The Search To Belong By Joseph Myers

The Search To Belong (TSTB) is a book about our need to belong, how it manifests in our lives, and some basic misunderstandings about belonging. It is clear from reading TSTB that we are missing some key pieces of belonging in church today. Myers views are based on the communication theories of Edward T. Hall. Hall says that we communicate in four spaces, public, social, personal, and intimate, and Myers uses that framework to view belonging. Public belonging is based on a mutual connection to a third party. (41) For example I belong with millions as a die-hard (and often) fan of the Chicago Cubs. Social belonging is where we share a piece or small picture of who we are. (46) Examples of this kind of belonging are conversations that involve questions like, “Tell me about yourself.” Personal belonging is when we share private thoughts, experiences, and feelings with someone. These are the people we would call “close friends.” (47-50) Intimate belonging happens when we share the “naked truth” of ourselves with someone. (50) An example of this is marriage, but intimate space is not restricted to marriage.

TSTB suggests that we need a healthy harmony of belonging in each of the four spaces. One is not more important than the other, and if we lack belonging in even one space we will feel like we are missing something. Myers continues to suggest that connections in each of the spaces happen naturally and organically, and that we cannot force these connections to happen. He suggests, and at this point in my reflection I agree, that there are two major mistakes we as the church have made regarding groups. First, we push the intimacy space as if it is the end-all-be-all, that our goal for every group and relationship should be intimacy. Myers suggests that we all need a harmony that includes all four spaces to have a healthy sense of belonging. Second, too often we try to manufacture belonging, especially intimacy. Which makes sense given the first mistake. When we do this we run the risk of actually hurting people by setting unrealistic expectations. Instead we must be content to allow people to connect in and with our churches in all four spaces, and all we can do is create an environment that will give people the opportunity to connect in each of the four spaces.

TSTB is somewhat but not completely counter to a book we read earlier this semester about how consumer culture influences the church (Consuming Religion by Vincent Miller). That book suggested increasing agency, or ownership, as a way to counter a consumer approach to church. Myers may agree with this view, but he would clearly suggest that increased agency cannot be manufactured. All we can do is create an environment for people to choose it.

I find myself wrestling with TSTB and discipleship. It’s probably well known by now that I agree wholeheartedly with Dallas Willard that being a disciple of Jesus is at the core of our lives. Everything else comes after being a disciple. So I wonder how we engage in discipleship in all four spaces? How do I do this in my own life, being a disciple in public, social, personal, and intimate spaces with Jesus, and how do we encourage or facilitate discipleship in each of the four spaces in our communities? I don’t have answers at the moment, but perhaps some of the conversation here will help shake out some thoughts.

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8 Responses to The Search To Belong By Joseph Myers

  1. Jason Clark says:

    Great post Jason, thank you.

    I wonder, how do you see those 4 spaces worked in well in your current context. Or as you look back over the last few years, where have you seen them incarnated to healthily?

    Thanks, Jason

  2. dwvw67 says:

    You say that you wonder about discipleship in all four spaces. I too read this book, and I would be inclined to say that Myers might think that not all activities have to occur on all spaces. Discipleship could be a personal/intimate space thing, and it might not fit on a public/social setting, but that’s ok. Whereas other disciplines can easily occur on those spaces. Just some quick thoughts on turkey day. What do you think?

  3. Jason Feffer says:

    Honestly, I have more examples of groups that didn’t function healthily in the four spaces. I think we fall into the trap of pushing intimacy as the ultimate. In fact, the general criticisms against the way we do groups could apply directly to us. We have neighborhood based groups, and we are assuming that people will connect socially and personally because they live in the same neighborhood. Then we encourage everyone to join a smaller group to find intimacy. At least we allow these to begin organically.
    I’m beginning to wonder if affinity groups are the way to go. I’m thinking if a group of people who already have something in common they are more likely to develop personal and perhaps even intimate connections organically.

  4. Kathy Rice says:

    Great post and blog. In my community, we have found that offering a variety of types of groups (affinity-connection, learning, serving) gives people a chance to interact in various spaces if they choose. Many people participate in these.

    But a larger number engage at the public/social space. It’s what they can and want to do. As a faith community, we try to foster a sense of connection in those spaces (coffee shop,atrium/fellowship space, turn and greet someone worshipping next to you, etc.).

    Maybe public/social space times can include discipleship elements?

  5. Carol McLaughlin says:

    Hey Jason…
    Insightful post. I am intrigued with your reference to Miller and the contrast that presents. I hadn’t thought of it in the same way and so you are expanding my thinking (again :). You have entered into the “tension” of creating opportunities for the spontaneous to develop yet how do we do that without “controlling it”. I’m challenged by that and I don’t have answers that satisfy me at this point. What I am wondering about “affinity type” groups is how do we develop/disciple people within these groups to have “eyes to see and ears to hear” so that they are present within these setting to know what to do and how to effectively minister should there be one that needs to move from social to personal?

  6. Faith Carter says:

    Just testing…

  7. Kelly McMillan says:

    So glad you and others are reading this book. I can see from peoples comments and reviews that Myers is stretching us to re-think community and intimacy. I am wondering why discipleship couldn’t take place in all four spaces. And interestingly enough, in my church, we are placing so much emphasis on small groups and affinity groups, that the senior leadership has moved away from allowing public spaces (they asked that we cancel our women’s conference-one example). Their reasoning is that we are too busy and must cut back on events. But from what I am gleaning from Meyer’s work, it is in the best health of a church to offer community opportunities in all four spaces. Am I understanding this correctly and what would you say to our leadership’s decision?

  8. Jason Feffer says:

    I am coming to the realization that discipleship doesn’t fit with what Myers is writing about. His view of groups is somewhat shortsighted. He is writing from the perspective that groups are only for belonging. Obviously groups can also be for Scripture study, spiritual disciplines, serving, etc. I think Myers has great points, but they are not 100% transferable when you are talking about a group that has a purpose other than belonging/community.

    I spoke to in Orlando recently, and I really like what they do. They have affinity groups that seem to meet the purpose of belonging. They then have groups they call praxis groups. The vision for these is that people who already know one another and have belonging in a social and/or personal space together gather for more intentional discipleship in a group they already are a part of. They also have a 12 month closed group that is for deep transformational growth, and groups centered on serving. I think it’s the best model I’ve seen yet for a larger ministry because it offers options.

    I agree with what you guys have said that we need to allow freedom and choices for people to connect on the level they are comfortable. Though sometimes it’s important to challenge them as well. But I also think we do have to be careful of overcommitting people. That’s part of this thing that I am trying to figure out. I think we just need to be careful with how we communicate things. Do we expect people to commit to each kind of group? That would be a bad idea. Personally I am a huge advocate for men’s and women’s retreats, so I would be upset about that change. But I suppose it’s tough for me, an an outsider, to suggest right or wrong.

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