Thursday, March 6, 2014

Why Isn't My Group Experiencing Community?

 In a previous post, I wrote about how we our core being is defined relationally. We are socially formed. At the same time, this formation has shaped our personal identity in such a way that we set the self over against others. We are taught to look for our core identity apart from others, as if there is some kind of essential identity that is pure and untainted that can only be found in the individual, isolated soul.
film night | self portrait  
This sets up a problem that often goes unnoticed when we try to establish small groups. We tell people that they need community, that we are created as social beings in the triune image of God, and that the Bible tells us that we are called to love one another. Then we organize people into groups and give them curriculum to talk about each week. Thus far things are heading on a good track.

But something happens. The group doesn't move beyond the Bible study experience into community. People say that they want to love one another, but the group struggles to open up. People start making excuses to miss. The energy in the meetings wain.


So we try to fix the problem. Some of the common options might include:
  • Call people to a higher level of commitment.
  • Get a new kind of curriculum.
  • Take a break for the summer.
  • Have a party.
  • Get some training on how real groups should operate.
  • Create short-term groups where people can easily switch groups on a regular basis.
While there is some merit to all of these things—I've seen each one help a group take it up a notch—there is no magic pill.

However I do think there is an issue that we have to face if we want to experience group life as all of the books talk about. We have to deal with the Western idea that arises out of the Enlightenment that the individual self is independent from the community. Here are three quotes from The Relational Being by Kenneth Gergen that have bearing on how this view of the self undermines small group life:

"If the self is primary, then relationships are secondary in their importance to us. We must be forever cautious about connection. Relationships will inevitably place demands on the individual; expectations and obligations will develop; norms of right and wrong will be imposed. If we are not very careful, our freedom will be destroyed" (17).

"If we see relationships as secondary and artificial, we will seek them out primarily when they are required for our personal use or satisfaction. In this sense, a committed relationship is a subtle mark of insufficiency. It suggests that we lack something. We are so vulnerable that we sacrifice our autonomy" (17).

"Living our lives in the first-person singular stands in the way of strong bonds. Self-narration essentially solidifies a boundary between self and others. We recognize each other as fundamentally embarked on separate journeys. In this case, bonding requires that we accept 'unnatural' constraints on individual autonomy. Choosing to 'go my own way' is seldom questioned" (176).

Here's the deal: As long as people embrace this view of the self as over against the community, then strong bonds will be difficult to form. So what do we do about this?

If you have ideas about this, I'd love to hear them. In the next post, I'll propose a few.

Photo Credit: Adam Foster via Compfight

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