It’s hard to imagine a few weeks ago when I sat down with my friend Doug at the Bean and he encouraged me to read Allelon.org’s blogs about the missional church that it would have led to a month of thinking more deeply about what it means to be the church. The next day I walked into the library at Michigan Theological Seminary and grabbed a little book called The Forgotten Ways. This is post eight, the last chapter of the book: Communitas, not Community.
I think that the opening quote from Paulo Coelho is best summary of the chapter where he says, “The ship is safest when it is in port. But that’s not what ships were made for.”
The quote says it all. In recent times there has been an emphasis on “community”. This emphasis has always highlighted the church being a safe place, a retreat from the world. The metaphor of a hospital has been used. The community was a place where you can come and be yourself and be accepted and find rest.
Hirsch argues this is the Constantinian, institutional, Christendom at its best! I agree.
The difference between community and communitas is the purpose for the gathering of the people. There are many similarities but there is one key difference. That is mission.
Hirsch uses a number of illustrations for communitas but the one that resonated with me the most is the Fellowship of the Ring. This radical little band of hobbits, men, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard set out to defeat the ultimate evil. They start as tolerating each other at best. But, by the end of the mission they are something different. They experienced communitas.
The organization that I work for has something called “Summer Project”. In the states it is a 10–12 week mission experience for college students. They work at the local McD’s or Starbucks. They proclaim the gospel on the beach. The best summer projects are those that have communitas, where the mission of turning lost students into Christ-centered laborers is always present and being pursued.
The problem with communitas is that it requires there to be conflict. The Fellowship of the Ring fought against insurmountable odds. Summer project students have to face support raising and spiritual attack. Or consider a sports team, like the Detroit Red Wings who had to face injury, horrible officiating, and a league front office that did everything they could to keep them from winning Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The church in the West since the time of Constatine has for the most part not faced very much conflict. Sure there have been internal struggles mut not much outward. There is no persecution. Just a calm acceptance of the church’s presence. The church has become comfortable and lost its sense of mission (does this sound familiar? If not read parts 1–3).
When a community goes on mission together it ceases to be community and becomes communitas. It experiences pain, conflict, joy, victory, defeat. It goes through something toward something. I think that’s why when churches are ramping up for a program they experience something different but then the program happens and the experience is not sustained. That’s because the ramp up feels like mission but in the end it is not.
To experience communitas requires the radical transformation of the very reason for why we gather as a community. Will we gather as a community to sing? To pray? To hear the Bible taught? All nice things. All things that will develop community. But if we gather to do these apart from being on mission then we are missing something, we are missing communitas.
Community is a ship in port. Communitas is a ship at sea. The ship is not designed for port. The ship is designed for the sea. The church is not designed for community. It is designed at its core DNA to be communitas.
Th ramifications of this are so huge that I might develop carpal tunnel syndrome trying to write them. The key thing that I want to think more about though is how can we send every part of the church on mission? A week in Mexico is a nice beginning but it is barely scratching the surface. What does it look like to be on mission as a people of God everyday, from young to old? This is the core question of communitas.