Have you seen this ad? It is one of the popular series of Apple commercials touting the advantages of Macs over PCs. You can even find some church-related parodies of this ad, which are sure to spark some kind of discussion (I’ll save my thoughts on this for another time). In any case, when we purchased the laptops we use for church a couple of months ago, they came preloaded with tons of nonsensical trial software. If the goal of these companies was to harass customers and obstruct productivity, then job well done!

Fortunately, a church member recently offered to give our computers a nice little tune-up last week. In addition to receiving a much smoother-running computer, I experienced another corollary benefit: being without a computer left me with time to catch up on some reading.

I was able to finish Serve God, Save the Planet by J. Matthew Sleeth and most of This Beautiful Mess by Rick McKinley. For now, I wanted to share my thoughts about The Search to Belong, by Joseph Myers.

This book came to me recommended by Marko and, after finishing it, I can see why. As the subtitle of this book suggests, Myers wants us to reconsider some of our preconceived notions about intimacy, community and small groups. I have struggled with the way we often approach small group ministry — both as a member of such groups and, later, as a pastor trying to build community. As a member, I have often felt guilty for not sharing enough with the group; that, somehow, I let down the other group members by not spilling my guts every time. As a leader, I have felt disappointed in the failure of our small group ministries to yield success (deep connection! church growth! powerful community!).

Myers offers a welcome alternative to understanding what it means to belong. He expands our understanding of belonging by connecting Edward Hall’s idea of proxemics — “the study of how physical space influences culture and communications” — to building community in our churches. Hall identifies four different spaces in which people interact: public, social, personal and intimate. Myers argues that instead of trying to push people along the intimacy spectrum, churches must recognize that all four spaces are valid, important and necessary for building genuine community. As he writes:

We tend to think of intimacy as the “Mecca” of relationship. But would all relationships be better if they were intimate? Think of all the relationships in your life, from bank teller to sister to coworker to spouse. Could we adequately sustain all these relationships if they were intimate?

All belonging is significant. Healthy community — the goal humankind has sought since the beginning — is achieved when we hold harmonious connections within all four spaces.

It might sound like heresy in the contemporary church to argue that small groups are not the only way to build community, but Myers builds a compelling case for this idea. He writes about one pastor who led a church with a respected and successful small group ministry who confessed, “My small groups don’t really work. They never have. To be honest, I don’t think they’re for everyone. In fact, I have never attended a small group nor wanted to attend one.” It’s hard for me to describe the relief I felt after reading that quote — I’m not alone!

But this work is not an attack on small group ministry. Rather, it is a calling for churches to create environments where people can connect in many different ways. Myers posits, “If we would concentrate upon facilitating the environment instead of the result (people experiencing community), we might see healthy, spontaneous community emerge.”

Towards the end of the book, in the chapter called “Searching for a Front Porch,” Myers argues that churches should create “median spaces” that act as a symbolic front porch for people. He quotes Scott Cook, who says the front porch is “the zone between the public and private, an area that could be shared between the sanctity of the home and the community outside.” Now, I must admit that I am leery of writers who wax nostalgic about The Andy Griffith Show, as that has never been a meaningful cultural touchstone for me and often signifies a desire for a homogeneous white society. However, this is an important discussion — the disappearance of front porches from the architecture of most newly constructed neighborhoods mirrors the increasing privatization and individualization of American culture. In the current climate, churches can act as a “third place” (a location that is neither work nor home that provides community).

Myers devotes his final chapter to a dialogue (ah, postmodernism) between himself and a church leader who wants to put these principles into practice. I often find myself wanting to skip ahead to the take-away or transferable but, for me, the more useful part of this book dealt with the conceptual framework of understanding community. One potential concern: People often have a tendency to self-select into groups where everyone looks the same — without thoughtful and skillful leadership, emphasizing spontaneous relationships could end up feeding our highly individualized preferences rather than building loving, sacrificial communities.

This is a worthwhile book, perhaps even for the first chapter (“The Myths of Belonging”) alone. The Search to Belong provides eye-opening and thought-provoking insights into the difficult task of building community.

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