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The Search to Belong

(Precised by a friend)

Joseph Myers

The Myth of Belonging

Community is a complex creature. Many factors contribute to finding successful community. With the erosion of the geographically close family and the heightened mobility of our culture, many people struggle to learn healthy competencies for community. Schools, service agencies, churches, and other organisations are making a concerted effort to help. Yet several common myths surround the search to belong, myths that dilute and confuse the definitions we employ to describe our journey to connect.

More time = more belonging

The first myth is that the greater the 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. Have you ever said, “I just met you, but it seems like I’ve known you all my life”?. Belonging is not controlled by time, and time by itself does not develop belonging.

More commitment = more belonging

People often believe that there is a significant relationship between commitment and community. This is, however, a romantic view. When we search to belong, we aren’t really looking for commitment-we simply want to connect. 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’m reminded of my commitment to my financial responsibilities, yet I never experience belonging because of those commitments. To experience healthy community we need significant relationships. “Significant” is not the same as “close” or “committed.”

More purpose = more belonging

During the 1980s Tom Peters led The Search for Excellence revolution within the business community. He, and others, prescribed mission, vision, and purpose statements to ailing and healthy organisations alike. 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 together toward a common goal connect, right? We even changed our language. We no longer asked people to attend committee meetings. They were now “team members” who attended “team meetings.” And this simple change was all in the hope of helping people feel connected. Although many positive accomplishments sprang from this newly focused approach, in reality this strategy has very 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.

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. This misconception is based on an outward perception of what is taking place. It has very little to do with what is actually experienced. I have interviewed several extroverts who outwardly seem to have little trouble connecting, yet who speak of a deep search for belonging. I have listened also to those who are shy tell me that their lives are rich and full with significant community. Introversion and extroversion are learned forms of social behaviour that help us navigate our day-to-day lives. They are categories for helping us understand and interpret our relational experiences. But introversion and extroversion neither block nor enhance our experience of belonging. Healthy community can be experienced and developed by introvert and extrovert alike.

More proximity = more belonging

Remembering a time when the culture was less mobile than it is today, people tend to believe the fifth myth: geographical proximity creates greater community. Says Randy Frazee, “The simple fact is that in all places of effective community people live in close proximity to each other.” This statement is both true and false. It is true that people who live in close geographical proximity may connect with one another. Yet space is in some sense a matter of perspective. The same real estate can convey a certain distance in one situation yet have an entirely different meaning in another. Further, “close proximity” need not be geographical. Consider, for example, the significant connections that are made digitally. Online bulletin boards and chat rooms, instant messaging, and mobile phone text messaging do not require close proximity to establish significant connections among people.

More small groups = more belonging

I have often heard ministers say to their congregations, “We’re glad you’re here. But if you really want to know what it’s like to be part of our congregation, participate in a small group.” The implication is that small groups are the best-if not the only-way to build authentic community. Almost every book I read on developing a successful church touts small groups as the key. But I have read that churches that provide small group opportunities can expect about a thirty percent involvement at best from the congregation. Even if thirty percent involvement is higher than it is in churches without small group programs, it is still not good. Why only thirty percent? Because small groups do not accomplish the promise of fulfilling all facets of a person’s search for community. Small groups deliver only on one or two specific kinds of connection. A person’s search for community is more complex than this. The truth is that people can experience belonging in groups ranging in size from 2 to 2,000 or more. People have the competencies to pursue many different paths in their search for community. Many congregations have gone down the small group road only to find they have circled a cul-de-sac and ended up where they began.

Probably, most of us have bought into one or more of these six myths, whether wittingly or unwittingly. And most of us have probably been left feeling like we’ve been cheated out of a promise. I know I have. And so I began to search for an authentic description of “belonging” in order to enhance the “community conversation.” And I began to search for the place belonging plays in the conversation of my life.

Edward T Hall developed a theory based on relationship between space and culture. He concluded that there are four spaces we use to develop personalities, culture, and communication

Public 4 metres +

Social 1 to 4 metres

Personal .5 to 3 metres

Intimate 0 to .5 Metre

People belong multidimensional and on different levels.

Longing to Belong

Belonging happens when you identify with another entity. Belonging need not be reciprocal People are trying to find their place in this world not in individualistic ways but in ways that connect. They are searching for family. Language may be the key element for developing and nurturing community. As people search for community, they are listening with their eyes, ears, and emotions. We struggle to build a community of believers in a culture that wants to experience belonging over believing. People crave connections not contracts.

