Proxemics and Community Groups: What Can Sociology Teach Us?
By: Sam Schmitt
We’re in the thick of it with Community Groups. There are a lot of challenges. One challenge is creating spaces for people to connect in different ways. Sometimes we want a party where we can meet new people, laugh, listen to music, or play yard games. Sometimes we want a place and time for deep conversation. You might ask:
When is a group too big for a deep conversation? When do you need to think about splitting up for discussion? How many people is ‘just right’ for a personal conversation? What is 'critical mass' for a party?
Usually, we’re tempted to believe that these types of questions can be answered by looking at the people we’re talking about--in other words, our answer to how many is too many for a social gathering is: “Well, it depends on the people.” While that is certainly a factor, the study of proxemics says that the way people relate to one another in different spaces is pretty predictable. So, what does proxemics say that is helpful to us--people trying to figure out how to participate in, lead, and navigate Community Groups?
The Challenge of Growing
So we’re trying to be navigate Community Groups and get to know the people who are already there. But, we’re also trying to grow by including new believers, and by making space for people who are new to Community Groups. Many people in Community Groups have said or thought something like this:
“More new people? I am having a hard enough time getting to know the people who are already here!! How am I supposed to know everyone?!”
I hear you. I love new people and I hear you. But, if we’re going to grow as the Church--we’re going to have to solve the challenges of growth.
Here’s the deal: I think (and people a lot smarter than me think) that proxemics can be a big help in understanding and addressing the challenge of group size and interaction. I think proxemics can help us understand how the size of a gathering effects what purpose can reasonably be achieved in that gathering.
Since I would love it if you bought my friend Alex’s book (Discipleship that Fits available here), I won’t give too much away. But I will share this grid from Alex’s book (which you should buy, it’s great).
Context is the name for the setting, size is the number of people, focus is the general social activity, and distance is how far away that social interaction point is (like a football field or a person):
A lot can be said about all this. Alex and Bobby do a great job in their book explaining it all in greater detail--but for now, we just need to know why creating environments for connection in Community Group is difficult as new people come in.
Often, we try to meet as CGs in those personal groups (4-12). Those settings are great for talking about important things in our lives or looking deeply at tough questions in life. Those smaller settings help create a sense of belonging by connecting with each other at a deeper level than what you'd have standing in the line with someone at Starbucks. [For those of you with young kids, this 4-12 group number doesn’t include them--just the people who are trying to relate deeply with one another, unless that includes your kids of course!].*
In other words, if you are trying to grow closer to a group of people that is larger than 12 in one time and place, it is going to be difficult to discuss anything deeper than ‘how was your week?’
Why is that a challenge? Because we are often inviting new people into our Community Groups, passing our meetings from the personal (4-12) to the social (20-70) setting. That makes it difficult for everyone to develop a sense of belonging through connecting--and it also makes it difficult for the social setting to succeed because so many of us are trying interact as if the personal setting still holds, even though we feel the tension of too many people there to interact so personally.
What to do about this tension?
You’ll have to decide. But, as I see it, there are some options:
- You could split. Painful, I know--but possible. If there are too many people who want to get to know each other at once, maybe it is time to divide and start meeting in smaller, more manageable group sizes--something below 12.
You could have more time together with fewer people. Start more DNA groups within your Community Group. Gather with groups of fewer than 12 to know each other well outside of the regular time your CG meets. This will allow you to get to know one another in a different context (like over dinner). This means that when you do get together with everyone in the over-12 setting, you won’t be leaning on that gathering to achieve all the relational dynamics of a CG. Keep in mind: this sort of proactive connecting isn't just for CG leaders to facilitate. Anyone can initiate time together! Community is built by everyone, not by just a few.
You could split up during the regular gathering/meeting. This is similar to option 2, but distinct in that you're not in a separate time and place. In other words, you might meet as a group of 20 for a few moments, then split off into groups of 4-6 and discuss something. Granted, this isn't the same as having a gathering or meeting of 4 to 6 people--but it does get you closer to that personal setting. After the discussion, you can come back together and have social-context time.
- ???--I bet you have ideas that I couldn’t come up with. Experiment...this stuff is difficult! There will be some trial and error. As long as you are not treating people as collateral damage in the task of figuring out Community Groups, you’re doing okay. Care for people well, and try mightily to avoid their being socially displaced.
I left a lot out, and this is already too long. I am doing my best to pass along what others have shown to be useful and true.*
I encourage you to email me with questions using the form below, buy Discipleship that Fits and give it a read, or talk this through with someone.
It is important that we don't confuse family with size. My friend Steve Rieske will be writing about that distinction soon...keep reading!
Ultimately, I realize this isn’t a theoretical discussion---you’re making tough decisions about groups of people you call your brothers and sisters in Christ. Pray. Talk. Be charitable and forgiving of one another. Believe the best of one another and pray for one another.
Citations, Resources, and Notes
Joseph Myers, The Search to Belong (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003)
Edward Hall, The Hidden Dimension (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966)
Bobby Harrington and Alex Absalom, Discipleship that Fits (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2016)
*Our Brookside structure reflects an awareness of these settings. DNA groups tend to be transparent, Sunday morning is public, while CGs (and the relationships therein) enjoy the flux of personal and social, moving between larger and smaller gatherings\meetings.
*Yes, I didn't cite any scripture. There is, for what it's worth, a good deal to support these thoughts in the history of the Oikos, or house church, in the early church. Check out Romans 16.