Are We Building Small Groups on a LIE?

I’m reading a mind-blowing book titled Relational Being by the psychologist Kenneth Gergen. He is confronting the paradigm through which we understanding ourselves, which he calls “bounded” identity.

That is, we have grown up in a world where we view ourselves as individuals first, as if there is a core identity that we possess that is independent and distinct from our relationships to other people or to our world.

In other words, we tend to think about self in one category and our community in another.

He lays out the falsehood of this view of the self by demonstrating how we cannot even understand our identity apart from our relationships. The most basic illustration of this is found in the way we are born into a family. We learn how to talk, how to think and even how to reflect about our own identity from those who care for us as children.

Our identity is wrapped up in social interaction.

This takes us beyond typical ways of talking about individualism and the need for isolated people to experience community and, therefore, small groups. We talk about how disparate and disconnected individuals “need community,” about how we are made in the image of God who is triune and therefore social, about how we are social creatures. We use such arguments as a foundation for small groups.

But we still talk in terms of individualism.

You, as an individual, need a small group.

You, as an individual, will benefit and grow in your relationship with God through a small group.

You, as an individual, will learn how to serve God in mission through a group and thereby discover your personal spiritual gifts.

While all of this is true, too often we end up only promoting small group experiences as a conglomerate of individualists.

We are working within the assumed paradigm of “bounded” identity, that each is an individual who has an independent identity apart from the group experience. We assume that this “bounded” identity is given first before there is any interaction with others or within a culture.

But here’s the thing, this view of a “bounded” identity is something that has been passed down to use by our culture and through others who have thought about themselves in the same way. The idea of “bounded” identity did not arise within each of us independently. We’ve been formed by it socially.

The problem is that it creates a false identity of self. While the idea of a “bounded” identity is actually a lie, it still shapes how we view ourselves.

Our identity is shaped socially. Other people impact how I see myself. The way I think, talk, interact and experience life is formed as we interact. Gergen states, “In all that we say and do, we manifest conditions of relationship. In whatever we think, remember, create and feel—in all that is meaningful to us—we participate in relationship” (133).

Here’s the thing I want to explore over a few posts: If we do small groups in a way that leaves the “bounded” identity intact, are we in effect just feeding a lie? Are we actually hindering people from experiences a new reality of their identity?

I know that we have to work with people where they are and then lead them into a new experience, but I question whether we are really leading them into that new experience. There’s a lot here to think through.

I leave you with this question today: How does our view of “bounded” identity impact group life?  

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Scott Boren
M. Scott Boren is a Teaching Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Saint Paul, MN and consultant who partners with The Missional Network (www.themissionalnetwork.com). He has written and co-written eight books, including Introducing the Missional Church, Missional Small Groups and MissioRelate. He share life with his bride, Shawna, and their four children, all under the age of eight. He can be reached at his website: www.mscottboren.com.