This is a rough draft of a review I am doing about The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups that will be posted over at TheOoze along with an interview with Joe. The book is excellent so I am letting you in on it early. Enjoy…
I have been looking forward to reading Joe Myers’ book, The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups for some time before it was released and I finally got my hands on it at Soularize. After a small hotel fire, a night sleeping at Logan International Airport, and a series of packing mistakes, I ended up checking it with my luggage and putting the book I had read twice in my carry-on for the flight home. After landing in Saskatoon, I finally pulled it out and read it.
Right away the book spoke to me. I worked in a “church of small groups” in the past and part of a denomination that is clear about the importance of small groups as part of every church’s Natural Church Development program. (From NCD: Our research in growing in declining churches all over the world has shown that continuous multiplication of small groups is a universal church growth principle – page 32 of Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches).
Despite being indoctrinated in the philosophy of small groups, I have never enjoyed my small group experiences and always felt guilty because of it. If a pastor doesn’t like small groups, how will the church value small groups? Or so went my thingking. It wasn’t just my own experience in small groups; I have always been uncomfortable when churches make a commodity out of my relationships and community. After reading The Search to Belong, it started to make a lot more sense to me about why I am uncomfortable in certain situations and why so many churches struggle to get the buy in they want for their small groups programs.
The book just isn’t about the church. It is about how I interact with different people in different contexts. Over the last couple of years I have had people I just could not connect with. Quite a few times while reading the book, I have said to Wendy, “this explains a lot about my relationship with this person.” As a pastor the book helped me understand the big picture and as a person who has struggled in some relationships in my life, it opened my eyes to what was happening and in many cases, what I was doing wrong.
Selected Insights from The Search to Belong
Common Myths of Belonging
More time = more belonging :: The first myth is that the greater amount of time spent in relationship with another person, the more authentic the community will be. This is a pervasive myth. In reality, time has little to do with a person’s ability to experience significant belonging. Many people tell stories of first time, episodic introductions from which a spontaneous connection emerges. (p. 11)
Belonging is not controlled by time, and time by itself does not develop belonging. (p. 12)
More commitment = more belonging :: A relationship that involves commitment does not necessarily promote a greater experience of belonging. A married couple may feel very committed to their relationship, yet still feel the strain of “not belonging to each other”. Every month I am reminded of commitment to my financial responsibilities, yet I never experience belonging because of those commitments. (p. 12)
To experience healthy community we need significant relationships. “Significant” is not the same as “close” or “committed.” (p.13)
More purpose = more belonging :: …Groups were started to help people with their search for community, and the first order of business was to write a statement of purpose. After all, people who strive toward a common goal connect, right? We even changed our language. We no longer asked people to attend committee meetings. They were no part of a team. And this simple change was all in the hope of helping people connect in significant ways.
Although many positive accomplishments sprung from this newly focused approach, in reality this strategy has little connection with the community experience. Sometimes people who have a common passion and purpose do connect. But a common purpose or vision or goal does not guarantee that people will connect. (p.13-16)
More personality = more belonging :: Many people believe that some have a natural ability to belong. They assume that if a person is more gregarious, more extroverted, he or she will have little trouble experiencing community, whereas those who are shy will struggle to belong. (p. 17)
More proximity = more belonging (p.17)
More small groups = more belonging … Almost every book I read on a successful church touts small groups as the key. But I have read that churches that provide small group opportunities can expect about a 30 percent involvement from the congregation. Why only 30 percent? Because small groups do not accomplish the promise of fulfilling all facets of a person’s search for community. Small groups deliver on one or two specific kinds of connection. (p. 18)
Most of us have always believed that a person could “belong” as long as their definition of belonging agreed with ours. Most of us have been raised on a healthy dose of believing before belonging. For others to belong, to “join the club,” it was a prerequisite that the person subscribe to our belief system. (p. 19)
[Edwin T. Hall] concluded that there are four spaces that we use to develop personalities, culture, and communication. Those spaces are: public, social, personal, and intimate… “Could this mean that belonging is multidimensional? Might people belong to us on different levels?” (p. 20)
Belonging happens when you identify with another entity-a person or organization, or perhaps a species, culture, or ethnic group. Belonging needs not be reciprocal. You can feel a sense of belonging-and in fact, can belong-without the other party’s knowledge or sharing the experience. (p. 25)
There are many who consider themselves part of the community of faith until they are confronted by someone that tells them otherwise. Our culture wonders-with some confusion-“Why don’t I belong?” And if there is one place that can welcome them with open arms, it is the church. In Jesus’ story of the prodigal, the father welcomes his boy home be redefining what it means to belong to the family. Perhaps our definitions ought likewise to broaden. (p. 25)
Tim grew up on the family farm, was the only one of the children to remain, and now owns the land and the buildings that represent so much of his life. His siblings are scattered around the world. Over the holidays the family returned, and Tim took a walk down the lane with his older sister, Pam. Their talk turned to reminiscing about old times an the journeys their lives had taken. Pam had travelled; Tim had not. Pam and her husband had shared several adventures. Tim had stayed at home.
