Summary: For healthy community to emerge among a group of people (church, small group, neighborhood, whaetever), members have to learn appropriate activities, appropriate behaviors, and the appropriate amount of investment for each of the relational spaces (public, social, personal and intimate) and put them into practice. Mistakes are made when specific spaces are promoted more than others or when the four spaces are treated like an assembly line through which relationships are moved.
“…no relationship survives in one space for the entire life of the relationship.” –The Search to Belong
Space vs. investment
Within a group of people (church, small group, community group, whatever), each individual only has so many slots in each relational space (public, social, personal, intimate) that can be occupied at any one time to remain healthy. (Here’s more info on the spaces.) Since change is inevitable, people “dance” throughout the spaces with those they come to know throughout the seasons of their lives and in different contexts and environments.
For example, a person that occupied a slot in personal space as my roommate in college has now moved to social space as we see each other every so often to catch up on each others’ lives and maintain a friendship. This opened up slots in both of our personal spaces for others to fill, while now occupying slots in both of our social spaces.
Remember, individuals only have so much time, money and energy to spend on how they belong to each other. Being overloaded in one space (relative to the investment to stay healthy there) deprives an individual of healthy belonging in another space. For each of the four relational spaces of an individual’s life to be healthy, the number of slots occupied should be inversely proportional to the size of the investment in each of the slots. Intimate space has just a few, but requires the most investment; while public space has multitudes, but requires very little.
The fans of my favorite sports team are in my public space. In order to stay healthy in this space, I’ve got to make sure I’m not investing more time, money and energy with them than they warrant from occupying the slots in this space. If I do, it creates unhealthiness in another space. For example, if I watch my favorite professional baseball team on TV every night, when am I spending time with my wife? She’s someone I claim to want in a slot of the intimate space of my life, which has very few slots available, but requires the biggest investment of them all to stay healthy. If I choose to watch the game every night, all the relationships in my other spaces are now out of whack.
Space vs. activities
On the flip side, it’s also unhealthy to do activities that belong in particular spaces when you are not in that space with those you are doing the activities with. For example, people shouldn’t be sharing the intimate details of their lives with others when they see them every week or two in social environments. Healthy community requires that the members learn together how to manage the relational spaces that exist with each other; both the time/money/energy that should be invested into each space and the appropriate behaviors that each space requires.
Space vs. behaviors
Lastly, behaviors that belong in specific spaces should stay in environments conducive to those spaces. Ever see an intimate couple get, well…intimate in a public environment. It makes everyone around them feel awkward. It’s likely they have a difficult time belonging to each other in public space. Maybe they feel fine smooching, but have a hard time sharing common interests with each other.
Space vs. promotion
This is a major reason why most churches, small groups and neighborhoods don’t grow into Kingdom communities. In most of these group situations, specific spaces are promoted more than others. Not only that, those in charge perceive specific spaces as more important than others (although no one but Jesus should be in charge). Therefore, their goal is to herd people into the spaces they want them to be in with each other (and with God). They operate under the assumption that success is only achieved if people reach intimate space with each other. They see the four spaces as a funnel through which people should be guided or pushed in order to reach maturity.
But that’s not how humans were built to operate. No one space is more important than the other. The spaces aren’t levels that get achieved or that people should be pushed through. Each is an equally important part of healthy community. When one is deficient, the whole spectrum of the community experience is deficient.
When you come together
When you get a bunch of people together, the interpersonal relationships are all going to be in different spaces at different times. To do personal or intimate space activities with this type of group isn’t appropriate. While some of the relationships might be in the appropriate space, not all of them are. This creates awkwardness and discourages community development between the members. Most of the time a large group of people (more than a few) gets together, a social environment is the only environment appropriate to interact in until the group naturally progresses to where everyone is interacting in personal space with each other. Then, it can be time to start thinking about moving on to new and different environments, activities and behaviors.
Do some relationships process through the four spaces over time? Yes. But, it’s not something that can be manufactured through a program. You can set up a blind date between two people, but you can’t train them to fall in love.
It’s the same way with God. Although you might belong to Him in all the spaces at different points in time and in different environments, don’t make the mistake thinking the only way God is to be experienced is in one space. There are special times when you should do things like let your heart out to God, or you feel Him “wrap His arms” around you during a tough time. But then, there are times when you might sit around a campfire with friends and take in the stars. Or maybe you share a testimony with a neighbor. You’re belonging in multiple spaces with the Lord. He loves it. Your relationship with Him needs it to be healthy.
For healthy community to develop, not only do the members need to understand relational spaces and environments, they need to recognize appropriate behaviors and activities within those environments and be given the freedom to move among them organically with everyone involved (including the Lord).