This book was recommended to me when I was looking for the principles of community from a Christian perspective (thanks Weylin!), and it does not disappoint. Myers examines the way that the church has sought to build community and demonstrates why it has not produced the results we expected. He proposes that we have different levels of belonging, and that we need to belong in all of those areas.

In its search to build community, the church has theorized a number of different ideas that will result in community: more time, more commitment, more purpose, more personality, more geographical proximity, more small groups. None of these has succeeded. Small groups, which are supposed to give us more intimacy, often feel forced and generally only have 30% participation, instead of the 100% we think that they should have. Proximity does not cause community; how many of us know our neighbors? People at a company share the same purpose, but that is no guarantee that they connect with each other. To make things even more difficult, people may feel that they belong to a group even if the group does not feel that way.1  Sometimes people feel like they belong to a church even though the congregation does not really know them—they may watch every week on TV, for instance.

Myers asserts that we belong in four spaces: public, social, private, and intimate. In the public space we may interact regularly, but not know much about each other, possibly not even names—regular Bingo players may not know each others’ names but have a definite sense of belonging, for instance. In social space we give a portrait of who we are, and we decide if we want to interact on in a closer space. This is a space of “neighborly” relationships: relationships in which we can ask and grant small favors. In personal space we share private, but not naked thoughts. In intimate space, we share naked thoughts and are not ashamed. He suggests that we need more public relationships than social, more social than personal, and more personal than intimate, in an 8:4:2:1 ratio. Thus, the goal is not to move people from public space to intimate space, but to provide all four spaces.

Many churches today provide a Sunday service in the public space but suggest that if you want to connect with people and God at an intimate space, you should be a part of the small group system. There is consistently a 30% small group participation rate, far from the 100% that churches usually define as successful. There are several problems with this approach. First, the church is only providing a public and an intimate space with nothing in-between. Second, a group of 6-10 people is not an appropriate setting for sharing naked thoughts. It is likely that in a group that size not everyone will handle naked thoughts (or even the guarded thoughts of the personal space) appropriately. Myers gives the example of one small group of men, a few of whom sharing struggles with looking at women other than their wife. The pastor was also in the group, and in the spirit of intimacy, shared that he, too, struggled with that. Word got out and the pastor is no longer with that church. The appropriate group size for an intimate space is two. Third, most people do not want intimate relationships with 6-10 people; they want a social space where the relationships are available if they care to pursue them. So if the group never shares on a deep level in the group setting, that is not necessarily the problem—the problem is our expectation that we will share our naked thoughts with 6-10 people.

Relationships will often trade spaces. We meet someone in the social space and decide that we want to get to know them better and (if they also feel the same way) begin to move the relationship to the personal space. A friend of the opposite sex may get married and the relationship moves to a less intimate space. This change can be traumatic, particularly if the space is large. For instance, coming home from a camp is difficult because the close relationships you built over a few days suddenly cease to exist. Another example is a husband going off to war, which changes the relationship. Even more traumatic, when a spouse says “I want a divorce,” a relationship in which you shared naked thoughts suddenly becomes a public relationship, except that now this person knows all those naked thoughts.

Community cannot be forced. People will generate community on their own by adjusting relationships into the appropriate spaces. Myers observes that the most successful small groups are the ones that are self-organized. These groups reflect a group of people who have decided that they are interested in moving to a closer space. They have already evaluated each other in the social space and decided that they can share more deeply. In contrast, randomly assigned groups have less chance of bonding. Some members may have enough personal and intimate space relationships and are just looking for a neighbor in the social space. Some members may not have the skills to successful have deeper relationships. Some members may simply not share common values or goals with each other.