Tim expressed the feeling that his life had been a series of safe decisions. Pam was surprised. “But you take risks,” she insisted.
“Don’t you worry about the crops? You plant and then pray that the right amount of rain will come and at the right time. Doesn’t that worry you?”
“Oh, no,” Tim answered quickly, “I don’t worry about that.”
Sensing he was not telling her everything, she probed. “What do you worry about?”
“I worry about being alone.”
Being alone. That was something that never concerned most farmers of the past. The family stayed home. As life progressed, no one ever thought about being alone. The kids were given plots “on the back forty” to build a home and raise a family. When mom and dad could no longer work, the boys took over and cared for the land and the old folks as well.
Not so today. And this cultural shift is a major factor in our struggle to belong. People are trying to find their place in this world for the “back forty,” for a place to belong. They are searching for family. (p. 26)
People crave connection, not contracts. They want to participate in our rituals, even though they may not yet fully understand their meaning. They see a kaleidoscope of possibilities for belonging. But our language struggles to fully express this spectrum of possibilities. (p. 27)
The question, “Who is my neighbour?” guides the church to its fundamental calling. And defining “neighbourhood” has been one of the primary tasks for the church throughout its history. And in this postmodern, post-evangelical blip in time, we still struggle to guide people toward a healthy experience of community and belonging. (p. 30)
Some theorists suggest it is impossible to make significant connection in public spaces. Don’t tell these people that. Their connections burrow deep. I doubt that they visit each others homes or get together outside of the bingo hall, yet they care for one another-all in public space. They may not know each other’s names, but they are not strangers. They are family. (p. 41)
I am a member in good standing of the Grand Old Party. Yet the only indication that I am a Republican is that I show up and vote. I do not stuff envelopes or attend party events. I do not ask others to contribute money. I have never campaigned for office. I belong to the party only in public space.
The party accepts this fact. They never suggest that if I really want to belong I will need to become more committed. They never hint that if I were to come closer to the organization I would be a more authentic Republican. They validate my space of belonging.
In the 2000 presidential election, Florida could not tell immediately who would receive the electoral vote. During the controversy, I (and other public belongers to both parties) became more involved. When the family is in trouble, those accepted as family come to the family’s-or party’s-aid. (p. 41)
Public Belongers Are Committed and Participate. We tend to validate only those ways in which we want people to participate. In truth, people participate in many ways.
I mentioned the Hoosiers earlier. I am a huge Indiana University men’s basketball fan. I belong to the team publicly. To them I may be nameless, but I am not a stranger. I’ve adjusted my schedule to see games, both in person and on TV. I buy a special cable package to see games not broadcast on regular TV or standard cable. I wear official IU garb. I am not hesitant about praising or arguing in favor of the team. I am a committed public belonger.
It is simply not true that people who belong only in public space are “on the fringe.” Nor is it true that we somehow need to get them to move “closer” to get them to be committed.”
Were we to validate that space people inhabit–whichever of the four spaces it may be–we will find countless people who are actively committed into the shadows or written off entirely.
Public spatial belonging is not about anonymity. And anonymity has little to do with commitment. People can–and do–experience connectedness at different levels, and when they feel connected, they explore the possibilities of significant, committed participation.
Consider Jesus’ encounter with the soldier, a centurion in the Roman army of occupation.
When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralysed and in terrible suffering.”
Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”
The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.
Jesus is a master of permitting people to belong to him in all four spaces. He offered to come to the centurion’s home. Why didn’t the centurion want Jesus to come? He had his reasons. Matthew says he felt he did not deserve it. Luke says the centurion did not consider himself worthy.
Whatever the reason, Jesus accepted the centurion’s statement; he did not insist on coming closer. He allowed this centurion to be a part of the “family” in public space. The centurion did not want to be intimate with Jesus. The centurion was not after a personal or a social relationship. He needed Jesus to accept him in a public space and yet help in a significant way. Jesus honoured that request.
