Winter Close – Hugh Mackay


Social researcher Hugh Mackay wrote a little known book called Winter Close about a lonely middle aged man who takes a curious and even obsessive interest in the lives of the people in his street (Winter Close). I just fininshed it last night, a book you need to read in one or two sittings.

80% of us Aussies live in the burbs and this book captures as only Mackay can do, the very heart of the average Aussie, our heart for ‘the good life’ in the country, our curiosity about what’s happening over the road, our longing for deeper connection, yet retaining our ‘personal space’ and so on.
From where I am at in my street I had many a good laugh as this guy reflects on life in his street in Sydney.

Let me finish this has he finishes his book –
There could perhaps be something to the idea that life’s mystery is sweet, even when it’s painful;trying too hard to make sense of it might be to miss the point.

What is A Missional Community Anyway?

This is the promised article from about … 10 minutes ago!
The link to the full article is here. It’ s the off ramp – my new favorite website!!
In fact, there are some comments and thoughts here that hark back to the article on the new digital era that drew a fair whack of comments (including one from the book I quoted in the post – now I really feel like I am being watched, careful what you say!!)

An extract to make you want more…

Practical Differences
Now this theological difference finds expression in practical ways through our common ideas, language and practices about church. For example, church is typically defined in one of several ways.

Church as a place: For many people, church is a place you go. It is a facility, a campus or a building. The common phrase, “I’m going to church” summarizes this view. When a person is at the building or facility, they are at church. The implication is that when they are not at the building, they are not at church.

Church as an event or spiritual activities: For others, church is something that happens. Church is defined by worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings or other ministries. Again the implication is that when one is not engaged in one of these events or activities, they are no longer doing or having church.

Church as associated with a person: For others, church is an organization associated with a pastor or Christian leader. For example, people often say things like, “I go to Chuck Smith’s church” or “I attend Jack Hayford’s church.”

Church as offering programs or services: For others, church is determined by what the organization offers to meet needs such as youth programs, music programs, marriage groups, fellowship, discipleship, mission opportunities, etc.

However, in a missional community, the church is God’s sent people. That means when everything is stripped away – the building, the events, the activities, the leaders, and other identifying markers for the church – the people are the church and church is the people. Therefore, wherever God’s people are corporately or individually, there is the church. Church is at home, in the car, in the restaurant, the beach – wherever God’s people find themselves in their daily lives.

Connecting With Community

I have been trying to think of ways to connect better with my local community. This includes the school up the road where the kids attend. I have dreamed up a few ideas to both connect (for my sake and fulfilment of my own passion and mission) But also for their sake, wanting to serve them in ways that are actually beinificial to them and maybe actually produce a better place to live and be in community as neighbours.
Problem is that I tend to just have the ideas and…that’s it.
Some of the problem is time but I would say the major issue is my butt…it seems to be stuck in one place, too scared about stepping out and taking a risk. If I initiate something, will everyone just think I am some do gooder try hard etc. I mean Hamo has started his BBQ thing and had begun to connect with people up there….hm

So what happens? My 9 year old daughter decides that she wants to play netball, that she wants to play locally and that she wants to play with kids in her class. She acts on this, with Christine’s help. Mik gets the team together at school, gets her list of names, we register a team and boom – last Monday night was game number 1.
I stood there with 2 other dads from the class who I know to say ‘hi’ to and chat with, but we stood and talked and talked, in fact we were guilty of a lack of cheering for the team. But as I stood there engaging in some of the best conversations I had had with these guys I thought to myself…”My daughter is more effective at this tranformational community stuff/mission stuff than I am”
Maybe we need to get less hung up about theory, and ‘mission’ and just go out, be friends, play tennis, netball, have beer and be yourself.
Thanks Mikaela!

