Sunday, January 28, 2007

Third Degree Worms (Exiles 3)

We now continue with the Series of Worms, not to be confused with the Diet of Worms. I'm happily reading my way through Michael Frost's most excellent Exiles, but let me add a clarification that the Series of Worms is not written in reaction to Frost's book; it's more like espresso for the brain: provoking me to think. So, the Worms have been inspired by Frost, which is a sign of a good, thought-provoking, well-written book.

Okay, the obvious, blatant, not-even-thinly-disguised marketing of Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture will end now, except to say: GET THIS BOOK.

Frost spends part of chapter six on the place of the old monastic "rules" in creating missional communitas; the Rule of St. Benedict is one example among many. There are many examples in the emerging/missional church of groups who are attempting to arrange their community/communitas around some aspect of monastic order.

The "rule" is a commonly agreed-upon set of practices, values, and commitments. As Frost is quick to point out, each community that embraces this approach to communitas does so in creative, unique ways; there is no -- neither should there be -- one-size-fits-all, draconian and monolithic "my way or the highway" kind of attitude.

The function of "re-monking the church" -- a phrase Frost borrows from Stuart Murray's Post-Christendom -- is to have a standard that serves both as (pardon the term) a "vision/mission statement" that everyone who is part of the community agrees to when they identify with the community, and also as a more objective grid which serves as a reference when the group asks the necessary questions about whether or not they are accomplishing the purpose(s) that they claim to support.

The positives that immediately jump out at me would include:
  • the objectivity of the rule helps the "ownership" of the vision to reside in the community, rather than in a select few or in just one person

  • a clearly understood commitment to the rule can help people right from the get-go, because they know what they're "signing up for" when they choose to identify with the community

  • when life gets complicated -- as it inevitably does -- the rule provides both a foundational support and way of calling people back to the simplicity of the rule; grounding people in healthy dynamic from which to puzzle out the complications of life with imperfect people living imperfectly with other imperfect people in an imperfect world
But having done some research in recent years on the Shepherding Movement, which started as an attempt at discipleship and accountability but quickly degenerated into a system of control and spiritual abuse that wreaked havoc on literally thousands and thousands of Christians, I see some parallels that need to be thought carefully through, lest we see a similar train wreck.

Here's some sociological similarities that I've observed about the milieu that gave us the first Shepherding Movement, and the present ethos we find ourselves in (these are only slightly updated from my post Shepherding Movement: TNG? from 2005):
Then: Many anti-establishment hippies become followers of Jesus through the Jesus Movement, but hold a real distrust of "the man" (authority)
Now: Emerging generations are committed to being followers of Jesus, but have developed a suspicion and distrust of hierarchical, CEO-style leadership (authority)
Then: A genuine hunger for relationships; Christian communes with little or no connection to established churches/ministries spring up 
Now: A genuine hunger for relationships; destructured house groups/simple churches/monastic communitas with little or no connection to established churches/ministries spring up
Then: Cultural changes (the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate, and the 60's in general) creates anxiety in many, resulting in a felt need for stability and some level of certainty
Now: Cultural changes (post-modern cultural transition, "fatherless generation") creates anxiety and restlessness for many, resulting in a felt need for relational stability and some level of certainty
Then: Sincere, older believers seek to minister and disciple these "outside the box" followers of Jesus (books, cassettes, conferences, personal mentoring)
Now: Sincere, older believers seek to minister and disciple (spiritual formation) these "churchless faith" followers of Jesus (books, blogs, websites, cohorts, monastic orders/rules)
Then: The question of accountability and authority becomes problematic; the teaching on "covering" and "being under authority" (based largely on Watchman Nee's writings) is given prominence
Now: The question of accountability and authority continues to be problematic; despite the collapse of the Shepherding Movement, the concepts of "covering" and "under authority" have not gone away, and the potential of monastic rules to become rigid and censorious
Then: While not originally intended, hierarchical power structures eventually develop to safeguard conformity to accepted standards

Now: While not originally planned, community power -- with the spoken or implied threat of "shunning" -- develops to safeguard conformity to accepted standards, rules, or commitments.

I'm not suggesting by any means that this re-discovering of monastic rules is obligated historically to become another version of the Shepherding Movement, but if we naively assume it couldn't happen, I would suggest that we need to step back and think it through a little more carefully. What Frost is suggesting, and what numerous faith communities are already experimenting with, is GOOD; but it's not without the potential for disaster. So how 'bout it? What would y'all suggest as ways to pursue communitas, perhaps with a monastic-inspired order/rule, yet avoid the trap of manipulative coercion to conform?


  1. Hey Rob,
    Great thoughts inpsired by a great book!
    I've 'preached' communitas so much we have this joke now that when something goes wrong, we're just building communitas.
    I had the opportunity to speak a bit about this at our 'modern' service (wink wink) and even they come to me and still talk about it.
    Frost is definately onto something. There is something in us that desires this!

    Great insight on possible concerns. It seems as though true communitas would not allow this to happen because communitas by it's very nature is the idea that everyone involved is a part of something bigger than themselves and everyone has a vital role to play. Everyone should have the freedom to express that in this dynamic because it makes the communitas..well, more dynamic.
    If we fall into "Sheparding" the communitas would dissipate.

