Book Review: The Search to Belong, by Joseph R. Meyers
Author: Joseph R Meyers
Title: The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups
Rating: 5 Out of 5 Stars
"This book focuses largely on the language we use to communicate to others a sense of belonging or the lack thereof."Every human person needs community, needs a place they know they belong. In youth ministry programs we struggle to create the perfect small group situation where teens can know they belong and can contribute. We pull out every trick in the book to, honestly, force the teens to belong, and we fail. What we need is not another trick, but is, perhaps, a refined understanding of what it means to belong.
Author Joseph Meyers challenges our term "community" and our practice of small groups through giving a new lexicon for community. He looks to anthropology and speaks of "spatial relationships", yielding interesting insights into the need to belong.
Why this book is important. We do small groups because we do not want anyone to feel lost in the crowd or voiceless in their own discipleship. We want small groups to offer the Cheers-experience, "where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came". But that rarely happened, no matter how I would arrange small groups or how clever my discussion questions were worded.
Though the primary audience for this book are Protestant churches who make small groups the main way you "do church", we can all greatly benefit. But even the most effective churches only had a 30% success rate, despite their earnest desire to foster intimate community. What gives?
The problem is there is more than one way to belong. This book gives us some honest insight as to why what we are doing may not be building lasting communities.
Summary of the book. Meyers bases this book on the work of Edward T. Hall, a famed anthropologist who studied communication and culture. He found four spatial relationships in which we "develop personalities, culture, and communication" (p. 20). Applying these spaces of communication to our notion of belonging, Meyers realized that belonging is multidimensional and "people belong to us on different levels" (p. 20).
These spatial relationships are: Public, Social, Personal, and Intimate.
All of these spaces are good and healthy and need connections in order for people to feel a part of a community and not a stranger. In all four spaces we connect, we are committed and participate, and we find the connection significant. We also shouldn't be in a hurry to "push and pull, trying to move these relationships to the next level" (p.41), thinking that the earlier stages are insignificant.
Public relationships happen when we connect through outside influences or events. They can be one-time (the airplane), or site-specific (the coffee shop), or episodic (game day). But we shouldn't confuse "public" belonging with being strangers, nor try to cheapen the connection by saying it is shallow or meaningless.
"In fact," Meyers asserts, "public belonging is a space where we need numerous significant relationships... we need to develop more connections in this space than in any of the other three." Not only is there a connection here, but also commitment, participation and deep significance.
Social relationships are fewer in number and is the "small talk" of relationships. This is the community conversation where the interaction is based on sharing "snapshots" of who we are with a new person. This is how we view neighborly relationships, bringing "safety, comfort, and connectedness" with those around us, without getting too personal. The social space let's us decide if we want to grow a deeper relationship with another person, usually through this small talk.
Just imagine yourself at a party meeting new people: do you immediately dump all your personal baggage on everyone you talk to? What is your honest reaction to people telling you their life story when you first meet them? It is awkward precisely because it is the wrong spatial relationship.
Personal space is in those private connections we have with others. The people who inhabit this space in our lives are those few close friends that know a lot about us. The information we chose to disclose about ourselves runs deeper than what we would say to an acquaintance, but it is also not our "naked" selves.
People can confuse personal space with intimate space in their push for real community, but such a view would only water down the meaning of intimacy.
Intimate belonging is reserved for very few people. It is where the "naked truth" about oneself is revealed without being ashamed. This is important. Meyers wants us to think of this "nakedness" as not only physical, but "also emotional, informational, and spatial" (p.51). Shame is the experience of having the intimate self exposed in an inappropriate space and it differs from embarrassment.
The problem with intimate space is that every church leader thinks all community needs to have intimate belonging. This simply is not so! If all your relationships were intimate, they would be impossible to sustain.
Why this information matters. You don't want to be a stranger and you don't want to alienate anyone in your ministry, but you have to remember that healthy community happens in all four spaces. We need to quit trying to force every person in a small group to reveal themselves in an intimate or personal manner when the group itself might not be in that space. And it is OK to have groups where "mere" social belonging occurs because meaningful connections and real participation still occurs.
In the beginning of the book Meyers speaks of the "Myths of Belonging" that damage community development. There is the myth that more time equals more belonging, but time alone does not do this, so we can quit stressing over fitting in ever-lengthening small group time.
Also there is the myth that if only we can get more commitment out of a person will we get more community for that person, so we end up attaching a lot of significance to doing more stuff in order to be a real member. The poor teen who is already overcommitted might ditch church because he got the vibe that weekly attendance was not enough for membership in your youth group.
Conclusion. This book, like I said, is challenging. And it is humiliating too, as I recall how many times I vented about the lack of "authentic community" because people were not being real with one another, or how I scoffed at shallow small talk or even pushed people into a space they were not ready for nor desired. Now I know that not only are these relationships good and healthy, but they are meaningful, significant and also fluid, as connections can change spaces and relationships can transition depending on the life's circumstances at different times.
I loved this book.
It is well written and can be conquered in a day or two. There are even reflection questions that zero in on the main topic of each chapter, applying its teaching in good ways. I did not find them hokey or forced. So take and eat of it!