Community

I help facilitate a ‘Life Group’ for my church. We have some discussions on and off the court about issues of community. What it looks like, really looks like. We are trying to avoid the trappings of it becoming a church ‘meeting’, or a traditional ‘bible study’ or ‘discussion group’. All of these have a place, but we felt a deeper need…even a longing for something else. When I say ‘we’ I mean some of us not all of us. We wanted to provide a place of freedom of connection. Understanding that for some people the value that ‘life best happens through small groups’ is simply not true. (How many people have you spoken to that have never had a pleasant encounter through their small group!) So we have created an environment in which people feel free to drop into and connect at whatever level they feel comfortable to do so.
Some have actually made the relationships in our group such a priority they have adjusted their lifestyles to make this group the kind of ‘relational hub’ of their life.
Others have done similar but in much smaller ways, still others have said I will be part of the relational network of the group but have yet to ever come to one of our official gatherings, but are none the less connected to our circle. No doubt for many, ‘life’ is happening outside of a small group meeting, so why push it if they feel connected despite a regular meeting?
The group is forming deeper relationships in some circles and yet others remain disconnected, disconnected to me, I should say. There may well be deepening relationships happening amidst the group that I have no knowledge of.
I feel I am missing the forum of ‘group discussion’ or even discussion about the group (note the difference). The group is too big to sit in the traditional circle and have a guided discussion on a topic. Maybe this is good. Maybe this is forcing us to have the discussions in a far more real environment over a BBQ or a coffee table, while the 3 or 4 sitting out on the lawn are also engaging in real discussion…harder than it sounds. I think us Christians have been conditioned to switch on ‘christian talk’ when we form a circle or sit in rows with a preacher in our face and switch to small talk when we move outside of ‘Christian shapes’. (A generalisation of course, but maybe not too far from the truth). I have to say that for the time being as group leader I think I will avoid doing what I have been tempted to do, that being to create another forum, maybe on the alternate Friday night, a place for proper study, discussion on issues we could talk about without kids running wild, as a whole group. I think I need to settle into some intentional discussions on topics, even preselected topics if people are open to that, but chatting as normal people do over a mug of coffee, a beer etc. (A good start is for me to attend! I have missed more than a month!!)

But the point of my post is not to give you a run down on our group but rather to share with you some thoughts on community I have been having. I am desiring further discussion on the topic of community…NO NOT THE EMERGING CHURCH!!! I really want to to talk about something else in this post! Here are some comments off a good community blog.

A community is a group of people who form relationships over time by interacting regularly around shared experiences, which are of interest to all of them for varying individual reasons.


Group
A group can be 2 or more people. Most, if not all, communities will change and evolve as they are subject to growth or reduction. During these processes, they may destabilize, or turn into a very different type of community. As such, the number of people involved can make a huge difference for the character of the community and the kinds of relationships and interactions that form.

Relationships
Relationships in this context can vary greatly depending on the community. They can be very deep, long-term relationships, or much looser relationships. Basically, some bond has to form between members of the group described above. And like any relationship, as the group evolves (and grows and shrinks) this relationship will continue to change.This word “relationship” is key to any discussion of community.

Over time
Relationships can form over time either forward or backwards. You can form relationships in a community because of prospective reasons (I want to get involved with these people) or retrospective reasons (I have a long-standing connection to these people).

Interacting
The most common forms of interaction in a community involve some form of communication or expression, such as showcasing LEGO creations, dropping an email to say hi, or working together on organizing an offline event. Additionally, interaction doesn’t necessarily include the entire community all the time. [italics mine] These interactions lead to the forming of relationship bonds, described above. They can be formed using any number of tools, including email, IM, phone, snail mail, in person meetings, blogs, WIKIs, etc. Sometimes these interactions happen for the entire community to participate in, such as a discussion board thread in a web community. But very often, these “full community” interactions are driving smaller group, more personal interactions.

Regularly
Community must come together in some form on a ongoing basis. Regularly doesn’t assume that this interaction is on a set schedule, but rather that there is or will be interaction at some point in the future and/or has been at some point in the past. It’s nearly impossible to form a relationship, after all, if you never see or talk to the other person/people.

