When I think about belonging or community, I always think of my time with a large mission training centre in Australia. For almost four years I journeyed with a group of people who were all deeply passionate about knowing God and making him known. In the midst of all the busyness and excitement, I felt a deep sense of being known as well. These people from a huge variety of backgrounds and cultures and experiences and Christian persuasions – an eclectic mix of people who I would have otherwise never met – became far more than friends.
They were comrades. They were life-lines. They were prayer-partners, safety-nets, the voice of encouragement. They inspired me to go deeper, challenged me to reach higher, pushed me to expand my vision for God’s world. I’d always have someone to process with, to laugh with, to cry with, and I’d be there for them in the same way. It was a space to be ministered to and to learn to minister, to give as much as you received, to bless as much as you were blessed. In one month our relationships were deeper than anything I’d really known before.
It’s not about building community
Maybe I’ve reminded you of a similar experience. Maybe you wish you’d been part of a group like that. Perhaps you’ve been in a similar environment but were burnt by the encounter. In either case, it’s likely a reminder of the longing many of us feel for a deeper, more authentic experience of community and belonging. Ingrained within us is a sense that we’re not supposed to be alone on this journey of faith and life. Yet, though we may have momentary tastes of true community along the way, for many of us it’s not our ongoing reality.
In fact, ‘community’ is a bit of a buzz word. You’ll find it in the vision statement – maybe even in the name – of many churches. Theological books have made community their uniting theme. Counsellors are being trained to think of individuals-within-community. Hundreds of sermons on “Getting back to Acts 2:42-47” have been preached across the country. Many Church leaders have made forming and nurturing a thriving community one of their top priorities.
That’s certainly not a bad thing. The problem is, community doesn’t really happen if it’s your goal. Michael Frost, an Aussie missiologist, says that aiming for community is like aiming for happiness. You can’t aim to find happiness; it’s a by-product of seeking after something else, like love or justice or hospitality. But when you aim for happiness, you’re bound to miss it!
Community vs Communitas
Many of us have looked at the various expressions of community we’ve been part of with the question: “Why’s this so different to what I see in the New Testament?” Jesus invested much of his time forming a community of disciples and presenting them with a new ‘covenant charter’ of how to do life together (e.g. Matthew 5-7). Throughout the New Testament we see communities marked by extravagant love and faith (2 Thessalonians 1:3), by unwavering passion for Jesus (Revelation 3:8), by radical sharing and devotion (Acts 2:42-47), by incredible diversity (Galatians 3:28), by forgiveness and compassion and humility and peace (Colossians 3:12-15). The language describing the church is that of body (1 Corinthians 12:13), temple (3:16), family (Ephesians 2:19), vine (John 15:5), people (1 Peter 2:9), all images which stress that together we are God’s people. In fact, a key theme of Scripture is God’s mission to form a people for his name. Yet this biblical vision for the Christian community seems to stand in stark contrast to the reality we often experience.
So why did I experience all that in Australia? It’s because community wasn’t the focus. We were all there because of a shared passion for God and his mission in the world. It was out of that shared purpose and vision that true community was forged. We were on a shared journey, but it was a journey somewhere.
This is the different between community and communitas. Communitas is community that’s formed in the context of an ordeal, a challenge, a task, a mission. It’s a community that forms for the sake of something beyond itself. Community isn’t seen as an end in itself; it’s the means to an end. A deep sense of love and care and compassion is formed, but it’s as a result of being on a journey together. Perhaps ironically, when you set out to achieve that same sense just for its own sake, the results can feel quite superficial.
The desire we have for community is a legitimate one, but to pursue it for its own sake is a mistake. “We build community incidentally, when our imaginations and energies are captured by a higher, even nobler calling” (Michael Frost). If you set out to build community, you end up with more of a support group. If you set out to form a group on mission together, you end up with communitas.
So when we say that We’re All Called to Belong, we’re not talking about belonging as the goal itself. We’re all called to belong to God’s family of mission.
When on your journey have you experienced communitas?
How can a group move from community towards communitas? What steps could your group make?
Exploring today’s missional issues from a variety of angles, each edition of the Intermission magazine will equip you and your group to engage with God in your community and beyond. To signup to receive the Intermission in the post, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Intermission articles can also be found online at nzcms.org.nz/intermission.