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Mark Naylor M.Th.

Relational Spaces

In The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), Joseph R. Myers challenges evangelicals to think creatively about how people belong. He utilizes the work done by Edward Hall explaining that there are four “spaces” or levels of connecting in which people relate and commit: Public, Social, Personal and Intimate. He makes the observation that churches largely function on the “public” and “intimate” levels with the goal of involving all attendees in the “intimate” space of small groups. He then suggests a different approach in which the church legitimizes relationships in all four spaces without attempting to move people to spaces where they are uncomfortable.

If I understand Myers correctly, in public spaces we interact indirectly with and through others. For example, a worship service, a Bible study or the crowd watching a sports event would be a public space. In such contexts we deal with other people indirectly centered on a common interest. In this space there is little vulnerability.

In social spaces we relate our stories to others and hear their stories. This is a sharing of history, experiences and relationships that does not require privacy. Such sharing is an invitation into someone else’s life at a limited and comfortable level of vulnerability.

In personal spaces we share our private hopes and dreams to a few special people. This involves a partnership or commitment towards togetherness and connection. Communication is deeper than merely verbal. Acceptance of others occurs in spite of knowledge of personal shortcomings, which implies a deeper level of vulnerability.

In our intimate spaces we connect deeply and openly. We are “naked and not ashamed”. More than simply physical nearness, this includes vulnerability to the point that betrayal would result in lasting wounds.

This concept of four spaces is a good tool for evaluating relationships in cross-cultural ministry as well. All four spaces are present in other cultures, but they will have different emphases and boundaries. I have never met the wife of one my friends in Pakistan, even though we have known each other for several years and I have been to his house several times. We have a relationship at a social level, and we are both comfortable with the limitations this implies. For the church planter, the relational boundaries people set need to be respected, rather than overcome. The goal becomes one of encouraging spiritual development within the level of relationship where people feel comfortable, rather than moving them on to another “space.”

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