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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!

the tension of missional community...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I had a great conversation (with my MPhil supervisor!) earlier today about the research I've been involved in, and especially about my reflections on the fieldwork so far. As we were chatting it became clear to me that the issue I keep coming back to in relation to the emerging church (see, for example, my previous post 'here') is the nature of community evolving and, in particular, the implicit tension found in the oft-used phrase and fundamental value 'Missional Community'.

Why is this a tension? In short, it seems that as community becomes established it can very quickly settle into a 'comfort zone' of sorts that detaches it from the initial missional value. The tension arises when a group begins to become a place of natural openness, vulnerability and mutual responsibility for its members (something that is, in itself, highly desirable and a mark of what Zygmunt Bauman refers to as ethical community), but in doing so inadvertently starts to close the doors of entry to the group. The arrival of a new face can upset the balance and so lead to ill-feeling on the part of existing group members towards the newcomer (although this is rarely voiced and usually very well disguised!) and even to a shutting down in some people who were, prior to the arrival of the newcomer, open and 'at ease'.

I wonder if this has parallels with Victor Turner's description of communitas and structure. Initially, it seems that new emerging church groups, fuelled by a missional and incarnational ethos, take on the fluid and undefined characteristics of communitas; evolving communities that are attractive to, and shaped by, people who wouldn't connect with the structural church or who find themselves on the edges of it. However, once community starts to be built and members start to feel a sense of belonging, it isn't long until the settling process begins, with the establishment of values, models, etc. to 'protect' the way that things are. This can become an unintentional gatekeeping exercise that keeps those who don't 'fit' on the outside. As such we come to realise, without being aware of how or when it happened, that the fluid missional and incarnational communitas has become a new structure with its own 'insiders' and 'outsiders'.

Of course, 'tensions' like this are not necessarily bad or irresolvable. I tend to think that the tension found in 'missional community' is an incredibly creative one that gives much of the energy to emerging church groups. Even so, the question remains: how do we maintain (or is that in itself a form of control and structure?) the church on the edge - the communitas that remains truly missional and open? Does the structuralising of an emerging church community necessarily spell doom and disaster for its missional aspirations?

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 4:02 PM


I love this post! I have no idea how to address or answer any of it, but that's fine. Great thinking - thank you.

commented by Blogger LauraHD, 10:25 AM  

Good post Malcolm. I don't have an answer either except that I think you can counter some of this by ensuring that the faith community doesn't get to big, i.e., start new groups by intentionally splinting to form new church plants. Keep things fresh and helps to focus on what it means to be missional.

commented by Anonymous blind beggar, 11:12 PM  

I would dare to suggest that what these new missional communities is discovering is that - formed in some degree as an expression of frustration that the 'inheritance of the saints' was limited in some key way in the mainstream of the institutional church - in fact all of need to hunker down at some point to learn ethics in the company of those who are skilled in the practice of the faith. It is surely God's gifting that even newly-formed communities of faith will find themselves soon embarked upon a journey of (re)discovery of much they thought they had left behind, oftentimes revealed to them by saints in their very midst, as well as those from other places, times and cultures.
I have been citing the fantastic Stanley Hauerwas about this on my own blog, mulling over the impact of getting through All Saints Tide in my own church context.
Go well, old Yorkie-mate!

commented by Blogger paul, 11:33 PM  

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