Back in the 1960s Edward Hall developed a theory of ‘proxemics’ to describe how we as human beings use space in building communities. He identified four spaces: the public, the social, the personal, and the intimate.
Public space is where we share an experience with others, and connect through an outside influence – such as being part of the crowd at a football match or concert, or shopping at a supermarket.
Social space is where we share an authentic ‘snap-shot’ of ourselves – enough to give some idea of what it would be like to know me better, which enables you to decide whether you want to know me better or not. This is also neighbourly space: I don’t go for a pint with my postman, but it helps nurture a healthy community that we might chat in passing.
Personal space is where we share private experiences, thoughts and feelings – but not everything.
Intimate space is where we are able to present ourselves ‘naked and unashamed’ – where it is safe to be defenceless and vulnerable.
In the early 2000s, Joseph Myer applied Hall’s work to church congregations, in the face of a fixation with the personal space – e.g. cell – as the answer to our need to belong. Myers’ invaluable contribution is to demonstrate that our individual and communal wellbeing is nurtured by connecting with others in all four spaces. This includes connecting with different people in different spaces; and also connecting with the same people in different ways in each of the different spaces (e.g. spouses in a healthy relationship relate to one another in different ways in public, social, personal and intimate spaces).
If churches are to be communities that participate in nurturing a healthy society, then they need to help create spaces of all four sizes – and participate in existing spaces in the wider community (i.e. see ourselves as part of the community, not patrons to it). Furthermore, while living in a plurality of spaces, we need to resist the temptation to strongly encourage – force – people to move from one space to another. For example, someone who regularly attends the public space created by a church – most often, Sunday morning worship service – but does not join in with a midweek cell (personal space) or missional community (social space) is not necessarily any less committed: their sense of belonging may be genuine, and needs to be affirmed, not marginalised. They may well belong at a social or personal level outside of the church – and insisting that all our belonging is met by church groups is a guaranteed way to stifle evangelism. On the other hand, if such a person is experiencing the dissonance caused by not belonging in any social or personal space, then it is good to invite them to a social space – where they can decide whether they want belong or not, no strings attached.
One of the biggest problems that we face at St Andrew’s – and I don’t think we are unusual in this regard – is confusion as to the role of each space in creating healthy communities. We are conditioned by the fixation Myers identifies, that genuine or authentic community takes place in personal space. Therefore we lament that our public space does not enable the personal level of belonging, rather than appreciating what it does (or at least could!) provide: inspiration; momentary escape, even; and a being part of something bigger. Or we try to replicate our public space in social space, seeking to hold people together instead of allowing them to decide that they don’t want to belong in this space. In fact, genuine and authentic community can – and needs to – take place in all four spaces: it is just that what is genuine and authentic varies from space to space.
In the long term, we need to go much further in exploring the relationship between the four spaces. In my opinion, it is serious overkill for any church to provide a weekly public space event – not least because so many genuinely committed members need to take weekends for other events, and then try to create another time in the week to listen to the sermon that they missed...and because it could fulfil its purpose better if it wasn’t churning such events out...but also because we enter the different spaces on different orbits (even if you are a season ticket holder at a football club, there is a season and an albeit increasingly squeezed off-season). (Perhaps we should make public space in seasonal time and not in ordinary time...)