True community can be experienced in a public space. Public space is not mere togetherness:, it is connectedness. It is family. An essential key to developing community is the maturing of our competencies to growing significant, committed public belongings.
What would this look like in our congregations? Can we be comfortable with people belonging to Jesus and the church in public space? Can we give the help, home, and home in the space where they choose to belong? Without pushing them to come closer? – (p. 43-44)
In many ways, social belonging is the “small talk” of our relationships. We denigrate social belonging as superficial. We surmise that nothing significant takes place in social relationships.
If you don’t think much of small talk, try living without it for a while. One of the chief complaints of those in so-called commuter relationships is the inability to discuss the inane. One commuter wife observed that “you have a lot of immediate impressions and little jokes and observations that you can’t save for a week. You can’t reconstruct that kind of trivia in an effective way. I find the loss of that material really annoying.” Another geographically displaced wife lamented lost opportunities “to share in everyday things like ‘What did you have for lunch today?'”
Take away social relationships and our community conversation becomes flat, lacking a spontaneous connection to the entirety of our relationships. (p. 45-46)
Kennon Callahan suggests that the “search for community is the search for roots, places, and belonging. It is the search for sharing and caring, for family and friends.” Not everyone wants his or her “place” to be an intimate one. Nor is that even possible. Annoucning programs that promise intimacy to every person within reach creates unrealistic expectations. Worse, it actually pushes those who are no read for such relationships farther away. (p. 52)
Who started this theory of “building community through small group” thing anyway? I would like to find them and wring their neck.
I was given the responsibility to start and run small groups in our church after my senior pastor returned from a conference where he was told, “If you want to grow, you need small groups.” What kind of foundation is that for pushing people into another once-a-week meeting? (p. 61)
Why do we promote small groups as the most significant way to build community and congregation? Why have the become a fad of our time? Why do we lead our congregants to believe that small groups deliver the community they seek?
Some congregaigtons went to small groups hoping to increase attendance. Remember the felt-need small groups? “If we can just get them into the building, maybe some of them will stay” was the pervasive thought. Others started small groups in order to grow people into “fully devoted followers of Christ,” whatever that means.
Reasons for starting small groups usually included the words “to grow community” or “to help people belong.” Have you ever said, “We have small groups because as the congregation grows larger we must grow smaller?”
Unwittingly we have promoted two exclusive environments of belonging-large (public) and small (intimate). This does not lead healthy belonging. (p. 62)
The secret is to see all connections as significant. All of these spaces are important, real, and authentic ins people’s lives. We need to validate what people themselves count as valid. When we validate the space where they are, we greatly increase our ability to bring help to their lives. (p. 63)
So often our small group models encourage forced belonging. We surmise that putting people into groups will alleviate the emptiness so prevalent in our fast paced culture. (p. 68)
The very agenda of a typical small group gathering may be its demise. Participants become confused as to what space they are to belong in… The level of information becomes personal. Those in the room move mentally into a personal space. Some experienced belonging. Others wish for another round of finger food.
Sometimes we encourage the group to become even more “intimate”. We try to get everyone to grow “closer”. However there usually too many people gathered for the group to become intimate. On the rare occasion when this happens, some-if not most-describe the experience as “going too far” as they travel home in the cars. (p. 69)
We assume that we grow and lead people. The truth is that often we are merely growing and leading ourselves. As Kennon Callahan so aptly states, “only you can grow you.” In the same way, only you can lead you.
It is time to give up the intoxicating need to control other people’s lives. It is time to start leading our own lives in healthy ways. People need us to help in healthy ways, not controlling ways. This is the “holy grail” for which people are searching in the promise of belonging. They want help in healthy ways, they want to connect in healthy ways, and they want to experience family in healthy ways. (p. 74)
We shape environments, as opposed to creating groups. When the environment is healthy, people will find connection on their own and form groups spontaneously. This approach gives freedom to individuals, because people will experience belonging and a sense that this helps them with their life. It also helps keep our controlling nature at bay.
Claire, a church secretary tells us,
When they call the office and asked to be placed in a small group we politely encourage them to gather with a few of their friends. This is the type of small group that we are finding helpful for people’s lives. Individuals are telling us that this spontaneity and self-organization has helped them find the relationships they have been searching for. We are no longer in control-and that’s a great feeling.
