Monday, January 15, 2007

Can O' Worms (Exiles 1)

This post was inspired in part by Jamie Arpin-Ricci, and also from my reading of Michael Frost's Exiles, which I HIGHLY recommend. I'm only half-way through it, and it's encouraged, challenged, frustrated, and caused me to put it down repeatedly to think about implications and possibilities. Books that accomplish this are gems. Get this book.

Frost talks about communitas early in the book, which he describes as a community that has a goal beyond itself -- in order words, it's not community for community's sake, but rather community gathered around a common vision.

Frost couples this with the concept of liminality -- a radical middle state where faith, uncertainty, and experimentation are embraced and explored. It's not unlike "chaos theory":
"Complex systems tend to locate themselves at a place we call 'the edge of chaos'. We imagine the edge of chaos as a place where there is enough innovation to keep a living system vibrant, and enough stability to keep it from collapsing into anarchy.

"It is a zone of conflict and upheaval, where the old and the new are constantly at war.

"Finding the balance point must be delicate -- if a living system drifts too close, it risks falling over into incoherence and dissolution; but if the system moves too far away from the edge, it becomes rigid, frozen, totalitarian. Both conditions lead to extinction.

"Too much change is as destructive as too little. Only at the edge of chaos can complex systems flourish." (Michael Crichton, The Lost World)
Where Frost's comments open a can o' worms, which is making me think long and hard (I did mention that this was a journey, eh?), is where the concept of communitas intersects with liminality. Let me explain:

Many people who are currently in a season of detoxing from church are reacting against a one-vision, get-with-the-program-or-find-a-new-church mentality. A phrase that many have adopted was the cryptic observation: "We had to stop attending church to learn how to be the church." This has been an important step in the detox process.

And now here comes Frost, suggesting that community that exists only for the sake of community (just "being") is self-centred and narcissistic. Communitas is a deep community, but it's based around a common goal or vision. The can o' worms is the edge of chaos between genuine community which does not revolve around peoples' "performance", and yet is still intentional about the advancing Kingdom.

See what I mean? This book is making me ponder. What do y'all think? Is communitas just another example of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss"? Or is just "being" the church only a leg of the journey, and not the destination?

(I'll get to Jamie's challenge and liminality in the next can o' worms.)


  1. I think that community cannot be an end in itself, but only the byproduct of something else - fellow vision and work. It's like sanctification being an byproduct of being with and serving God - it happens as long as God is our focus, when we focus on sanctification we end up narcissistic instead.

  2. I'll answer with another quote from Frost:

    "Those who love community destroy it, but those who love people build community."

    And this link to a PDF article by him, which may or may not be repetitive of things that you've read in the book.

    I've only just started the book, only through chapter one. I look forward to hearing more of what you have to say.

  3. Any post that applies "chaos theory" to a church community has my attention. I first got introduced to "chaos theory" and “complex systems” by the two Jurassic Park books (JP & LW) and have been intrigued by it since. I find the quote from ‘Lost World’ to be an excellent explanation of a healthy and vibrant church community as well as the two extremes of unhealthy communities (complete libertarian & totalitarian).

    My ideas of “being” the church have revolved around the core idea of a group of committed Christ followers attempting to intersect with anyone (believer or not) in their sphere of influence in intentional but non-manipulative ways. So I would say that I already hold a communitas view of church. Community must both grow up and grow out.
    But please correct me if I’m getting it wrong.

    Oh, “Chaos Theory” = totally cool band name, maybe a hardcore/screamo or a prog metal or even a jazz fusion band. (Or an upstart teen garage band, ha, ha, smirk)

  4. Run this through the grid of leadership in chaordic systems, Dee Hock writes, "Purpose and principle, clearly understood and articulated, and commonly shared, are the genetic code of any healthy organization. To the degree that you hold purpose and principles in common among you , you can dispense with command and control." In other words, until we exist for a larger shared purpose we are stuck with hierarchy.

  5. Another thought.. coherence around values sounds like a great idea.. but the problem is exactly that "values" for many is an idea. They will sign a statement of values, but the values they claim may not be the way they live. This is where others are helpful who are pointing out that its better to covenant around practices. Our practices are our lived values. If we don't understand this we talk up values with people and assume we are on the same page and then wonder why only a small core is living it out. The related problem, in large systems the core tends to be separated from the community and doesn't understand that their shared values are not necessarily penetrating.. the context of pluralism and fragmentation and the tendency to "pick and choose" in a consumer world subverts the intention to community. But this is where "communitas" can help... if you can find a way to live in a perpetual state of crisis!

