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The Search to BelongRethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups
By Joseph R. Myers
ZondervanCopyright © 2003 Joseph R. Myers
All right reserved.
Chapter Onethe myths of belonging
Our old ideas about space have exploded. The past three decades have produced more change in more cultures than any other time in history. Radically accelerated growth, deregulation, and globalization have redrawn our familiar maps and reset the parameters: Borders are inscribed and permeated, control zones imposed and violated, jurisdictions declared and ignored, markets pumped up and punctured. And at the same time, entirely new spatial conditions, demanding new definitions, have emerged. Where space was considered permanent, it now feels transitory-on its way to becoming. The words and ideas of architecture, once the official language of space, no longer seem capable of describing this proliferation of new conditions. But even as its utility is questioned in the real world, architectural language survives, its repertoire of concepts and metaphors resurrected to create clarity and definition in new, unfamiliar domains (think chat rooms, Web sites, and firewalls). Words that die in the real are reborn in the virtual. Rem Koolhaas, in a guest editorial for a special issue of Wired
When our pastor rose to make the announcement, I suspected we were in for it again. "We're going to be a church of small groups," he told us, like a child pleading for his parents to read from the well-worn book one more time. "A church of small groups instead of a church with small groups."
My heart sank. Been there; done that.
I remembered attending a small group several years earlier. It was the next step in my process of growing deeper in Christ and in community. "Everyone in a small group" was the church-wide goal. So my wife, Sara, and I hopped in our car and began our eight-week commitment.
We were greeted kindly at the door. It was not so much a friendship sort of kind as it was a salesman's type. "This is the first time," I told myself, "so relax and enjoy."
Once gathered in the "family" room, we played several silly, juvenile games in the hope of opening the door to relational bliss. Next, we were asked to agree to and sign a Group Covenant.
The covenant seemed harmless enough. It established a purpose for the group. It enlisted everyone to the 100 percent attendance policy. It explained a code of group life. It requested that we enter into accountable relationships with our new "friends."
The covenant was very organizational and institutional. Its purpose, values, and vision were all clearly stated. Everyone signed on the line. Our well-trained leader promised that eight weeks later we would all arrive at a closer walk with God and with one another.
Sounded promising and hopeful, so we started. By the third week I had had enough. I did not want to return to share my deepest thoughts. I did not want to give obvious answers to predictable questions from the published small group material. I did not want to play one more icebreaker game.
I was not getting closer to anyone. Instead, I was getting angry. This group was expecting more from me than I wanted to deliver. And this group was trying to deliver to me more than I wanted. A church of small groups? Sounded like forced relational hell to me.
Others tell of similar experiences. When a friend asked Miguel to help start a men's small group for the new year, he agreed at once. Through a contact in the hotel business, Miguel found the ideal meeting place and time: Holiday Inn at 6:30 a.m. on the second and fourth Tuesdays. The men would meet for breakfast, pray, read from a study book, and by 7:30 be on their separate ways to work.
The group was launched and continued through the spring, summer, fall, and even the winter. Sometimes as few as four gathered, sometimes as many as seven. Every second and fourth Tuesday at 6:30 a.m., often on cold and dark mornings, they met. Through vacations, travel schedules, traffic tie-ups, the group met.
As the second summer approached, someone suggested, "Let's take a breather for a few months." Everybody agreed. When September arrived, not one person suggested starting again.
+ Common Myths 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 organizations 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."
Contrast this with Teri's feelings about Maggie. The two roomed together in college years ago, and ever since have exchanged Christmas cards and the occasional letter. Last summer Maggie invited herself to spend a few days with Teri.
When Teri got the phone call, she immediately went to her pastor. "I didn't like her then," she groaned. "I put up with her. Her side of the room was always filthy. She's domineering. I don't want her to come here. What do I do? We roomed together for four years, but we were never really friends."
Or, for still another perspective, Rose describes an experience at her church:
About a month ago a woman named Sandra began attending. She is 56 years old. She came to our group last night. She has zero church background. Four years ago she was alone on a week-long vacation to Mexico. One morning by the pool, she struck up a conversation with the young woman sitting next to her. She learned that this young woman was there on her honeymoon. When the bride's husband joined her by the pool, Sandra tried to excuse herself, but they just kept talking with her.
Sandra said that off and on during the rest of her vacation, she ran into this couple. They mentioned they attended a Vineyard church in California. Sandra was quick to mention to me, "It wasn't like they were trying to recruit me or anything; it just came up in one of our conversations that they were Christians and where they went to church."
Sandra was so impressed with how kind they were, and she liked how they treated each other. She went away from them thinking they had something-values or a lifestyle-she found attractive.
She told me probably once a year for the past four years she has thought about going to church. She looked in the phonebook for a Vineyard church (because she had no idea where else to go) and found us.
