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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Four Spaces of Belonging

We all have a need to belong. But we don’t all experience belonging in the same way.

I knew a woman who couldn’t understand why people didn’t stay for coffee hour after church. She felt that church wasn’t complete without the coffee and conversation that occurred after the service. “Don’t they know they would feel more a part of the church if they came for coffee?” she would ask.

I knew a man who couldn’t understand why more people weren’t interested in belonging to a small group. “Church,” he said, “should be a place where people can share their deepest selves with one another. Don’t they know what they are missing?”

Both Mrs. Coffee Hour and Mr. Small Group didn’t understand that people experience belonging in different ways.

Joseph Myers, in his book The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community and Small Groups, says that there are four different “spaces of belonging” – Public, Social,
Personal and Intimate.

Public Space is “where we connect through outside an influence,” for example, at a concert, sporting event or political rally. My wife and I went to see “The Blue Man Show” in Chicago a few years ago. Even though we didn’t know a single other person by name, we had an intense feeling of belonging to the group participating in that delightful event.

Social Space is where we share “snap-shots” of ourselves and form “first impressions” of one another. Social space is where “neighbour” relationships are formed.

Personal Space is where we experience belonging among “close friends” – people with whom we feel comfortable sharing personal things about ourselves – but not everything.

That level of belonging is reserved for Intimate Space. This space is best described by the expression “naked but unashamed.” It is the space where can share our deepest selves. Most people only ever have handful of truly intimate relationships.

Myers argues that we can experience genuine belonging in all four of these spaces. It’s a mistake to think that the goal of belonging is always intimacy, and that to social or public belonging is invalid. They are four different experiences.

The challenge for churches is not to limit genuine belonging to social events or small groups, but to provide opportunities to belong in all four spaces.

Public Belonging
The main public event in most churches is Sunday worship. People should feel connected –
both to God and to those around them – whether they know anyone else in the congregation or not. This means that worship should be planned and led with care and commitment. People aren’t looking for polished perfection, but they are looking for a message that speaks to them.

It’s essential that churches do the very best with what they have. This means not trying to be something other than what they are, by, for example, building worship around classical choral music when they no longer have the musicians to do it well.

It also means removing barriers to participation, including cryptic “insider” language, messages that reflect the minister’s latest hobby horse, confusing orders of service, or making people guess where the washrooms are.

Think: If I was visiting this church for the first time, what would it feel like?

Social Belonging
Social belonging is often dismissed as superficial. It may carry the negative connotation of “mere socializing.” But social space is perhaps the most critical space because it is there that people will decide whether they want to get to know you better.

Social space is where first impressions are formed. Visitors will often decide within minutes whether this is the church for them.

The message to be communicated in social space is “We really are glad you’re here.” It should come with no strings attached, so that people do not feel like you are only interested in what they might do for you.

Personal Belonging
The church should be a safe place where people can form close relationships. This requires both openness and receptivity, but also respect for healthy boundaries.

To experience personal belonging, people need to trust that they can ask questions without being dismissed, express opinions without being judged, contribute without being shut down, and risk opening themselves without being the subjects of gossip or backbiting.

Intimate Belonging 
I think intimacy in churches is somewhat overrated. It’s not reasonable to expect that most people will look for true intimacy in the church.

Intimacy comes with risks, and so it needs to be handled with care. People who seek intimacy in the church may be broken or vulnerable, or they may crave intimacy in unhealthy ways.

The church’s best role may be to support and care for people so they can sustain healthy intimacy in other areas of their lives -- their marriages, families and friendships.

All four kinds of belonging are authentic and valid. Churches should strive to provide opportunities to experience belonging in all four spaces. 

1 comment:

  1. Hey,
    Thanks for sharing such an amazing and informative post. Really enjoyed reading it. :)



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