Photo credits: Adelene C

A few evenings ago, Bernice and I attended the 88th birthday bash of her fourth aunt. The theme of the evening was Peranakan.

Peranakans are an ethnic group descended from Chinese settlers from the southern provinces who came to the Malay archipelago including British Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore, where they are also referred to as Baba-Nyonya) and Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia; where they are also referred as Kiau-Seng) and southern Thailand, primarily in Phuket and Ranong, between the 15th and 17th centuries.

Peranakan culture is a hybrid of Chinese and Malay cultures. Both Bernice and I have Peranakan roots.

Bernice was drop-dead gorgeous in her sarong kebaya and I wore a batik shirt. At the dinner, most of the guests were similarly attired. The lingua franca for the evening was Penang hokkien. As the evening progressed, I found myself feeling happy. I wondered why, beyond the joy of being with family and friends. Then I realised why. I was experiencing a deep sense of belonging. I was with my tribe — Peranakans, and Penang Peranakans at that. (There are also Peranakan communities in Malacca and Singapore.) The sense of belonging is primal and powerful. I am a Baba, a Peranakan man.

I also feel a deep sense of belonging when I am with my friends in the Dental Prayer Fellowship. As honorary chaplain I join their meetings from time to time. I am often referred to as “doctor” when I am with them, especially by dental undergraduates. Nothing to be proud about since most folks at such gatherings are dentists or dentists in training. But when I hear myself being addressed as “doctor” it reminds me that I am one of them. I belong to their tribe. I too graduated as a dental surgeon. Interestingly, the dental fraternity associated with the University of Singapore label their graduates numerically based on the year they entered dental school. If you were a year-one student you would be D1. It’s a four-year programme. So, in your first year of work, you would be D5. I am D45. I have a number. I belong.

Philosopher Eliza Esfahani Smith names a sense of belonging as one of the four pillars of meaning in life. Lachlan Brown summaries Smith’s point about the need to belong:

This means being in relationships where you are valued for who you are and you values others as well.

Smith says that some groups bring a shallow form of belonging: you’re valued for what you believe, or hate, but not for who you are. True belonging stems from love.

For many people, belonging is the most essential source of meaning: the bonds you have with your family and friends.

Smith is not a Christian (I think she is Sufi Muslim), but followers of Jesus will amen her point about the need for community. Scripture teaches us that our lives are to be defined by the twin loves for God and neighbour (Mark 12:28–31). We were made to belong — to God and to others.

If God made us for relationships, we need to take a long hard look at how we do church. Is our evangelism basically offering a ticket to heaven when we die? Or are we clear that a decision to follow Jesus puts us in communion with God and into a community today, where there is deep and real belonging? After all, one of the key attractions of the early church was that it was a community where people sacrificially loved one another. Indeed, the depth of the love in the Christian community was one of the key reasons why people were attracted to the faith. The power of a community that provides true belonging is still a key way we flesh out the gospel, especially in a world where so many are lonely. The world doesn’t need the church for big, flashy events, but she hungers for true belonging.

Indeed, paying attention to authentic relationships is not just about evangelism. It’s about the normal Christian experience. I feel that too many churches in Singapore and other urban centres are lonely places. Many churches place a high premium on Bible knowledge and/or service, and rightly so.  But deep authentic relationships — a primal human need that Christ came to address — is too often assumed and does not happen. Our gatherings are far from being places where “everybody knows your name and they are always glad you came” (from the theme song of the TV programme Cheers 1982–1993) — places of true belonging. They should be. They need to be.