A short connection around a swimming pool had significance years later. 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 am reminded of my commitment to my financial responsibilities, yet I never experience belonging because of those commitments.
I have similarly observed that people equate close relationships with committed relationships. They use words such as "authentic," "deep," or "intimate" to express significance. And since we are all searching for significant connection, we fool ourselves into a pattern of trying to make all or most relationships close, sometimes in inappropriate ways.
To experience healthy community we need significant relationships. "Significant" is not the same as "close" or "committed." My wife, Sara, practices the ancient craft of rug hooking. "Hookers," as they call themselves, gather around the country in small guilds, in weeklong schools, and for conferences. Every fall Sara attends a weekend conference in northern Ohio. This conference is very significant in Sara's life. She finds help with her craft. She connects with those who have the same passion. Mostly, she finds a respite from her busy life. Yet neither the relationship with the conference nor the relationship with the participants can be accurately called "committed."
Sara is by no means committed to the conference. Every year the discussion is repeated: "Should I spend the money and time or should I stay home?" Even though she has attended several years in a row, the conference cannot count on her commitment. What they can count on is her passion for the craft. And that she will make her decision to attend at the very last moment.
She has no committed relationship with any of the participants. She is just now beginning to remember their names from year to year. She rarely connects with them outside of the conference. She has never called any of them on the phone to chat.
These relationships cannot be described as close or committed. Still, they are significant to Sara's healthy experience of community.
More purpose = more belonging. During the 1980s Tom Peters led The Search for Excellence revolution within the business community. Mission, vision, and purpose statements were prescribed to ailing and healthy organizations 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 part of a team. And this simple change was all in the hope of helping people connect in significant ways.
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
"Abandon Committees, Skip Teams and Embrace Communities"
Does it seem to you that congregations are late adapters to some trends? It does to me. It appears at times that congregations are just getting around to adapting to certain trends as the next trend is emerging. For example, organizing congregations according to teams rather than committees is now in its ascendancy, just as in the world at-large, teams are fading in favor of communities.
It is a positive step that congregations are abandoning committees for teams, but what if congregations were to skip the team phase and embrace communities? Too radical? Perhaps so! Too cutting edge? Hardly!
Leadership communities and learning communities are the next wave of congregational governance and empowerment. Are you ready? Consider these seven differences between committees, teams, and communities as you think about making the transition:
Difference One-Formation: Committees tend to be elected or appointed in keeping with the bylaws, policies, or polity of congregations. Teams are recruited or drafted to work on a specific task or set of tasks. Communities are voluntarily connected in search of genuine and meaningful experiences.
Difference Two-Focus: Committees focus on making decisions or setting policies. Teams focus on maturing to the point that they become high task performance groups.
Communities add qualitative relationships, meaning, and experiences to the organizations, organisms, or movements to which they are connected.
Difference Three-Membership: Committees tend to have a fixed term of membership. Teams may have a defined term of membership, or may serve until a certain set of tasks is completed. Communities have no bounded membership and people tend to come and go based on their continuing interest in the journey.
Difference Four-Outside Assistance: Committees seek high quality training events or consultants, if they need outside assistance. Teams partner with respected practitioners or coaches. Communities align with champions or advocates who come alongside them in long-term relationships.
Difference Five-Recruitment: Committees look for people of position who can bring to the committee or council influence to get the work of the committee respected by people of power in the congregation. Teams look for people of expertise who have the gifts, skills and preferences to complete a certain task or set of tasks. Communities look for people of passion who want to have fun helping to bring exciting experiences to congregational participants, and a spiritual strategic journey to the congregation.
Difference Six-Benefits: Committees benefit congregations by building ownership and loyalty for the mission of the congregation. Teams benefit congregations by providing more effective action more quickly than committees. Communities benefit congregations by providing more enthusiasm and meaningful relationships within congregations.
Difference Seven-Style of Work: Committees focus on making decisions that are lasting and manage the resources of the congregation efficiently at the best price. Teams focus on debating the strengths and weaknesses of the various choices to complete a task, and typically end up with the highest quality product or outcome. Communities dialogue, engage in discernment activities, and arrive at the best solutions for a particular opportunity or challenge.
Is your congregation ready to embrace communities?
George Bullard, "Abandon Committees, Skip Teams and Embrace Communities"
People come to a church longing for, yearning for, hoping for this sense of roots, place, belonging, sharing, and caring. People come to a church in our time with a search for community, not committee. We make the mistake of assuming that, by putting people on a committee, they will develop ownership for the objectives of the church. People are not looking for ownership of objectives or for functional, organizational, institutional goals. Their search is far more profound and desperate than that.
Excerpted from The Search to Belong by Joseph R. Myers Copyright © 2003 by Joseph R. Myers. Excerpted by permission.
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