Friday, November 04, 2005

communitas is only useful if you want to keep the emerging church adolescent

I made this blog comment on signposts. It’s noted here, sort of like a gravestone! Fire away:)

The notion of communitas as applied to church is a nonsense. It was first used by Turner to describe initiation rites in tribal cultures. Communitas is that in-between stage, between childhood and maturity. It is an artificially induced transitional stage. But you don’t live there. You can’t. That’s its whole point. It’s a transition stage.

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 read Turner for my PhD, specifically the following;
Turner, Victor Witter. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co., 1969.
Turner, Victor, Witter. “The Centre out There: Pilgrim’s Goal.” History of Religions 12 (1973): 191-230.

The idea of communitas had some initial appeal for me. In the end I felt it could be applied most profitably to some ritual practices of the emerging church. Turner describes pilgrimage as an a liminal experience which produces communitas. This has parrallels in the use of labyrinths in the emerging church. But as Turner notes, pilgrims generally return home. They don’t stay in communitas.

Turner’s use of it is helpfully explained in his book structure and anti-structure, with liminality and communitas as an in-between phase. In the end, I felt that the most accurate terms to describe the emerging church was not a one-off liminality but more of an ongoing experience of being “de-centred” (both by postmodern culture and from existing ways of being church). And that this was leading to the development of “soteriological entrepreneurs”; innovative practioners.

A further point is that the experience of communitas is highly manipulative. Men take boys from their parents into the bush. They manipulate the environments and often deliberately frighten them. I don’t think manipulation should have much to do with creation of healthy communities.

For those who like PhD thinking; here are the excerpts. Download

Posted by steve at 11:59 AM


  1. I agree with some of your thoughts, however i do not think that we can just dismiss communitas as juvenile adolesence. Aggregation, the next stage that is identified, is what we need to move towards but we should not dismiss the importance of communitas. Adolensence is an important phase and arguably the phase that most profoundly shapes our adulthood…enjoy it!!

    and also my understanding was liminality, not communitas, was the inbetween period. Communitas arises in periods of liminality.

    Comment by Ben Edson — November 4, 2005 @ 12:22 pm

  2. Amen Steve. Finally someone who has read Victor Turner and applies his work thoughtfully!

    Comment by Andrew — November 4, 2005 @ 8:07 pm

  3. I think that we should have a relationship of aggregation with the church, where we re-connect with the established church, value it and bring about transformation – moving on from the period of liminality. I agree with you there.

    However, culture is in a period of transition and i think that the some of the values of liminality sucah as Equality, Absence of property, Absence of Status, Minimization of gender distinction, Silence and Sacredness are helpful points of connection with the culture of post-modernity and therefore I’d hate to lose these values if we moved to a period of ‘structure’…How therefore can we keep the values of liminality and also go through aggregation?

    Comment by ben Edson — November 4, 2005 @ 9:49 pm

  4. Ben,
    I agree with you that there are some attractive linkages between liminality and culture. That is why I initially explored Turner when I started my PhD. In the end I felt that the episodic nature of liminality, as described by Turner, was not an accurate fit with a widespread period of cultural change that we are in. For instance, if we are in a culture of liminality then their should be widespread cultural communitas.

    But I see culture becoming both more individualised and yet with pockets of communality, rather than widespread communitas.

    Hence I used the term “de-centred” in my PhD which captures notions of transition and uncertainty.

    What I strongly object to is the application of liminality and communitas to church; for the reasons I describe in the post above
    – I think it is a misuse of Turner
    – it’s original use involves manipulation of environments and I see nothing in the way of Jesus that supports such modes of behaviour
    – I see your point that adolescense is an important phase, but don’t want to see mission and church reduced to adolescence.
    – there is also a gender issue that potentially lies behind this. I would need to re-read Turner again to check, but I recollect that his work focused on male initiation rites. What then the place of women in the “communitas” church?

    Comment by Steve — November 4, 2005 @ 10:12 pm

  5. I find communitas helpful, not as a model for church but as a concept. I agree it is a missue of Turner to apply it to church but am reluctant to loose it altogether.

    Communitas needs to be seen as what it originally defined for in Von Gennep’s Rite’s of Passage. In this context there was manipulation and the role of women is certainly dubious, however as a concept it is fascinating.

    I don’t think that we should have a ‘communitas’ church, it is immature and not fully formed. However I’m drawn to it missiologically, not because i think that church should be like it, but because the values within anti-stucture are values that i think people want within church. I’ve written about the hermeneutic of commuitas as part of the missiological make up of Sanctus1.

    Comment by ben Edson — November 5, 2005 @ 6:43 am

  6. I wonder if some people and some groups are called to remain liminal/on the edge for long periods of time as guides in the wilderness. I think of religious communities, of hermits, of radical social justice activists perhaps.

    They do this at some cost to themselves, but keep fires burning for those who may be wandering the byways.

    Just a thought.

    Comment by onerosenz — November 13, 2005 @ 8:57 pm

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