I can find affirmation and belonging and safety.
But there once was a man who was born on the outside. He was born into poverty, in the midst of scandal, rejected before he took his first breaths. His family thought he was crazy, his friends would turn against him, he was constantly misunderstood. He would undergo periods of intense popularity; he would welcome periods of great animosity. And yet he knew to Whom he belonged. And out of that deep love, he would turn around and pursue those on the outside--the people on the outskirts of society who felt abandoned, unlovable, unknown. He made it his mission to touch the untouchables, know the unknowables, love the unlovables.
And then he said, “A new command I give to you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:34-35)
This is Jesus, who laid down his life so that anyone who trusted in him could belong--to God AND to the family of God--an outward-facing, self-sacrificing, lifeboat-leaving family that forsakes safety and comfort to search for survivors.
So let’s all take a step out of our circles (or lack thereof) and towards the Savior who lived and died and rose again to break down the walls and barriers that divide us. Just turn around. Tell someone if you feel alone. Ask for a lifeline. Invite someone in. Get back in the water.