In Support of Small Talk
Back when I was white and more so evangelical, I used to believe that “the good relationships are the close … personal relationships. For instance, you have a good relationship with God when it’s personal. And true church fellowship is found in the personal, intimate settings of close fellowship and small groups.”
Now that I’m no longer white, I can’t say I fully subscribe to the above.
My mind started to change as I interacted with different cultures and different people groups and found that it’s possible to relate with God in a more public arena … that you can connect to God just as easily in a public worship service as in a private prayer closet, and that both are legitimate.
Maybe I’m slow in this realization. Maybe everybody had it figured out before me. But, I used to think that BEING a Christian was having a PERSONAL relationship with God. I used to think that the only good type of relationships we should have at church are those “turning the rocks over, spilling the guts, admitting to all our problems” small groups.
In the 1960s Edward Hall developed what he called proxemics, which is how people and cultures utilized space to communicate. Hall said there are four spaces: public (12 ft. or more), social (4 to 12 ft), personal (18 inches to 4 ft) and intimate (0 to 18 inches). For instance, we can see how space communicates when somebody we’ve never met comes face to face with us in the 0 to 18 inches. Being that we don’t feel intimate with that person, we can either take in the discomfort of the whole situation or we back up to a more appropriate social space.
Some cultures and people groups operate moreso in those personal to intimate spaces, while other cultures move in the public to social spaces. And some people groups and cultures relate with God in the more public and social settings, like some African American churches, while others … like white, pietist evangelicals … tend to relate with God mainly in the personal and intimate setting.
Now, I’ve come to realize that what God wants isn’t necessarily a personal relationship … what he wants is us to belong to him (and maybe belonging to God is nearly the same as a personal relationship, but I think there’s some distinctions). Joseph Myers writes, “Jesus never forced strangers to become intimate. Instead he encouraged them to move from stranger to (someone who) belongs” (The Search to Belong; 112). In other words, his first concern is our belonging in his kingdom and not necessarily intimacy … that can come later … or not at all.
As we go from the Public sphere to the Intimate sphere, our relationships become more and more limited. We have many people that were related to on a public level, but only a very limited few that we are intimate with (Myers suggests a “community compound” which is Pu, S, P , I  … in other words, to every 8 public relationships, there will be 4 social relationships and so on). And those that we are intimate with will change from time to time.
Jesus had those who belonged to Him in all four spheres.
There was the multitude (public). There were his followers (social). There were his disciples (personal). And even within those 12 (13 if you count Mary Magdalene), there were only three he was intimate with (Peter, James and John) and only one who laid his head of Jesus’ chest (John).
Sometimes it’s okay to just be Jesus’ followers … just as long as we still belong to Him. In fact, there are times in life when we won’t be in the intimate sphere with Jesus and there are times when we will be. There are times when we’ll share our most intimate spaces with Jesus. And there will be times when small talk is a beautiful thing. There will be times when we just feel a part of the multitude … where we stand back in skepticism and question, not sure if we want to get any closer to Jesus. And that’s okay, because for many … when we traverse the multitude sphere … it’s more important to belong than it is to believe (I’m defining “belief” as intellectual assent). After all, I think belonging is what Jesus is wanting to give us.