Belonging in Online Bible Study


Boy enjoying an apple.

Boy enjoying an apple. A sense of belonging.

One of my fondest memories is when my mother would take my sister and me window shopping at Christmas time. We would marvel at the displays and be fascinated by the twinkling lights that appeared as stars in the sky. As we strolled, she would give us a bright red apple. This memory engenders a sense of belonging because I feel an inner hug whenever I think about it.

As a vital space, the church plays a crucial role in our lives. It is where we develop a sense of community, learning to coexist harmoniously with others. This communal experience cultivates a profound sense of belonging, integral to our spiritual growth and formation. As we connect with others and establish deeper relationships, we become more aligned with our faith and committed to its teachings.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, our teaching ministries have shifted towards online platforms, emphasizing the need to rethink our pedagogical approaches. Within online Bible Study, creating an inclusive environment where participants feel valued and heard is crucial.[1] By fostering a sense of belonging, we can positively impact how individuals understand and apply biblical teachings, specifically the messages of grace and compassion.

The pandemic had the potential to significantly impact our local community, particularly at Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church in Oxon Hill, MD. Our congregation is predominantly African American, with around 200 attendees and 15-20 participants in each Bible study. The majority of our members are female and fall in the 45-year-old age range. However, our small youth population comprises only 5% of attendees.

Selah: A Pandemic Experiment

video conference with virtual connections superimposed

Video conference concept.

While our ministry was not completely halted, our lack of experience dealing with a pandemic environment had a significant impact. We were confronted with numerous questions and challenges, such as how to conduct Bible study and communion and provide care to the sick as COVID-19 ravaged our community. The consequences for our congregation were severe, with one of the most notable being the abrupt cessation of our in-person Bible studies. It became evident that immediate action was imperative.

Findings and Future Implications

Although initially, I did not have a framework for developing “Selah,” after this research, I came to understand that while the psychological significance of belonging is relevant to our social and spiritual well-being, in an online context, a true sense of belonging is formed through our daily actions and interactions.[2] In an online setting, it’s crucial that we actively participate in practices that promote positivity and encouragement towards one another. These practices become our guiding principles as we recognize that the online environment differs from in-person interactions. We can foster a sense of belonging, leading to spiritual growth, by embracing pedagogical practices rooted in:

  • acceptance
  • inclusion
  • respect for culture
  • humility
  • graciousness

Some Challenges of Belonging Online

video display of people in an online setting

Online video meeting.

As with our practice of cultivating a sense of belonging, cultivating belonging online consists of its challenges. At the outset, the perception of fellowship feels different compared to physical settings; we must adjust our sensitivities to the sense of connection with each other. The lack of physical presence can limit opportunities for organic relationship building. [3] This understanding becomes crucial in negotiating and maneuvering this digital sphere by learning to re-socialize us to interact more comfortably online. Still, however, challenges may arise as we engage in this digital world. In a cumulative sense, considering the challenges to belonging online, if we are not sensitive and careful in designing our online Bible studies, we risk promoting a culture of Othering in which people feel discriminated against and selectively exclude those we deem worthy of our fellowship.[4]

Future Implications

As a model for online Bible Study, Selah presents an opportunity to enhance the church’s auxiliary educational programs. At its core, this model requires careful consideration concerning the overall vision and mission in contemporary approaches to Christian education. With this in mind, consider the significant question with which the modern church struggles: Why are younger people leaving our congregations? Are we excluding generations by our insistence on our conventional pedagogy? Should we learn their language of belonging?

With the rise of people turning away from the church, it becomes imperative that we engage our community on a much deeper level. Whereas the church has done a remarkable job in delivering the message of hope, grace, forgiveness, love, peace, and mercy to its community, according to Seymour and Miller, “the gospel itself will be impoverished if the educational efforts of Christians are impoverished. A vital feature for the church’s educational program will require local denominational interdenominational and academic cooperation.” [5]

[1] Baumeister and Leary contend that the need to belong is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation. Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary, “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation,” Psychological Bulletin 117, no. 3 (May 1995): 497,

[2] According to Kelly Anne Allen et al., belonging is a subjective feeling of being an essential part of the systems around us, including family, friends, school, work, community, and cultural groups. Kelly-Ann Allen et al., “Belonging: A Review of Conceptual Issues, an Integrative Framework, and Directions for Future Research,” Australian Journal of Psychology 73, no. 1 (January 2, 2021): 87–102,

[3] Delamarter presents six approaches to designing an online course. In his third approach, he contends that the best online courses are designed to be student-centered constructivist learning environments in which we re-conceive the teaching-learning process. In this model, Delamarter proposes that the teacher and the student re-socialize themselves into a group. Steve Delamarter et al., “Teaching Biblical Studies Online,” Teaching Theology & Religion 14, no. 3 (July 2011): 258,

[4] See timestamp 8:30 John Powell, Introducing Othering & Belonging Berlin | #OBConf23, 2023,

[5] Seymour and Miller, Contemporary Approaches to Christian Education, 164.

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