Give Me Some Space

The four spaces Public, Social, Personal, and intimate require specific amounts of real estate. Spatial language refers to the words we use: small group, close friends, distant relatives, family connection, neighbourly attitudes. Our concept of space is largely a matter of perspective; it’s in our minds. We adjust our space based on the surrounding variables.

The Four spaces

In all four spaces we:


We are committed and participate

We find connection significant.

Public Space.

We can make significant connections in public places. We need numerous significant relationships in order to experience a sense of healthy belonging. We need to make more connections in this space than any of the other three spaces.

Public Space: There is a difference between stranger and public belongers. The stranger does not feel connected while the public belonger does. A stranger who connects becomes a public belonger. The belonging does not however have to be mutual. It is about how it feels to the person rather than how the organisation feels about them.

Public Belongers are Committed and Participate. We tend to validate only those ways we want people to participate. However people participate in many ways. It is simply not true that people who belong in public space are “on the fringe.” Nor is it true that we somehow need to get them to move “closer” to get them committed. Perhaps if we validate the space people inhabit we may find people who are committed who have been eased into the shadows or even written off. True community can be experienced in public space. Can people be given the right to choose where of the four spaces they belong in your church?

Social Space

Three Factors in Social Belonging Social belonging is important for three reasons 1. It provides space for neighbour relationships i.e. A neighbour is someone you know well enough to ask for small favours. 2. Social space provides a safe selection space for us to decide with whom we would like to grow a “deeper” relationship. 3. These interactions allow us to display a reality we create of who we are, enabling others in with their own process of self-discovery and definition.

Personal Belonging

Personal space is where we connect through sharing private, although not “naked” experiences, feelings, and thoughts. We call the people we connect with in this space.

Intimate Belonging

In Intimate space we share “naked” experiences, feelings, and thoughts. Very few relationships are intimate. Nakedness is informational, spatial, and emotional as well as physical. All belonging is significant. Healthy community is achieved when we hold an harmonious connection within the four spaces. Harmony means more public than social. More social than personal. And very few intimate.

A healthy strategy entails allowing people to grow significant relationships in all four spaces. It allows people to belong in the space they want or need.

Group Chemistry

Does everybody need to be in a small group to experience healthy community? Do small groups hinder or help a person’s search to belong? Are small groups honestly the most significant way a person can grow in relationship to others and to God? These question revolve around the concepts: How do we create a genuine experience of belonging? How can we help people grow in ways that help them connect and experience community? Why are some of the groups we create so empty? Why do some of our groups seem forced?

Connecting in All Four Spaces

When people share stories about how they connect with others they reveal that: They want help with their lives They have a deep longing to belong They seek to connect in a spontaneous & healthy ways

Too often we only connect in two ways: public and intimate All connections are significant.

Spatially Specific Competencies

General competencies enable people to move through life easily. They connect where they want, and belong where they want to belong. Those who have healthy sense of general competencies have: solid self-esteem, possess flexible communication skills, and live with a sense of fun. Spatial competencies are discovered as people move from space to space. Each space requires its own set of competencies, enabling them to have healthy relationships in all four spaces.

Public Spatial Competencies

Public belonging occurs when people connect through outside influences. They have healthy competences when they: are able to share a common experience, practice social conformity, they develop skill to welcome “strangers”, they participate in one-time site-specific ways, they find appropriate visual focus, they develop a sense of humour, they are comfortable in this space, with little physical contact.

Social Spatial Competencies

Social belongings occur when we share “snapshots” of who we are. They can formulate congruent ideas of what it means to have a relationship within a personal space and can identify “self.” They are comfortable with spontaneous and short interactions

Personal Spatial Competencies.

They keep confidences, They maintain eye contact for extended periods of time without it being an uncomfortable experience for themselves or for those in personal space with them. They share private information without sharing too much. They possess the skills to begin, grow, and maintain a one-on one relationship.

Intimate Spatial Competencies.

They have developed an ability to share who they are over and against what they do. They share definitions of the “naked” self rather than defining themselves by their roles. They have solid self-definition. They know who their “authentic” self is, yet they do not share their naked selves indiscriminately.

Community Happens Spontaneously

In all four spaces, community needs to happen spontaneously. Anything else feels contrived and out of place. It may be when people are forced together there are just enough healthy people who find some connection that community actually materialises. People long to belong, and so are in constant search for connection. As leaders, we can no longer take advantage of this by labelling “authentic” only those connections we create for them.

When there is a favourable environment we make spontaneous choices regarding to whom we belong. We need to switch from group programmers to becoming group environmentalists. Belonging cannot be measured in numbers. You may count attendance, but to give a conclusive number for those in the congregation who experience community is impossible. Relationships move but we can be forced to move too far. Jesus was comfortable in all four spaces.


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