I think a lot about community because I’ve facilitated them for over 30 years and now I run an online one called The Lasting Supper. So, it’s always been a practical problem for me and not just a theoretical one. However, I’m always thinking about community in an attempt to try to understand what makes it healthy and functional rather than toxic and dysfunctional.
In 2012 I wrote a book, Without a Vision My People Prosper, that is a compilation of all my posts and cartoons that explored this idea of community up to that time. I was specifically interested in how it applied to the church. Bonhoeffer’s development of the idea of community in his important book, Life Together… that visionary thinking in the church can actually destroy community… was a very influential idea that pressed me to explore it and even experiment with it in my own local churches.
I made some interesting discoveries and have come to what I hope are helpful conclusions that may benefit others. I’d like to share these thoughts with you.
There is a lot of confusion happening in the church when it comes to community because I believe we are confusing what it’s for.
I believe the strongest community is about the people. There are other things community can be for and I’m going to talk about those. But I claim these other things move further out from people as the center, thus weakening the strength and even jeopardizing the health of the community.
Here are the other things community can be gathered around besides people:
Proposition: a community can gather around shared ideas, values, or beliefs.
Purpose: a community can gather around a common mission.
Product: a community can gather around a valued product and productions… that is, what it manifests, its style, ethos, services, etcetera.
So let’s consider a church as an example of a community that might be experiencing some confusion. The church is made up of a collection of people. They are gathered around shared beliefs. Their common mission is to evangelize and bring more people in to this community. The product they value is their interpretation and application of the gospel which translates into their praxis, style, membership, church attendance, volunteerism, and financial support.
The confusion begins when the leadership of the church assumes that the collection of people is homogenous, that they actually all do share beliefs one hundred percent of the time, that they really do want to evangelize and bring in new members, and that they all always want to come to church, enjoy its style, volunteer, and support it financially in the way it hopes and even expects. From my experience and observation, this is rarely if ever true. What actually comprises the community is a wide diversity of people who each possess a bewildering array of beliefs rarely constant or consistent. Most people do not want to be evangelists but are legitimately more interested in themselves, their family, and their friends. Finally, most members do not measure up to the church’s ideal and lofty expectations it exerts upon its people. Church communities are rarely homogenous but usually very diverse, even if secretly. They are rarely outward looking but usually inward looking. They are rarely composed of high functioning, faithful, generous, sacrificial members, but are usually comprised of very normal folk just looking for a place to belong, believe, and be blessed.
The confusion amplifies when the leadership emphasizes one of these three over the people. That is, when a church insists that the community gathers around its theology (propositions), or that it gathers around its mission (purpose), or that it gathers around its ethos and style, etcetera (products), then it will never experience the richness that true community can bring when it gathers around the person.
Confusion is guaranteed because any member at any time may question the community’s beliefs, doubt the community’s mission, and reject the community’s products. Normally, then, when this happens, the member must finally come to a decision to fall back in line or leave, to conform or depart. The community gathered around proposition, purpose, and product cannot abide these things being challenged. This only makes sense. Of course, when the people are gathered around these things, these must take precedence over the person, and therefore it’s the person who must be sacrificed when they collide.
We can compare this phenomenon to any business or organization.
If a person is a member of, say, the National Rifle Association but eventually comes to a place where he no longer agrees with its ideology, then it would only make sense for him to quit.
If a person is a member of the military but finally concludes that its mission to subdue and subject the citizens of its target country is morally wrong, then it would only make sense for him to resign.
If a person is an employee of an pharmaceutical company but no longer believes in and can no longer with good conscience work for the company, then it would only make sense for her to move on.
The very same thing happens in many churches that are gathered around shared beliefs, a common mission, or what it produces. When members can no longer abide by these, then it would only make sense for them to conform or leave.
Here’s the question I have always asked and experimented with: What if the community was gathered around the people? What if people were the center of the community, rather than theology, mission, or what it produces? What if, in fact, the theology, mission, and products of the community were expressions of the community that benefited the people within it? Wouldn’t, then, diversity be encouraged and embraced? Wouldn’t missions be more organic, indigenous, spontaneous, and occasional? Wouldn’t what the community produces be more expressive of the community as it is rather than what we wish it to be? Then, wouldn’t these graciously serve the members of the community? If people, and the love of the people, was at the center, then all these things would mean to serve the people and never dominate, exploit, or coerce them. What the community believed, did, and produced would be more volitional and natural rather than forced and fake.
I’ve come to believe that you cannot enjoy the strongest expression of community consistently when either proposition, purpose, or product, is at the center, but only when people are. You may enjoy moments when the priority of people and proposition, purpose, or product intersect, but this will be rarely, because if these three externals aren’t expressions of the community but instead are the heart of the community, then the people will suffer for their sakes. The people become expendable at the service of these things.
People can experience an incredible sense of community around an idea. For example, like many churches do, a shared belief in the imminent return of Christ can be an incredibly binding experience. But what happens when this hope, this glue that has held the people together, is dashed? The sense of community is threatened and even destroyed. Or, like a church who’s mission is to be the most effective at church growth in town… the members have been gathered around this common goal. But once this goal becomes unachievable because of other competing churches who are growing while it is not, what happens to the strong sense of community that drove these people before? Or like the church gathered around its products… the way it does church? What happens to people when this changes and who no longer agree with the direction the church is going or question the way the church is functioning or start getting bored? They must quit because the church’s life comes first.
But, if love is the glue that binds us together (and this includes mutual respect, grace, kindness, patience, and the dignity of each person), then even when the theology, mission, and expressions of this community change or are questioned, then this can be an expected challenge in the life of the community, an occasional transition and change the community sometimes endures. But, the community is willing to because these changes are always in the interest of the community and each person within it.
I realize the fear is that if we don’t keep our theological propositions central and firm, if we don’t maintain focus on our purpose, vision and mission, if we don’t nurture the what the church produces in terms of its persona and style, and we insist that people are the center of the community, then all those things would suffer. I claim that when we place people at the center, the community’s propositions, purpose, and products, can be fluid, constantly open to change in the healthy best interest of the people.
It’s when these other things, which I call secondary, fluidly rotate around the community as its manifestations and expressions, that the people experience the richness that community can offer.
Impossible? No! I must share what I’ve experimented with in communities and still do with my online community The Lasting Supper. What if loving the people were central, the proposition of the community was that every person deserves to be loved, the purpose of the community was to love all, and the product of the community was loving real people in practical ways that would translate into the mutual respect and dignity of each person along with the equality of the rights and freedoms of all people?
What if? I’ve seen it happen. I see it happen every day. And it’s beautiful when it does.