  6. Here is a summary of the chapter in question:

  7. First, I highly recommend "Exiles". I'm about 70% thru and have been challenged on almost every page.

    I think Frost is on to something. It's not new, but it is a new way of rediscovering the old. At least it's new to us in the West. China has naturally developed 'communitas' because of the nature of the environment in which the church is in.

    Great observation - Communitas is a bit like the chaos theory. Or to quote Gordan MacKenzie's book title "Orbiting the Giant Hairball" which is another book I highly recommend.

    The church should not be so far out that we are of no revelvance to anyone (that would be leaving the giant hairball) and we should not be so conformed to society, and so culturally bound that we just blend in (as a part of the giant hairball). We must effectively orbit around the hairball, providing creative solutions that are also practical, that give alternatives to either being sucked in or shot out; the delicate balance of chaos.

    The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to be a community connected to God and each other, and yet always reaching out for the the things of God that we cannot attain on our own. In short - Communitas.
    In communitas, we don't get sucked into apathy, but we don't end up in deep space either (most of the time).

    I'm still trying to grasp, and more importantly, live out this concept, but I think it's the only place we can go to be honest.
    What that looks like practically will change depending on you and your community, in and outside the church walls.

  8. Pastorastor,

    I agree with you, but what made Frost's statement interesting is that it actually flies against what so many in the emerging church have been loudly saying: that community ("being" the church) was the goal, and that following vision(s) kills community.


    I gave the PDF a quick skim, and it appears to be taken right out of the book (at least, the wording sounds very similar), and then I saw at the end of the article, a little statement that says it's taken from the book. :) So yeah, you've gotten a sneak preview of an upcoming chapter!


    I like your phrase "influence in intentional but not manipulative ways" -- that will probably be what separates communitas from narcissism.

    For the upstart garage band, I'd suggest "Chaos Without (Musical) Theory". :)


    I'm not sure I agree with the statement: "In other words, until we exist for a larger shared purpose we are stuck with hierarchy."

    I've visited or been involved with a few house/simple churches where any "visionary" idea was ruthlessly crushed. They claimed that "only God is our leader" (a la Frank Viola), yet it was abundantly clear that there WERE hierarchical leaders -- who else could crush visionaries? -- but they had the (insert sarcastic tone here) double-edged blessing of controlling the group while appearing spiritual because they claimed that nobody controlled the group (end sarcasm -- aimed at those particular leaders, not at you, Len!).

    Communitas as "perpetual sate of crisis"... yeah, I hear what you're saying and that would be a difficult thing to maintain, wouldn't it? Esp. because if we try to "maintain" it, then it quickly becomes programmatic and possibly manipulated/hyped. Ah, this still makes my head spin sometimes!

    BTW, you and Betty were great at the Pirate Party last weekend! Thanks for coming!


    Orbiting the giant hairball (I heard about this book somewhere else recently) is probably the most interesting metaphor for being "in the world, but not of the world" that I've ever heard. I'll have to get a copy of the book, although to be honest, Forgotten Ways is next on my Literary Coveting List.

  9. Can't wait to read the new Hirsch book.

    So after watching 2hrs and 52 minutes of "One Punk Under God" (I highly recommend) and then the cable cuts out and we have to wait 30 minutes to watch the last 8 minutes, I was wondering - does that consitute Communitas?

  10. For a long time we have been trying to separate being and doing. But the truth is.. its only possible in theory. Its a Greek ideal the Hebrews wouldn't know what we're on about.

    I think the problem with vision is that it has tended to be top down. But seed that vision in a community.. add some crisis... and voila! good things can happen. Perhaps that seeding is mostly the work of the Spirit, with a few listening midwives..

  11. David,

    If Len's right, and it means "state of crisis", then your group is our role model for communitas!!

    Okay, maybe there's more to it than that, but thanks for the recommendation on Punk.


    I'm not sure what it looks like in Frost's life -- perhaps I'll have a better picture when I finish the book! I think what Frost is getting at is that we find real community in the midst of serving, not just by pursuing community for the sake of community.

    I certainly have felt the pull in both directions at different times in my own journey.


    I agree, but I've usually seen that -- top-down or not -- vision usually starts with one or two people. The problem comes when others in the same gathering have equally God-given, but not necessarily compatible vision -- who's vision "wins" as the direction for the group?

    Until we get used to having a vision that says "our vision is to have & bless multiple visions", this will continue to be a ball-and-chain.