Discipleship and the Four Spaces of Belonging

In my most recent book, I ask, “What would the church look like if everyone in the church used their God-given gifts and talents to equip the rest of the church in such a way that the entire church became more like Jesus?”  For if the whole church looked and lived more like Jesus, how much more would our neighborhoods and cities look more like heaven?

A Little Christian Discipleship 101

Before looking at the various spaces of belonging in which discipleship takes place, it is important to define discipleship.  Christian discipleship is about calling others to join us in practicing a way of life in which we embody (flesh out) the life of Jesus in the context of the world as we journey to fulfill God’s mission together.

  • Discipleship is a way of life, not an intellectual assimilation of ideas or a program
  • We must be disciples, if we want to disciple others; example isn’t one thing, it’s everything.
  • Discipleship is about inviting people to become whole again, to become more like Jesus, overcoming destructive habits and building life-giving habits
  • Discipleship takes place in the street and the sanctuary, the classroom and the living room, its about being “with people” in everyday life
  • Discipleship happens when we are on mission together, joining God in the renewal of all things

A person does not need any structural authority, official titles or office to make disciples. Christian discipleship happens best when we live in the love of the Father, walk in the power of the Spirit as we seek to follow the Son in our everyday lives.   It happens when we join with a community of people who choose to do life together, who develop a rhythm of life in which we engage in the spiritual disciplines, which enable us to live out are calling in the world for the sake of the world in the way of Christ.

Christian discipleship is learning to call out what the Holy Spirit has put in people. It involves ministering together, praying together, fighting for justice together, studying scripture together and being on mission together.  Disciples encourage, comfort and challenge one another. Discipleship and mission takes place in each of the four spaces of belonging.

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The Four Spaces of Belonging

Joseph Myers in The Search to Belong, with the help of sociologist Edward T. Hall, identifies four kinds of spaces in which we find a sense of belonging. Each church would be wise to think through how they pursue making disciples in each of these four spaces.  I talk about spatial belonging and Christian discipleship with more detail in my book Creating a Missional Culture.

Public space is about sharing a common experience in a larger space, like a public worship service, or if the church isn’t large, a regional or city gathering of some type. Biblically this was when they gathered in places like the temple, or where crowds gathered. This space becomes missional if it reshapes people to inhabit God’s story in their everyday life.

Social space is where people select a community – people with whom they want to go deeper – to belong to. In the congregational setting, this space is more like a mid-sized group of 20 to 40 people.  Biblically this space is what the New Testament calls oikos, a Greek term typically translated “house” or “household.”  It refers to the basic building block of ancient society, the household, and its close network of relationships, the extended family. Mike Breen and Alex Absolam make a strong theological, sociological, historical and practical case for mid-sized communities to be the prime building block of the church. I would agree, which is why we call this size group a missional community.

Personal space is where we connect through private relationships. Personal space includes the eight to fifteen people whom we feel close to, whom we spend a lot of time with, like Jesus and the Twelve. This is a key area for discipleship to take place in a deeper way.

Intimate space is where we share experiences, feelings and thoughts. Intimate relationships are those in which another person knows the “naked truth” about us, without us feeling “ashamed”.  This is like the space Jesus had with the three, Peter, James and John. 

Primary Space to Multiply

As you think about these four spaces, an important question for each church to address is, which space would you consider to be the primary organizing structure of the church?  In other words, which space are you seeking to multiply?  Which space will get the primary energy of the leaders and members of the church?

While movement oriented churches will eventually multiply all four spaces, it is important for the leaders to decide, and every active member of the congregation to know, which of these four spaces the congregation is seeking to be the primary space they want to multiply, the primary vehicle by which they will engage in mission. Multiplying at the personal space level with leaders will be critical to the multiplying of the social space.  A snowball type of momentum can be generated at the personal space level through discipleship.

The primary space that receives the most energy for attractional churches tends to the public space. Most of their resources tend to be focused on growing the larger gathering.  This is the typical seeker oriented or seeker friendly approach. It is a “come and see” approach to mission.  As long as it is not gimmicky, this approach tends to be good at connecting with low hanging fruit. That is, people who are more likely to go to church if invited. In this approach, the social and personal space tends to take a back seat to the more public venue of Sunday worship services. Personal space typically features in the church’s small group ministry, while social space is virtually non-existent. People tend to seek out social space in other venues through civic or social clubs, sports leagues, or what sociologists term affinity groups.

By way of contrast, the primary multiplying space for missional-incarnational churches tends to be either the social (20-50) or personal space (8-15).  The missional community (mid-sized group) in the local context is the basic building block of the congregation. It uses a “go and be with” approach to doing mission and being the church.  It seeks to engage non-christians by going to them on their own turf. A missional community is a group of 20-50 people that has a focused mission around a particular people group, or place, in the city. They are a community of faith for them, among them and with them, under the Spirit of God. In this kind of approach, public space (larger events) is used to provide inspiration, momentum and equipping for the mission and ministry taking place through the missional communities (social space) .

As you consider the four spaces of belonging, you will find that some elements of discipleship are more conducive to certain spaces than others.  For example, when it comes to the practice of confession, sharing the deepest part of our hearts with others, it typically doesn’t work well in public and social spaces.  It is more likely to happen in personal and intimate spaces.

When it comes to mission, it is the social space that provides the most effective environment for community and mission to take place. We see this in Luke 10 when Jesus sent out the seventy to show and tell the good news of the kingdom. It was in social space that the 70 initially gathered as a group to follow Jesus on mission. While they were sent out two by two, once they were done with their mission, they came back together to encourage each other in social space. Social space is small enough for people to experience authentic community, but big enough to mobilize people for missional impact.

Understanding the four spaces helps you modify your expectations of certain sized groups. If you are expecting deep intimate relationships to form in public space, you will constantly be disappointed. Public space is designed to deliver certain things, and close intimate relationships is not one of them. If you are expecting personal space to be the primary means for people to engage in mission, you will eventually be confronted with challenges related to people power, momentum and money. It is hard to do mission on a consistent basis with only 8-15 people. Only a group of highly committed people, with lots of margin in their life, can consistently and effectively engage in mission at this size.  One size does not fit all, and there is nothing more frustrating than trying to produce something from a particular sized group it is not designed to deliver.

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Photo credit John Melsa.

About the Author

JR Woodward


JR Woodward has been passionately planting churches on the East and West Coast that value tight-knit community, life-forming discipleship, locally-rooted presence and boundary-crossing mission for over 25 years. He is the author of Creating a Missional Culture (IVP, 2012) and co-author of The Church as Movement (IVP, 2016). He co-founded the Missio Alliance and currently serves as the National Director for the V3 Church Planting Movement. He is the co-founder of the Praxis Gathering and writes for numerous websites and journals. He has a Masters of Arts in Global Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary and is working on his PhD at the University of Manchester (UK). He loves to surf, travel, read, skateboard and meet new people. He enjoys photography and film and tries to attend the Sundance Film Festival whenever he can.

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