    Obviously this could happen, and I'm probably an optimist, but I think once communitas becomes a part of the culture, people will resist that. It's a good thing to be aware of though. Wow, makes me ponder.

    The difficult thing is that we can't realy manufactor communitas, we just have to position ourselves so it can happen. As Jesus followers, I think the best way to do this, is to put ourselves in places where we cannot do it on our own. We need God and we need each other.

    Of course that looks different for everyone.

    Wow, I think that's my longest comment ever!

  2. Rob,
    Unfortunately, I've had more practical experience with the shepherding movement than I have with communitas. The language of covenant, rules, and pledges still makes me a little twitchy.

    I think that often the things that we put in place to define commitment can become the very things that kill the relational aspect of that commitment.

    I agree that shared values which are clearly written out and mutually adopted can be helpful for a missional community.

    Here are a few ideas that I feel are important in shaping an order/rule:

    I think that the rule should be invitational, in that the invitation to participate is open and voluntary.

    It should be fluid, realizing that we are often joined with another for only short seasons of mission.

    It should acknowledge and encourage commitment and love toward one another, but not burden those relationships with an oath.

    And, climbing on my soapbox, the relationships should be mutual, not hierarchical.

  3. David,

    Wow, wouldn't that be great, if communitas became part of our culture!

    The other aspect that you mentioned really resonates with me, as well: that as Jesus followers, we can't make communitas happen; communitas happens as we collectively follow Jesus. That excites me!


    I understand your concerns re: the language of "covenant", since that's the same phrase that the Shepherding Movement used. I share your concerns in this regard.

    Your four additions to what I wrote are absolutely brilliant, and I would add, vital & essential to seeing communitas NOT devolve into something rigid, controlling, and spiritually abusive.

    I wish I'd thought of them -- they'd have been included in this post!

  4. Okay, I'm not getting it.

    What I don't get is that isn't communitas what the Church has (or is supposed to have) already? A common goal that everyone within the community (local assembly) reaches for? That is, to know Christ and make him known? Aren't you just saying, albiet from a slightly different angle, that we, all together and without regard for gender, race, social and financial status or hierarchy, work together towards a common goal of knowing Christ and making him known?

    Care to give us a fictional real life example of how this works... sorry the monastic thing didn't make sense for me. Isn't that (monasticism) the opposite of what we want? Don't we want to be engaged with all people, not be separated from them?

    As well, communitas seems to be saying Corporate Living but without the CEO... this counters relationship and is inevitably unsustainable.

    From this sort of reading, the best examples we have out there right now of communitas are sects and cults.

    Also, leaders will eventually emerge in communitas, this always happens and your (my/our) desires and concerns for proper leadership, as well as the concern to protect accountability, probably indicates a natural (God-given) presupposition towards leadership. After all, you don't find many 'Average working-class-go-to-church-Sunday Joes' posting comments here do you? They are too busy playing video games or poker or hockey or any number of (to them) more important things. In many ways, those who are posting, even if they are working stiffs, have a passion for the church that by default lends leadership.

    Which leads me to another question... How does communitas deal with new Christ followers and/or Christians who, for good or other reasons, cannot live up to the community's voluntary "rules"? Won't this end up becoming legalism? Living by preset principles instead of allowing God to change an individual's value system in due time?

    Like I said, maybe I don't get it.

    Grace and peace,

  5. KSG,

    Knowing God and making Him known would fit every Christian on the planet, yes. But I think Frost is suggesting the communitas is a little more focussed; ie. a group that meets for mutual encouragement and also has a regular ministry among the homeless. Another communitas might have a missional presence in the arts community. They're all part of the broader understanding of "to know God and make Him known" (YWAM's mission statement, btw), but a little more focused on the how.

    The reference to the whole monastic thing is about the common goals in ministry (St. Benedict's rule, etc.), not about retreating to a monastic existence.

    And yes, there are people who regularly comment here that would fit into average, working-class, go to church kind of people. I don't quite understand why a passion for the church only reflects leadership. Could you elaborate?

    As for your last question, perhaps the four additions that Emerging Grace listed in the comments here might address some of your concern.

  6. Okay, let's see if I'm getting it... communitas can be as simple as being a part of the worship team in a church, or say being the young adult rockers within the worship team who serves both the greater church community by leading worship for the sunday am crowd and then rocking out for the Friday pm crowd or even doing a gig at a local coffee joint (thus combining community & mission).
    If that is what you are suggesting, then there are 1000`s of local assemblies already doing this (my own included). Somehow that doesn`t seem to be where you are headed though...

    Just to be clear, I am a working stiff and my involvement with my local church has been strictly voluntary (average 5hrs wk, when we did the YA rock gigs 15+ hrs wk).
    I view the desire to serve the Church as giving it leadership, leadership being defined as giving self to serve and therefore encourage others to do the same. Leadership not being the same as management or authority or headship.
    So I would suggest that everyone who interacts on your blog in varied ways has a more acute sense of the Church and by participating here is demonstrating that even in their 'just-doin-church' way they actually take it more seriously then the guy down the pew (who doesn't think about church but just does his/her religious duty).

    But I'm willing to be wrong ;0

    I support the idea of common goals within communitas as long as communitas is happening within a community with a far less demanding set of parameters (or maybe said better... perimeters).