Wednesday, October 17, 2007

communitas and mission revisited: updated

Way back in the day (well, November 2005), I posted, questioning the application of communitas to mission.

I think applying communitas to the emerging church will only serve to keep us in our juvenile adolesence. Isn’t it time the emerging church got beyond it’s adolesence and got on with the task of mature Christian discipleship and living.

I was deliberately being a bit provocative, but wanting to raise some questions about what seemed to me to be a pretty shallow reading of the literature. What followed in the comments was a good conversation between Ben Edson and myself, which I appreciated and which forced me to keep thinking.

So I’m fascinated to see Ben post on the subject again recently:

As the years progress I’m getting less convinced of the missiological significance of communitas, i think that is maybe as ineffective as short term mission, and that the focus should be more on aggregation than communitas. For the whole post go here

Ben notes how communitas can be dualised and glamorised and in reality is an abnormal occurrence that only has value as it is integrated back into everyday rhythms. Which sounds to me like my original plea for discipleship and mature living.

I think there are also deeper issues at work here; including does God through evolution or revolution and the need to value a spirituality of the ordinary and everyday.

Just dug out some reading notes from my PhD (yes, yet another example of my legendary filing system!) In Turner, “The Centre out There: Pilgrim’s Goal.” History of Religions 12 (1973): 191-230, the notion of communitas and liminality are applied to contemporary pilgrimage. Turner argues that in our “age of aquarius” pilgrimage is booming. He analyses it as separation; into a margin, liminal, space in which “communitas” in exhibited. Upon return re-aggregation occurs.

In M.J. Sallnow, “Communitas Reconsidered: The Sociology of Andean Pilgrimage.” Man 16 (1981): 163-182, Turner’s notion of pilgrimage as an example of “communitas” is critiqued. Participation in pilgrimage is a short term and loosely structured grouping. Clear distinctions between groups remain and the intensity of communitas was never visible. “From a sociological viewpoint, then, group pilgrimage in the Andes is a complex mosaic of egalitarianism, nepotism and factionalism, of brotherhood, competition and conflict … Indeed, it would be more appropriate in such circumstances to see community, not communitas, as the hallmark of pilgrimage.” (176, 177).

Further reading:
For more of my writing on communitas, liminality and the emerging church, excerpts from my PhD are here.

Posted by steve at 08:54 PM


  1. Quite.

    But doesn’t liminality have a sense of dynamism and transition that the centre lacks?

    Seeing and being God at work in the seeming mundane everyday rhythms is much more subtle. And there’s always the danger of just becoming an unthinking rhythm.

    BTW: the link to the Edson communitas blog entry is dead due to mispelling (href)

    Grace & Peace

    Comment by Graeme — October 17, 2007 @ 11:14 pm

  2. i am not sure i agree about being ‘integrated’ back into everyday rhythms – if you use the liminality analogy that is what happens and the organism doesn’t change fundamentally, so there is no real transformation, life, health or growth – i am thinking that we need to start using another analogy really for what needs to happen in the church worldwide if it is to take shape properly around its missional purpose – what does discipleship and mature living mean in relation to the old established order and institution of the church ? some people would suggest that conventional church has a power structure which has worked against the development of spiritual maturity and active discipleship – what reason would those that have experienced the ‘dynamism’ of working in partnership with God on the fringes in mission, have for returning from their adventures only to be boxed in by the constraints of conventional religion ? how does integration like that transform, wake up, rejuvenate and provoke the Body of Christ into missional activity ?

    Comment by julie — October 18, 2007 @ 8:11 am

  3. Graeme I think it’s fixed.

    Julie in terms of my work with churches and church systems, i am looking for ways to bring all parties to a mission table with no agendas ie open hands, and a willingness to participate.

    when we set off on our multi-congregational model it was about change for the whole system, yet allowing that to happen at a different pace for different groups. in other words, mission action teams innovate within systems on the understanding that all parts of the system will engage the mission conversation. mission stories from the edge are told back at the “centre”(whatever that is and I hate the term) in dialogue with Scripture, so that new questions can be generated.

    we are just about to do this over this weekend. one of our congregations has innovated and adopted a practice which might challenge the centre, so we are having an informal conversation about that in a way that helps listening and learning to progress.

    i don’t see a long term sustainable future for change processes that allow innovation and new forms of church on their own, nor existing systems to stay stuck in their moment.

    but i am not sure i would relate any of this helpfully to Turner’s work,


    Comment by steve — October 18, 2007 @ 9:07 am

  4. Was that really two years ago…wow. It takes me long time to think!

    Comment by Ben Edson — October 18, 2007 @ 8:25 pm

  5. hi steve,

    thanks for helpful responses – got me thinking now (i’d admit to being slower even than ben in this area !!) – i work a lot with churches and church systems too and facilitating the kind of conversation you are describing is certainly how i have seen my vocation crystalising over the last few years – mostly though i find myself at a pre-conversation stage with missional groups and more established denominations and churches – they seem to need to learn a new language first in order to get into dialogue with each other – your example is excellent in that it pushes for a dialogue that goes beyond the words of the conversation – living alongside each other and seeing that dialogue in action is so much more powerful in terms of sustainable partnership and transformative change – thanks for some good thoughts !



    Comment by julie — October 18, 2007 @ 9:45 pm

  6. thanks Julie. one of the things i did when i first arrived at the church was show Romeo and Juliet (1968 version) and then the 1996 version. (I talk about these films in my book, The out of bounds church?)

    instantly those gathered divided. half liked the first, half the second. i simply pointed out to them that if we all we 1996 in our worship, half those gathered would lose their mission potential and vice versa. so we would have to find a way to do both/and, not either or.

    that became a very practical way of starting a conversation about cultural change and diversity in mission.

    when i do consultancy work with denominations i use storytelling – what is happening at Opawa; i use Luke 10:1-12 and how that text sends us to listen to our communities; and I use lots of organic images – all things grow and change, so surely the church should.

    would stuff like that be any help in your contexts?


    Comment by steve — October 18, 2007 @ 10:00 pm

  7. you have such great ideas – and yes, they are of immense help in my contexts (although the prospect of showing R&J 1996 version to a quiet wee scottish congregation made me roar with laughter – some things are a little ‘one step beyond’ you know !?!)

    what is most useful i think is that you have a living model in the way your congregations relate to each other that is an example of how this conversation needs to go – it is already being lived out in your context in the dialogue between those diverse groups – you seem to have ‘earthed’ the dialogue very effectively – i think we are some steps behind you here in our scottish context – we are still at separation stage with little emerging groups operating in relative isolation for the most part – though the desire is there denominationally, we don’t have many people yet who would be able to facilitate the kinds of opportunities that you have been able to flesh out for people – there are some good stories to share – enough to keep us moving in a positive direction – but we lack models of Christian community gathered around mission that people can ‘come and see’, and then go and relate that to and wrestle with the issues in their own context – more of your stories would be very helpful during the interim – i think we need lots of examples to encourage us towards greater ‘aggregation’ and missional dialogue – it would be cool to visit you and come back full of tales !



    Comment by julie — October 18, 2007 @ 11:23 pm

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