Object
What makes community more than a simple group of people is that they are drawn together around some object. This object can be physical, virtual, theoretical, or philosophical; a political ideal, a celebrity, a musical genre, a hobby, a type of car, a neighborhood, a sport.

Individual (reasons)
While community members are drawn together around a single object, they are drawn there for a variety of very personal reasons. We may both love LEGO bricks, but I may love it because I love to build, while you love it because you’re a collector of old LEGO sets. Some reasons are emotional; others are more abstract or intellectual. Some have to do more with relationships that form in a community, others with the object of interest.Each member of the community group has their own reason – or more likely reasons – for joining and being part of a particular community.

All Quiet on the Western Front

Seems like I have not been blogging of late. I guess I either blog lots or read lots. I just read two books. I have finished a brilliant book about a guy called David Bausso (Don’t Look Back). He started Opportunity International. Well he pretty much started the revolution of mirco-finance and trust banks into the third world.
He has a leadership style most akin to what I imagine Jesus being like as a leader in some senses. Not all but some. He just never really wanted to “lead” people in the way we understand it, just have relationship with them, build them. I think what we see as leadership so often is…oh, forget it, I really don’t know what I see as leadership. My boss, Neale…a well known public servant in WA, well, many would say this man is the ultimate ‘leader’. He is amzing in what he is able to achieve and the balance he has in his life. But then I would say Keith Farmer my former boss and x-principal of .acom is another great and inspirational leader I know, but totally different to Neale. David Bassau was maybe a blending of both of these guys. Not sure how to put it, but the model of leadership I see in Christ is rare. I struggle to lead in any way, but leadership from behind, this is a challenge. It’s easier to just say this is where we are going. For many who follow this way of being lead is easier too. Passive. I don’t have to think, I just choose if I like it or not and either go there or don’t. But you see it’s in just that where the problem is. If I am committed to relationship above role or even purpose and if I have committed myself firstly to a community of friends and ‘soon to be friends’, then in some senses to just say, “I was praying” or even “I have just decided that we will do this or go there or be this” etc this could be a form of abuse. Yes I think that. It’s a type of relational abuse or passive violence. What right do I have to just say “we will do this“?
Is this the cohesive community I read about in scripture?
Is this the heart of Christ for his “No longer slave nor free, male nor female...” type community?
I think democracy is not God’s heart for the church…but neither is autocracy.
Bonhoeffer said this about community –
Those who love community, destroy community
Those who love people, build community.

If we try to build the perfect community in our church, our small group etc at the expense of the people in it we will destroy the very community we are trying to build.

Imagine this for a second…I make a decision to do ‘x’ in our community/small group/life group etc.
All but 1 person is all for the decision or at least nonchalant about it.
For some reason this decison will adversly effect this person, emotionally, financially or in some way.
What do I do? Go with a majority? Talk him around? Pressure him into it? Ask him to leave? Make him feel silly for his pettiness?

What if we took a vote on a selection of choices? 7 of the group decide on choice ‘x’, the other 4 were split between choice ‘y’ and ‘z’. Of course we go with choice ‘x’…yes? What of the other 3 this time? What if choice ‘x’ really is not suitable for them, what if their participation in choice’x’ actually contradicts a value for them, a core value?

(obviously there will be many decisions that the non agreers would just say, I don’t care, it’s not important to me, I will ‘go with the flow’)

So I make a decision ‘as a group’, this is by far the hardest choice for me as a ‘leader’, (whatever that means) because the easy thing is just to make a call, that’s ‘good leadership’ is it not?
Oh he is such a strong leader, you always know where you are going!”

Well I have to ask the question, “You might know where you are going but did you participate in the choice of direction or did you just get taught somewhere to blindly go where leadership says to go?”
What part did you play in where you are today? More importantly to me is the question, “What group process were you involved in to get your community to where it is today?”