Our culture has a dearth of social spaces. In by-gone days, most houses had front porches so that the family could relax somewhere cool in the evening. But these porches provided an intermediate space, where you could talk to neighbors on the sidewalk, or even invite them to join you without inviting them into the intimate space of your home. Likewise, you could have interactions with strangers somewhere that was reasonably private without needing to invite them in. With the advent of air conditioning and a more cynical view of human nature, the front porches were replaced by uninviting garages.2  Furthermore, our desire for privacy created neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs, so that we are now isolated from each other, and must get in our cars and drive to another location for our social interaction. Social spaces have not entirely disappeared, just changed. If you want to meet up with friends, you are less likely to invite them over to the intimate space of your home (which, with your busy schedule, is not necessarily presentable on a moment’s notice) than to go to a restaurant or Starbucks. In fact, the anchors of some newer malls is no longer J.C. Penny’s or Sears but Applebee’s and Chili’s.

Pertaining to the church, social spaces provide another important function. Myers asserts that people are not really shopping for a church, as we often accuse them of. “You do not shop for family. You date to find family.” (p. 130)  Formerly dating took place on the front porch, which was far enough from the family that the relationship was private, but close enough and public enough that it did not progress too far. Like a front porch, the church needs to create a social space for people to interact on a social level and date the church.

Myers finishes by giving some ideas on how we might go about implementing the different spaces. He first suggests to take an inventory of all the formal and informal groups within the church that people belong to along with the rules or social expectations of what it means to belong to the group. Next, examine how the church announces the groups—all the categories may be covered, but groups like the quilting group might remain unknown to outsiders—and whether some groups are presented as more valid than others. Pick several spaces (not all) to work on based on need; if you cannot figure out which one is more needy, the social space is a good default choice because our culture lacks it. Also, the church should ask itself what it means to relate to God in the different spaces. For instance, how is relating to God by prayer different in the different spaces?

Myers has presented a compelling view of what belonging means. His ideas have that clarity, simplicity, and undefinably qualitative that herald truth. His analysis of our culture’s lack of social space fits in with my experience, as do his explanations of small groups. One of my recent small groups was felt to be good by all the members, but the group time was not especially deep. But we went out to eat as a group about once every one or two months (social space), had regular Bible studies (social space), and prayer times with two or three randomly selected people (personal or intimate space). The eating times, which I thought were a waste of time group provided opportunities to create neighborly relationships in the social space. The Bible study provided purpose and direction. The randomness of the prayer time gave us the opportunity to share with everyone on the level we felt comfortable—I shared naked thoughts with one person, private concerns with several others, and social requests with the rest.

Despite the quality content, I have one gripe with the book. Myers comes from an apparently post-modern viewpoint, so he does not claim to offer any truth. In the introduction, he says “In The Search to Belong, I don’t search for an answer. Instead, I offer a framework—a language of belonging—to describe how we discover healthy connections naturally ... and invite all those who connect to join the conversation.” You can’t have a conversation with a book. You buy a book because someone has quality ideas to present. Myers does, in fact, search for an answer, he just defined “answer” incorrectly. The answer is not a recipe for creating community, which he rightly eschews; the answer is the principles underlying community. Likewise, it is not the “language of belonging” or a “conversation” causes learning and change, but understanding and application of right principles. Fortunately, even though Myers’ intellectual framework is unhelpful, he does present the principles and that is what is important.

A little more disturbing are his speculations about how we relate to God. He notes that we always talk about God wanting an intimate relationship with us. He observes that this began in the post-WWII era, where people moved away from their families into suburbs and lost their intimate family ties, creating a vacuum of intimacy. He also observes that Jesus related to people in whatever space they were comfortable. The centurion did not consider himself worthy of having Jesus come to his house to heal his daughter but expressed confidence that Jesus could do it from a distance. Jesus obliged, lauding his faith and healing his daughter in the public space. Furthermore, in the parable of the weeds and the wheat, Jesus said not to try to judge who belongs to him, because we may get it wrong and may pull up wheat that we think are weeds. So Myers suggests that God will relate to us in whatever space we choose to belong to Him in. If we only wish to belong in the public space like the centurion, He will relate to us there.

