We hear a lot about the idea of community. Whether you’re talking about the fantastic sitcom of the same name, social networking, neighborhoods, churches or social interaction, we hear the term bandied about with great frequency.
But what is community? How do we define it, measure it, adjust it and make it better or worse? Should we do those things?
In the church, especially in big churches, we talk a lot about how to create community or how to help people experience community. But again, what does that mean? How should we go about that? Or does it happen more naturally than we understand?
Sociologists (or as I like to call them, “Fancy-Named-Facebook-Addicts,” just kidding) have long discussed the idea of the third house, or third place. The thinking is that our first house is our home, our second house is our place of work and our third house is our “Cheers.” It’s “where everybody knows your name.” So the third house could be a pub, a coffee shop, the gym, a church, etc. Traditionally in America the third house was the church. It was a neighborhood center, potentially a place for public discourse, a place where most people knew one another and could be known.
This has changed over the last 30-40 years. And the advent of the mega church, where it’s virtually impossible to know the majority of members has complicated it as well. We find ourselves spending a great deal of time assessing the need for authentic community.
But what is that? I’m reading “The Search to Belong; Rethinking Intimacy, Community, And Small Groups” by Joseph R Myers right now. In it, Myers describes four the basic modes of belonging that make up a person’s sense of community and connectedness. Below are some very basic definitions of each:
Public: The sense of belonging does not have to be mutual. You can belong to a large church or group and no one there even know that you belong, but this does not change your personal sense of belonging.
Social: This space allows for “snapshots” of reality. We choose which snapshots to portray about ourselves and in turn take that information from others as signs. We then choose to keep relationships in the Social space, or to assign them to another category
Personal: In this space, others know private, but not naked, information about us and us them. Very close friends might occupy this space, but likely not spouses.
Intimate: In this space we are “naked and unashamed.” Myers notes aptly that shame and embarrassment are not the same. “Shame,” he says, “is the experience of the intimate self exposed in an inappropriate space.”
As a sidebar, I can’t help but think of social media when I see these definitions. For instance, the average American Facebook user has over 200 “friends.” How many of us can imagine really knowing all of them? Sharing personal or intimate information or experiences with 200+ people sounds exhausting if not impossible.
It is interesting/disheartening to see how many people on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al are willing to share highly intimate and sensitive relational information in what is, by these definitions, a public space. What does this say about us?
Many have assumed, incorrectly, that the goal of community is to have as many “intimate” relationships as possible. To them, “intimate” represents the paramount human relational experience and we ought to then seek as many intimate experiences as possible and give that to as many people as possible. Myers debunks that thinking this way, “Insisting that real, authentic, true community happens only when people get ‘close’ is a synthetic view of reality and may actually be harmful.”
Myers says that our lives are in harmony and balance when we allocate the spaces appropriately. That is, when we have the most interactions in the Public space, next largest in the Social space, a smaller group in the Personal space and only a select few in the Intimate space.
With this in mind, how should we then look at building community? Should we seek to get every person in our churches into a small group? Or should we seek to intentionally validate the sense of belonging that people experience in each of the four spaces?
And if so, how?