Organic Community

Yesterday, I bought Joseph R. Myers‘ book, Organic Community: Creating a Place Where People Naturally Connect. In the first chapter, “Synchronized Life: Moving from Master Plan to Organic Order,” Myers discusses the differences between programattic models of prescribing community and organic ways of developing environments in which community emerges. In describing the point of community, he suggests that the end goal is,

…a search for wholeness, not for totalitarian order.

Overall, he seeks to argue that it is important to move from a master plan (eg. the master plan of a city) understanding of building community to an understanding of organic order or an environmental model of allowing community to build and grow naturally.

In the second chapter, he begins to break down the way organizations deal with patterns using a master plan (programmer model) versus organic order (environmentalist model). He argues that the master plan has a bias for a prescriptive approach, whereas the organic order way of thinking favors a descriptive approach.

The prescriptive way of looking at patterns tries to import successful models from other communities wholesale into new settings.

We get into trouble when we think someone else’s model will work exactly as described with our participants, in our communities, in our environments.

On the other hand, descriptive ways of being attempt to pay careful attention to specific local communities.

Perhaps the most helpful comments in this chapter comes in his four “descriptive patterns of belonging. These come from Myers’ study of Edward Hall’s theory of proxemics which proposes four spatial references: public, social personal, and intimate.

  • Public space is the connection people have through an outside influence (i.e. sporting teams, etc.)
  • Social space involves the connection people have by sharing “snapshots” of themselves, the piecemeal sharing of personal narratives (eg. neighbor relationships, personal connections, acquaintances etc.)
  • Personal belonging is the space where we share private experiences, feelings, and thoughts, though not in a completely transparent way (eg. close friends, etc.)
  • Intimate space is the place where we share our most closely held experiences, thoughts, and feelings (eg. mentors, spouses, etc.)

Myers writes,

The four spaces describe an organic order, descriptive pattern for helping people with their search for community. We do not experience belonging in only one or two of these spaces. All four contribute to our health and connectedness. We need connections in all four.

In contrast to some models, the goal is not to prescribe these as essential steps. For example, Myers suggests that small groups might not necessarily be the best place for intimate space, and other groupings might best serve the same role as small groups. In other words, this is by no means a “one-size-fits-all” model that can be imported into any situation. Instead, by creating environments with an awareness of these levels of connection, we can provide opportunities for health and growth. I resonate with this language, and I think he’s hit on some very strong ideas about building community in the context in which we live.

However, I do have a few questions about Myers thoughts on this. First, as good Wesleyans, we have a strong heritage of prescriptive groupings. How would we reconcile Myers’ more descriptive environmentalist model with Wesley’s prescriptive progressive model of discipleship (Kevin, are you out there)? Second, how would we encourage people to do things that aren’t necessarily “natural” (eg. love their enemies, serve the poor, etc.) in order to grow spiritually? I like Myers ideas, but I think we’ll have to wrestle more with how we can encourage discipleship through a fully organic model.