by Mike Johnson 

It was a winter Sunday morning, and in the lobby of my neighborhood church home after the worship service I met a couple whom I did not recognize. It turned out that they had arrived in town the previous week, moving from an upper Midwest state (who could blame them in January) so the husband could take some specialized classes over the next 4-5 months for work in the energy field. I’ll call them Bob and Sue.

I welcomed them and chatted for a bit.

Over the next several weeks they returned for worship each Sunday. On one of those Sunday evenings the church sponsored a Superbowl party. Each small group was asked to bring a snack and to watch the Superbowl together projected on the wall of the large youth room. Around 45 adults were there that night eating sugar in various forms, some watching the Superbowl intently and cheering their preferred team and others chatting in the back corners. While people were mixing, they naturally tended to hang close to those in their own small groups. 

Bob and Sue came to the event. They greeted the few people they had met as they got their kids situated and helped themselves to snacks. Of course, I greeted them, invited them to sit down, and introduced them to various members of my small group. They seemed to enjoy themselves, feeling welcomed, as we all did. Our group participants invited them to join us for our small group gathering every other Tuesday night.

The next time my small group met, Bob and Sue were there.  They easily warmed up to the others they had met at the Superbowl party as we sat in clusters of 4 or 5 eating dinner together. They joined in for the time of Scripture study, and Sue even offered her own observations in the discussion. Over the next couple months Sue and Bob continued to return to our small group gatherings.

After a few meetings, as Bob seemed to grow more comfortable with this group of 5 or 6 couples, he also started to contribute his own observations. I noticed in the way Bob talked that he did accept God as a real being, but he really made no reference to Jesus.  After a few more weeks I said to him that I would get together with him so we could get to know each other better. Since his class was done by 2:00 each afternoon, we met at a local McDonalds for a mid-afternoon “Coke” (“pop” for you Midwesterners).

As I heard more of his story, I also began to talk about Jesus as God’s gift to us. I began to talk about surrendering one’s eternal destiny to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He indicated that God had certainly gotten him out of a number of scrapes during his tours of duty in the US military and that it was about time he did something for God. So during one of our meetings, he chose to submit his life to Jesus as his Savior and Lord.

Often we plant, water, and weed seeds of the Gospel on people’s lives. When I was a church planter, it seemed that my role provided me with the setting to often sit alongside someone as that seed springs out of the ground and claims, “Yes, I too want to be considered one of His.” In the last several years of spending most of my time writing discipleship materials and training people to use those materials in their churches, I did not have that opportunity near as often. So my opportunity with Bob gave me rejuvenating joy for many weeks.

I was so happy for Bob and his wife Sue and their children. I continued to talk with Bob afterward about what that decision meant for his role as a husband and father.

Proxemics (We’ll come back to Bob.)

You may have never heard of Edwin T. Hall and “Proxemics” but you probably understand the concept from experience. The basic premise is that in communication, the physical distance between one person and another affects the way they interact and the speak with each other.

Here’s the basic breakdown:

< 1.5 feet                 Intimate distance which involves embracing, touching, or whispering.

1.5 – 4 feet                Personal distance for interactions among close friends or family

4-12 feet                  Social distance for interaction among acquaintances

12-25+ feet              Public distance which is used for public speaking

Hall points out that people communicate differently into those spaces. The “Intimate distance” around us is what we call our “personal space.”  If your spouse enters your intimate space from behind and reaches to hug you, you likely welcome such intrusion. If a stranger approaches you from behind and gets closer than 1.5 feet, you sense it with alarm. A stranger has not earned the right to enter your intimate space. Your natural reaction will be flight, fight, or freeze.

Now let’s think of the activities of the local church in terms of proxemics.

  • Public space: This would include Sunday worship or other large events.

  • Social space: often applies to the Sunday worship of smaller churches. I recently attended a worship service of a church that had over 90 people in the room. The preacher that morning on several occasions asked for feedback from the congregation. They were easy answers that were just one or two words long. But only people in the front 6 rows (under 12 feet from the speaker) responded.

  • Personal space: This often occurs in small groups, especially ones that meet in homes.

  • Intimate space: This occurs between believers who have formed a close friendship.

What does this have to do with discipleship?  It turns out that understanding proxemics can be a powerful tool for helping people grow as disciples. Let’s look back to Bob’s story.

Bob and his wife first approached public space by attending Sunday worship services. The church hosted a Superbowl party, which gave him the opportunity to enter social space with the church members. This led to his joining the personal space of a small group. Finally, through our relationship in the small group, Bob moved into intimate space as we met one-on-one. Through those meetings, Bob came to a relationship with Christ.

As you can see, understanding how communication works in different group sizes can impact your approach to not only leading people to Christ but also discipleship. Someone unfamiliar with church is not necessarily ready to dive directly into a small group or one-on-one mentorship. And someone seriously interested in discipleship needs more than a public worship service.

This is just one application of the concept of proxemics. Churches I’ve coached have found it immensely helpful in organizing their programs and ministries more effectively for reaching and helping different groups of people. Churches often fall into the trap of becoming “over-programmed,” leaving the staff fatigued and producing little fruit. Understanding what types of ministries help people at different stages in their walk with Christ enables a church to synergize and streamline their programs to become more fruitful and less overwhelming.

This concept as well as many others is covered in much greater detail in DiscipleForward, our seminars for church leaders and staff. The next DiscipleForward is coming up on October 10-11 at Houston Baptist University. (Visit here for more details). If you can’t make this one, you can also bring the seminar to your community or in your church. You can find and request more information here or by emailing

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