How many times have we bemoaned the lack of commitment we see from church folks? No matter how hard we promote and cajole, it seems like the same folks always make up the core of volunteers. There must be a better way to carry out Christ’s mission. What began as an amazing safari turns into a tedious trip to the zoo.
I think I may have found an answer in what Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost call “Communitas”. Dictionary.com defines it as “the sense of sharing and intimacy that develops among persons who experience liminality as a group.” “Liminality” refers to a place of threshhold, where a group is out of their normal environment and culture and moving into a new phase of experience.
Communitas describes what I felt on the cold and wet soccer field or in the suffocating wrestling room as my fellow athletes struggled together chasing the elusive goal of greatness. It is found in perhaps its most extreme form on the field of battle, when soldiers very lives depend upon their intimate relationships with their comrades.
I have always wondered why I have not found a greater sense of teamwork and closeness in church life, even among peers in our denomination. I have found most relationships to be pretty much surface level, and cooperation to be short-lived. I know I am not alone.
As a fraternity brother in the 1970’s the pursuit of communitas in the house was very intentional. In fact, it was the main goal when bringing new members into the house. The hazing and rituals were all about creating a “brotherhood” through liminality. While Christ’s methods and goals are very different from those of a secular fraternity, lessons can be drawn from what they are able to achieve.
There have been times when I felt a greater sense of communitas, as opposed to the shallow and paltry sense of “Community” we usually end up with in the church context. Short-term missions trips produce this level of relationship because they place us in a foreign environment with limited resources and uncertain outcomes. Folks feel united, exhilirated and renewed after such an experience, and are generally disappointed when they return to “normal” church.
But I have identified a few other practical ways to promote and create communitas in our churches and lives. Group fasting creates a type of communitas, as do retreats, certain types of small groups, spiritual discipline groups, and intentional missional outreaches. Articulating purpose and vision and plunging into it with others is what these ordeals are all about, and they energize people. There are innumerable ways to do this.
The idea of liminality is crucial because while we go to great lengths to make people comfortable in church, the way to intimacy and greater commitment may lie in calling them, counterintuitively, to a higher level of separation and sacrifice.
I am still researching this idea, but believe that the renewal of our movement and churches may lie in pursuing communitas. Paul had communitas in the churches he planted, and in his planting team. Jesus had it with His disciples, and when given the chance to opt out of it they replied, “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life.” John 6:68