Monday, September 10, 2007

The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups, by Joseph R. Myers

I just finished reading Joseph R. Myer's The Search to Belong (at the suggestion of Dixon Kinser), and I have to say that I found this book extremely helpful in thinking about how communities form and how organizations can help promote community space.

Myers describes four different spaces in which we can experience significant belonging: the public, social, personal, and intimate. He argues (based on the work of Edward T. Hall) that human beings need significant connections in each of these spaces in order to be healthy. Myers contends that the "chemical compound" of healthy belonging is 8 parts public, 4 parts social, 2 parts personal, and 1 part intimate.

Here's how he defines the spaces (142-143):

Public Space
Public bleonging occurs when people connect through an outside influence. Fans of a sports team experience a sense of community because they cheer for the same team. They wear official garb, buy special broadcast viewing privileges, and stay up too late or get up extra early just to see the results of the game. These relationships carry great significance in our lives.

Social Space
Social belonging occurs when we share "snapshots" of what it would be like to be in personal space with us. The phrases "first impression" and "best foot forward" refer to this spatial belonging. You belong socially to your favorite bank teller, your pharmacist, and some of the people with whom you work.

Social belonging is important for two reasons. First, it provides the space for "neighbor" relationships. A neighbor is someone you know well enough to ask for (or provide) small favors. Second, it is important because it provides a safe "selection space or sorting space" for those with whom you would like to develop a "deeper" relationship. In social space we provide the information that helps others decide whether they connect with us. We get just enough information to decide to keep this person in this space or move them to another space.

Personal Space
Through personal belonging, we share private (not "naked") experiences, feelings, and thoughts. We call the people we connect to in this space "close friends." They are those who know more about us than an acquaintance would, yet not so much that they feel uncomfortable.

Intimate Space
In intimate belonging, we share "naked" experiences, feelings, and thoughts. We have very few relationships that are intimate. These people know the "naked truth" about us and the two of us are not "ashamed."
Having a language to describe these relationships and knowing there might be a "harmony" among them (in that 8:4:2:1 ratio) is extremely helpful in thinking through church dynamics. It helps answer the question about why, if true belonging is every congregant in a small group, the highest success rates for small group participation is somewhere around 30%. Part of the problem is that for many the 'ideal' for small group space is intimate space. But, it's difficult for human beings to handle having so many people in intimate space! Churches that have the "move in or move out" mentality to their small group ministry promote only the Public and the Intimate. No wonder that people get lost--there's hardly any social or personal space for them to connect!

Myers argues that social space is especially important and that we should all try to develop "front porches," neutral social spaces where people feel welcome but safe. Our society creates these spaces in places like Starbucks or some strip malls. They are easy places to be with new people. It's neutral ground, neither entirely public nor private. It's social space that keeps us from rushing headlong into the more personal or intimate spaces of the home.

For me, this has helped me think about GCF's small group ministry. The current "backbone" of our work is small groups and large group. Small groups meet 3x a month, and the fourth week of the month, everyone gets together for large group. Small groups are for spiritual formation and large group is for community. But, I needn't think that small groups have to be either personal or intimate to help with individual spiritual formation. Many of our grad students are adults with established significant personal and intimate relationships. If we can help them connect with other Christian scholars in social spaces, then we'll allow them the freedom and space to grow spiritually and in community with others.

I'm very grateful this book came along when it did, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking through issues of personal or communal relationship. You'll be freed and helped by the discussion!

1 comment:

Eliza said...

Good post.

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