However, it is clear that God desires an intimate relationship with His people. He talks about His relationship to Israel in graphically romantic terms; in the Prophets He often refers to idolatry as adultery (Ezekiel 23). As the fulfillment of the God-Israel relationship, the Church has the same relationship: Paul talks about the church as the “bride of Christ” and compares a husband’s self-sacrifice out of love to his wife to the sacrifice of God for us (Eph 5:25), even going so far as to compare the husband and wife “becoming one” with God’s relationship with the church (Eph 5:31-32). Clearly it is God’s intention to have an intimate relationship with us, and judging from the recorded lives of great Christians and the experiences of growing Christians I know, God is always “drawing all men to Himself” (John 12:32), drawing them to an ever more intimate relationship. The question is, can we belong to God in merely the public space? The problem is not whether we consider ourselves to belong to God, but whether He considers us to belong to Him. Jesus says of the last Judgement that the criteria is whether he knew the person in question. “Many will say ‘Lord, lord, didn’t we do great things in your name’” yet will be judged “away from me you evildoers; I never knew you” (Matt 7:23). It seems probable that knowing God may be more than us limiting our belonging to God to a public space where even in human relationships it would be hard to say “I know you.” To suggest that God is content with a relationship in the public space is to invite people to a possibly fatal complacency. Given the expressed desire of God, not to mention the stakes of being sent to a Godless eternity if a public-space relationship is insufficient, it would seem to me that we would represent God better if we create the expectation that it is the intimate relationship that God wants.

Intellectual and theological problems notwithstanding, this is an excellent book. It goes further than Frazee’s Connecting Church, which says that geographical proximity (i.e. front porches or third spaces) is the key to community. Frazee is mostly correct, but the principle is not proximity but the fact that proximity provides an environment for the other spaces to occur. Community does not require proximity; community requires an environment that provides all the spaces, and Myers does a good job of communicating this.

In keeping with the post-modern value of conversation, the book is an easy read. It is conversational, and filled with examples in the form of stories. Fortunately, while the content density is a little light—the principles could be clearly expressed in about two chapters—the content has the ring of truth about it. Myers argues briefly for the truth of his principles are right by providing counter-examples for a large number of other theories about community, but it would be nice to have a more solid intellectual framework. However, as a consultant, Myers’ job is to have quality recommendations and to communicate them effectively. He does both in this book, and I strongly recommend it for anyone seeking to build community.
Review: 9.0
The content has that qualitative ring of Truth to it. Unfortunately, while Myers explains what he means very well, he does not argue for its veracity very strongly (after all, the best a post-modern can do is have a conversation, not assert Truth). Ultimately one reads a non-fiction book for Truth; buying into post-modernism hurts this. The gift of writing is to be able to record immutable principles for all of time. Conversations are for the ephemeral auditory realm. Currently the content is probably about 9.3. It is seriously hurt by his post-modern refusal to seek truth, but he communicates quite effectively, so that is a strong plus. With more research into why he is right, Myers could have a 10.0.

I think my main problems are the implications of a post-modern world-view and the fact that the book screams marketing. This may just be picky on my part, but I really object to using lowercase titles and a '+' instead of a regular '•' bullet just to seem trendy. Of course, anyone who describes himself with vagueries like “multipreneur” must be a marketing type. Fortunately, he has good content. And judging by the picture on the back, he is young, so I hope that he spends the effort to make this book the tour de force for which these ideas provide the potential. If Myers does not, someone else will, and then they will have the 100-year book. That notwithstanding, I am grateful for the quality ideas, even if I’d prefer a more well-crafted vessel.

1  Mathematically, belonging is not reflexive.
2  One of my friends calls houses where the first thing that greats you is the garage instead of the front door “armpit houses,” because it is like meeting someone and instead of cordially shaking hands, lifting up your armpits for an olfactory introduction.