Summary: There are 4 spaces through which all relationships ebb and flow. A small group, church or other group’s ability to live out healthy community is directly tied to their ability to achieve harmony within these relational spaces. When too much belonging is dominated by one space, or people are forced into spaces they aren’t ready for, it creates problems that typically do damage. The key to building relationship harmony and growth in a group of people is to allow them to dance among the spaces together; allowing relationships to form and grow naturally.
Learn about relational spaces
The first simple step to experiencing healthy community in a church, small group or other type of group is to learn how to create healthy belonging among the members (see last post). Unfortunately, most groups of people simply don’t know how to do this very well. This is because they typically don’t understand or practice the use of the four relational spaces in healthy ways.
Let’s try and avoid this by learning about these four spaces. We’ll start with a quick overview here.
Mac or PC? Yankees or Red Sox? Although it’s at the most shallow of levels, people make connections over these things. People don’t high five other people they’ve never met before. But if they’re at a sporting event their team makes an amazing play, you see high fives everywhere between people that have never before spoken a word to each other.
Ever go on vacation somewhere and get asked where you’re from? Then when you respond with your location of residence, you find the person you’re talking to has lived in the same state before? If you didn’t first establish the commonality of geographic location, you wouldn’t have a conversation. But once the commonality is established, conversation ensues because you feel like you’ve established public belonging to each other.
You’ll never invite these people to a party. You’ll only see them at very specific events or never again. But, you feel like you belong to a community on a public level because you share a common experience or interest. This is a natural and good thing when experienced in harmony with the other spaces. When this space occupies too much of a person’s life, you can tell because they invest more time, money and energy in public interests than they deserve to have.
Since I love sports, I think about the fan who goes overboard. Maybe they decorate their house with their team’s gear. Or better yet, maybe they even include their team’s identity in significant life events like their wedding. Whatever the expression, there’s extreme behavior because too much of their belonging comes from this space.
Parties. Clubs. Groups. The safe places where people meet, catch up and learn about each other. The places where people can reveal what they want to reveal and hide what they want to hide. It’s here where people get a feel for one another. It’s environments where they have the freedom to evaluate if someone might be a candidate to move to a deeper space without awkwardness or pressure.
Relationships that stay in these spaces consist of people who only ever see each other at these events. They catch up when they see each other, but there is no expectation of future interaction outside of the social activities that bring them together.
This is a good thing when experienced in harmony with the other spaces. When this space occupies too much of a person’s life, you can tell because they invest more time, money and energy in social activities than they deserve to have.
I’m reminded of the person who is either always going to or throwing a party, or is always “going out” to some kind of social environment. They struggle if their schedule isn’t full of things to do. They’ve got tons of acquaintances/friends, but no close friends that interact with them on a personal level. This is because they’re always in social environments, so they don’t have the opportunity to interact with others in personal or intimate space very much.
This is where private (but not intimate) information is shared. This is where you can get into personal thoughts and feelings about experiences and personal issues that you wouldn’t feel comfortable addressing with an acquaintance. It’s where you can talk about sensitive topics without fearing the others will end your relationship.
In this space, people will sacrifice for one another. They’ll share time, money and energy freely. They’ll start to get the sense that they are living life together and that they expect to be involved with the important matters in one another’s lives.
Of course once again, it’s a good space when experienced in harmony with the other spaces. When this space occupies too much of a person’s life, you can tell because they’ll try to have personal conversations in social space. You know those people that you ask how their day is going and you’re knee deep in personal details in seconds?
I’m reminded of the person you might come across on a hike or meet at a party that a conversation is started with. Before you know it, they’re talking about personal issues that not only are making you feel bad, but also quite awkward. You can tell they want so badly to have personal friends, but they’re blocking the opportunity for those relationships to develop because they’re rushing into personal space too soon. With some training, these people could much more delightful to be around as they learn how to keep conversations appropriate for the space each relationships is in.
This is where you can share everything about yourself freely and not feel judged. When this space occupies too much of a person’s life, you can tell because they’re always talking about “going deeper” with each other or getting to the “next level.” I’ve had many church and small group leaders that would get overly frustrated when people wouldn’t share intimate details about their lives.
I’m reminded of the person who likes to throw around the word “intimacy” a lot. They’re always talking about how the group they’re a part of isn’t where it needs to be. They have trouble accepting and enjoying the process of relationship building. They just want to do a cliff-dive right into the intimate details of theirs and everyone else’s life, thinking it’s the key to be close to each other and to God.
Harmony is the goal
Here’s the thing – all of these spaces are right and good when experienced in harmony with one another. You’re supposed to have the most connections in public space all the way down to the least connections in intimate space. When you try to have too many or too few connections in the spaces, you throw the whole community out of harmony.
When we create programs that try to mechanically force people into specific spaces with each other, damage is typically done. True community is lived out between people in all four spaces. For it to be developed in a healthy manner, they must have the environment and the freedom to move about and settle in to the spaces they desire to be in with each other naturally.
As Joe Myers says in The Search to Belong, “We push and pull, trying to move these relationships to the next level. This is not helpful, and may be unhealthy. For harmony and for the sake of health, we need significant belonging in all four spaces: public, social, personal and intimate.”