I have an idea. What if the congregation God has given you is all of those who experience a connection? Granting that this may be true, and realizing that we have no idea how many actually connect, what if we were to assume they are a part of us and give them an opportunity to “opt out” rather than to “opt in”? To put it another way, what if we were to assume that they everyone who is in some way connected to our congregation belongs until they specifically indicate they do not?
“We do that already,” you may say. “If they do not come to our weekend worship or participate in some way, they have opted out.” Yet, as we have seen, people can connect in ways other than coming to “our place.” What would change if we treated everyone as if they belonged? (p. 81)
Many belonged to Jesus in different spaces. The Bible mentions the multitudes, a room full, a crowd of seventy, twelve apostles, the inner circle of Peter, James, and John. All experienced community with Jesus.
What would this look like in our congregations and communities? Are we comfortable with people belonging to Jesus and the church in public or social space? Can we give them significant connections in whatever space they chose to belong without pushing them to come closer?
Jesus never forced strangers to become intimate. Instead he encouraged them to move from stranger to public belonger. “I was a stranger and you invited me in,” does not imply intimate. The stranger is invited in, to belong publicly (p. 112)
When I want to get together with friends, I don’t invite them over. We go to a neutral place-a median place. These spaces provide the space between public and intimate. They provide the space for “personal and community” discussions. They provide front porch. (p. 129)
The cultural trend to seek out front porch is evident in the phenomenon of “church shopping.” For several years, we have credited consumerism with birthing the trend for people to “shop” for a church that offers a buffet of choices to meet their many needs. We have observed that many individuals jumping denominational lines. We attributed these evils to the consumer mentality of our time. Yet I am not convinced that this is at the heart of people’s search.
There may be several fundamental life searches, but the search to consume is not among them. People consume in an effort to fulfill a search. For example, a person may purchase a new outfit to help with their search for identity and individuality. At the same time another may make the same purchase to quench a desire to fit in, which helps with their search to belong. People do not consume just to consume.
What I believe may be happening is that people are dating our congregations. They are looking for communities where they can become part of the family. You do not shop for family. You date to find family. (p.130)
Much of the Search to Belong is based on the work of Edward T. Hall. Hall identified four types of social space: public, social, personal, and intimate. Building on Hall’s research on the four spaces, Myers suggests that far too much time and energy has been directed on promoting intimate space as the ideal. Churches and organizations need to stop equating intimacy with significance and more efforts need to spent appreciating the value of public space, and promoting opportunities for social and personal space.
This runs counter to the conventional wisdom of most churches which see small groups as the way to church growth and a solution that is right for everyone in the church.
In the end Search to Belong blows away conventional thinking about small groups and places where discipleship happens in many churches. It isn’t about coming up with better icebreakers, different approaches to coax out answers to quiet people, and how to have small groups divide. It is about better understanding how other people and ourselves interact with each other and what we are looking for.
The book is one of those books that asks a lot more questions than it does answers but I am glad someone is. I was suprised how many assumptions of mine the book exposed and kicked around for a little bit, leaving them rattling around until I spend some time thinking more through them. In the end, I think that will determine whether this book speaks to you. If you are looking for a programmed and all encompasing magic bullet to solve your church’s issues for community, you will be disappointed. If you are looking at a book that will expand your mind and equip you to dialogue and ask hard questions about small groups, community, and discipleship, the book is a great resource and travelling companion on a journey more of us need to take.
It did raise some questions for me. For so long I have been taught the concentric circles of Rick Warren and the process of moving people from community to core. Conventional church growth tactics extoll the value of the high committment church. Committment and effective community seemed to go hand in hand. Even the language that we use is the language of movement to descibe discipleship. To move from that to affirming people where they are, is a big jump for some. How will the church grow if the people don’t move forward? It requires a whole new and less controlling way to thinking about church life.
The book isn’t for all people. I know lots that don’t care at all about the relationships around them and the enviroment they
create poison that probably won’t even crack the cover. Other people like managers, team leaders, and pastors who interacting with people is a vital part of their jobs, will want to read it. Pastors will want to spend some serious time going over the content in this book and then taking some time to walk through it with other people who help create and make up the community in their churches. It does go against much of what we have been taught in church growth circles so reading it and really engaging with the ideas will take some courage but it is time worth spending.
Joseph R. Myers is a multipeneur, interventionist, thinker, speaker, writer, and conversationalist. He owns the consulting firm, FrontPorch, which helps churches, businesses, and other organizations promote and develop healthy community. He’s also founding partner–with his wife, Sara–of settingPace, a communications arts group based in Cinncinnati.
The Language of Belonging website
Joe Myer’s weblog, puzzled