Maybe ‘leadership’ (including the gift of leadership) in this context is more about wise facilitation, guidance in process and guarding values of group participation, rather than ‘making it happen’.

Someone wiser than me once said that “community is a matter of the extent to which [a society] participate[s] in it’s governance…

So you say you are in a community, then based on this, the level of which you are ‘in’ community is directly proportional to the the extent to which you participate in it’s decisions and direction…interesting ramifications for many of us only ever connected to big churches and never participating in smaller groups who together set their their own journey and direction. Or sometimes even these smaller groups are ‘lead’ in a manner more a kin to larger groups.

My challenge as I write this is that my wife has looked over my shoulder and read it (in between both of us putting kids to bed, phone calls to my bro, and Christine’s trip to buy her chocolate fix!)
She feels I am off beam…again!
Her challenge is in regards to a new testamant model of leadership. She asks, “Did not Paul act more like what we see in our model ‘Senior Pastor’ style leader? Instruction, direction, vision casting?”

Or did he?

Lady Next Door

There was an old lady who lived in Joondalup…
The first I realised I might have a challenge on my hands was 3 hours after going to bed the very first night I ever slept in this house.
After returning the removal trucks we borrowed and saying bye to Matt my great mate who helped move us, I climbed into bed for the first time in my new Joondalup shack…3.30am
5.30am I awake to the sound of a mans voice next to my bedroom window! (note – my last house/first house, and the one I grew up in were corner blocks with no immediate neighbours)
The voice turns out to be the ABC radio announcer coming from the open windows from that ladys house not more that 10 feet from my bedroom windows.
Surly must be a one off thing, early Good Friday morning, a holiday thing…surly…
Today 8 months later, almost every morning since, she turns that thing on, opens up the windows, point the speakers out to my room between 5.30 and 6.30am light or dark. (not when it’s raining because the whole reason she does it is so she can be outside in her garden)

I have bad thoughts – Evil thoughts.

But-
Sometimes I lay there thinking, she is old, no partner, no friends to talk about, she seems bitter, hates kids – This radio is her best friend, her partner, her…lover. Who am I to ask her to turn [him] off?

Maybe this is a challenge for me in this community. I wouldn’t confront her with it if I was not in good relationship with her. So maybe I need to hang out with her a bit more. Maybe get to the point where I can just bring it up in conversation. “Hey babe [she is about 65] – turn ya ABC down or I set fire to your rose garden”…no maybe not.

The upside is this –
One day I could stand it no longer, so in frustration I rolled over and tuned in my radio to the same station. (If you cant beat them…)
The announcer said “we are having a competition today, if you can be the first person to ring in and tell me the name of the country singer who is also a kids show host who turns 40 today you will win..blah blah”
I’m like wide awake – It’s Colin Buchannan!!
The rest is history, I won!
Thanks Lady next door!

The Search To Belong

There are some great Youth Specialties books out at the moment…no not PlayIt!! Or More Fun Games For Youth Youth Group!
I am reading The Search To Belong – what a book! If you have had anything to do the the small groups movement over the last decade, and if you have ever wondered why it seems so hard to ‘make small group/s work’, then read this book.
Myers uses Edward T Hall’s 4 spaces of human interaction; public, social, personal and intimate as his foundation, it’s great stuff. Can you just dump a heap of text in here in this blog? I will try. This is a review off someone elses blog I think, I didn’t reference it at the time so I don’t know where it’s from but it’s good!

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 thinking. 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)

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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)
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[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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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 favour 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)
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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.
However,
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)
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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. Announcing 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)
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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)
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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 congregations 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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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.

(p. 76)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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 surprised 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 encompassing 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 extol the value of the high commitment church. Commitment and effective community seemed to go hand in hand. Even the language that we use is the language of movement to describe 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 environment 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 Cincinnati .