the search to belong

Small groups are where it’s at, right? Not so fast.

Back when Lauren and I attended the FaithWorks newcomers brunch, one of the Pastors mentioned that they have intentionally stayed away from beginning a small group ministry. At first, I was a bit surprised. I mean, most churches have been all about small groups for the past few years, proclaiming them to be the ticket to creating genuine and intimate community in churches of all sizes. Since that day, I have been thinking alot about small groups and their effectiveness, and recently decided to read a book on this very topic, The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community and Small Groups by Joseph R. Myers.

Basically, this book is for all those who have become disenchanted with the idea that everyone in the church has to be plugged into a small group and that intimacy is the be all and end all of genuine community. Myers presents a model wherein he argues that we all function within four spaces of community – public, social, personal and intimate – and that we all connect with people in different ways. There is significance to all the spaces in terms of creating meaningful relationships and genuine community, and to suggest that we all have to connect on a deeply personal or even intimate level [the reasoning behind small groups] is unhealthy; the Church needs to encourage and embrace a model of community that creates a harmony between these four spaces. Yes, small groups have a place in the Church, but should be more spontaneous than forced.

That’s the main idea of the book, and I think there is alot of truth in there. Personally, I believe that the idea of embracing a harmony between the different ‘spaces’ of community is much healthier than expecting everyone to plug into a small group in the hopes of developing intimate connections. The reality is that not everyone is looking for that, nor is it entirely necessary; we are able to gain a sense of belonging through any of the four spaces, and often the most meaningful and significant relationships / communities develop more spontaneously by weaving through the different spaces with different people at different times.

Here’s a quick quote to end:

We shape environments, as opposed to creating groups. When the environment is healthy [harmony between the four spaces], people will find connection on their own and form groups spontaneously. This approach gives freedom and responsibility to individuals, because people will experience belonging and a sense that this helps them with their life.

At FaithWorks, I know that members of the faith community are encouraged to start up groups and ministries along the way, taking the reins on their own and seeing what works. There is freedom to take responsibility and develop that sense of belonging; freedom to create connections with others, both inside the faith community and in the community at large. I see that working alot better than a forced sense of community and an imbalance of priorities on one level of community space.

Good book, quick read. Check it out if this stuff interests you.

    • Tara Ayer
    • April 13th, 2007

    Hmm…once again Ian, you present some interesting thoughts. Some of this definitely resonates with me as I’ve been contemplating not only the small group model as a way to do church and it’s ultimate effectiveness. But also in the context of liviing in community and people feeling and complaing of a lack of intimacy even though there are a whole bunch of us living together in pretty close quarters. These thoughts were further challenged by a friend reading out to me today quotes from a Nouwen book about the importance of solitude…how critical it is to healthy community. Anyway, all this to say that it’s food for thought.

  1. yeah, a point raised in this book is that proximity does not necessarily equal community. again, intimacy may not have to be the ultimate goal, and i don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that we have to have ‘intimate’ relationships with numerous people. community [as you alluded to] means much more than that. i think it’s just a matter of placing too much importance on one aspect of community.

    thanks for the comment, tara.

    • Tara Ayer
    • April 14th, 2007

    I fully agree that community should and is much more than just proximity and intimacy…but there seems to still be in many people’s hearts or some kind of inherent desire for deeper relationships…that coming out of having experienced life together in community. So it seems that sometimes in the wash of pursuing community something else is lost. But in exploring the idea then of finding a balance between the four aspects described…I’m not sure I totally grasp the differenes between each disctinction. Does the book further expand on social, intimate, public and personal?

  2. You’re totally right, people are searching for deeper relationships and intimate connections, and that is a result of genuine and authentic community. But it is not the sole purpose of community. The book does define the different spaces, and here they are real quick.
    Public – when we connect through outside influences. Not really person to person, but the sharing of a common experience [such as fans of a sports team, or members of a certain denomination etc.]
    Social – the space where we share ‘snapshots’ of who we are through small talk or in social settings.
    Personal – connecting through sharing private experiences, feelings and thoughts.
    Intimate – the sharing of ‘naked’ feelings, experiences and thoughts.
    Harmony involves having more public than social, more social than personal, and more personal than intimate connections. This is his model of healthy community, where personal connections are probably the space where the most genuine and authentic community takes place.
    Hope that helps a little bit to explain what he means by the different spaces.

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