Friday, August 3, 2007

Dingy & Musty

The door slammed behind them, driven by the wind perhaps, or else the seedy wharf-side tavern itself had a strong disaffection to natural light entering it’s questionable environs.

“Dingy and musty, a haven for the nefarious,” opined the Younger, as he took in the sights and smells of the establishment.

“Not so loud,” cautioned the Elder. “The local clientele may not appreciate your literary wit as much as I do.”

They exchanged conspiratorial smiles and threaded their way through the crowded tavern to order their drinks, the Younger momentarily stymied by the unfamiliar assortment of ales proffered. As per their earlier agreement, of course, the Younger paid.


Once they had found a place to sit, in a shadowy booth near the back of the establishment, they continued their conversation from the street.

“You still haven’t convinced me,” began the Younger, ever the skeptic, “that a flat leadership structure is such a good idea.”

“Excuse me -- did I really say flat, or was it flattened?” countered the Elder.

The Younger made a sour face, either in response to the Elder’s question or possibly the unexpected taste of the unfamiliar ale. “You’re not going to start playing semantics with me, are you?”

A small group of rowdies, obviously enjoying some comrade-time after a long day of work, stumbled past their table, at once merry and bawdy. The Elder seemed barely to notice their passage as he responded.

“It’s an important distinction.” A pause for another sip of ale. “There’s really no such thing as a totally ‘flat’ — or ‘leader-less’ — group. Every group has a leader. It’s more a matter of how many unnecessary or redundant layers of leadership there are, that get in the way of the rest of the gathering actually participating. So, I’m all for flattened leadership, but I don’t believe in flat leadership.”

The Younger frowned and studied the dark liquid before him before answering. "But I’ve heard quite a few people talking about their gatherings as being completely ‘round table’, following the leading of the Spirit alone. Are you saying they’re lying, or possibly delusional?”

“I wouldn’t put it in those exact terms,” laughed the Elder, raising his hands in mock surrender. “They’re probably quite sincere in their desire for such a group, but it simply doesn’t exist.”

“Well, then, I guess it’s my turn to play ‘devil’s advocate’,” grinned the Younger, tossing his napkin down on the table with as much force as the thin paper product would allow. “Consider this the ‘gauntlet of challenge’, my friend. Surely there's some way of having a leaderless group that has a truly flat, repeat flat, leadership.”

The Elder gazed at the scoured wall above the back of the booth’s bench for a moment, not really seeing the faded and stained painting of a ship in high seas masquerading as ‘art’. “Yes, I suppose such a group is possible, as long as it (A) is made up of people who already have a long-standing shared history, (B) is small in number, and (C) intentionally does not allow new members to be added to the group.”

“The previously-established relationships would be more likely to safeguard the ethos of the group, and the small numbers would put relationships on a high enough premium that a certain — oh, how shall I say it? — status quo could be preserved. And by preventing the addition of outsiders, the group would be protected from people who don’t have the same shared history and concern for maintaining the relational balance, and who might introduce new ideas or direction.”

The Younger came perilously close to spewing his mouthful of ale across the booth, so shocked was his reaction. “Wow, that’s got to be the most unexpected thing I’ve heard come out of your mouth in... well, I don’t know, maybe ever,” he sputtered. “Why would you assume that new people would bring new ideas that would threaten the group? If somebody came in and tried to change the group, they would just have to be corrected. With ‘gentleness and respect’, as St. Peter said, of course.”

The Elder leaned across the table, his eyes locked with the Younger’s. “And who would do that correcting? The whole group? That would seem like over-kill, I’d think, and the newcomers would probably run for the hills.”

The Younger toyed with the rim of his glass for a moment. “Okay, point made. Somebody would have to take the responsibility to deal with it, BUT…” he also leaned across the table. “The existing group would have already agreed on the direction of the group, so he or she would be speaking on behalf of the group, not just on their own authority.” And he settled triumphantly into the creaky bench seat once again.

The Elder raised his eyebrows. “So, would we then have to assume that the original ‘vision’, if you will, of the first members of the group is binding on all who come later, and that none of the newcomers could possibly have something meaningful to contribute?”

The Younger opened his mouth to reply, thought better of it, and glanced around the booth, the nearby well-imbibed patrons, and the dimly-lit bar. Finally, with a rueful grin, he said, “I hate it when you do this.”

The Elder sighed and slumped his shoulders ever so slightly. “I’m sorry, that was more harsh than I intended. I’ve had some good friends really burnt in this area, and sometimes, like now, that affects how I say things. Forgive me?”

“Of course,” the Younger immediately replied. “I guess when it affects real, live people, it’s different than when we’re just discussing theoretical possibilities, eh?”

The Elder nodded. “We need to probably look at the impact of ministry among the poor, and how it affects the dynamics of flattened leadership as well, but let’s leave that one for later.” He smiled knowingly. “I have a feeling that might be a ‘live round of ammo’ kind of discussion as well. I’ll buy next time, of course,” he finished with a wink.

“Sounds fair,” agreed the Younger, glancing once more around the loud environs. “By the way, what are we doing here? This place is nothing like our usual spot.”

The Elder took an appreciative glance around the somewhat-less-than-trendy drinking hole. “Oh, several thousand millenia ago, when I was a college student, I used to come here after a long day at a summer job with my co-workers. This place is a good yardstick for me, whenever I start taking my ideas and myself perhaps a little too seriously.”

“How’s that? A yardstick? Are you going pre-Metric System on me again?”, asked the Younger, feigning a puzzled look as he shrugged into his jacket.

The Elder favoured him with a withering look before leaning across the table once more, his eyes now taking in the scene around them.

“Look at the people who would call this their ‘regular third place’. Do you suppose any one of them gives a rat’s patookus about modernity, postmodernity, or even calling a tavern their ‘third place’? That’s what I mean. This place reminds me not to create yet another layer of Christendom between myself and Joe Average or Jane Anybody.”

The Younger took another look at the regular patrons of the tavern, with a new sense of appreciation. “Well, at least we’re being ‘incarnational’, by being here, eh?” he quipped, as they got up to leave.

The Elder chuckled as their threaded their way back to the outside street, under the quickly-descending light of dusk. “Yes, I guess we’re more ‘authentic’ this way, but as long as our conversation in this place is on another plane of existence from the rest of the patrons, I’m not sure we're really all that much closer. But we’re getting there. Bit by bit, I really do believe we’re getting there.”

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for these posts. I hope you keep writing them.

    "I guess when it affects real, live people, it's different than when we're just discussing theoretical possibilities..." This is so true! I try my best not to simply discuss theoretical possibilities, but to consider people first. If my theoretical possibilities negatively affect the people around me, then I must be very careful. God cares about people, not my theological ideas.

    I also appreciate the end... spending time in an "authentic" location does not make us authentic. I think some followers of Christ are beginning to understand that. Being among the people does not mean moving our meetings across the street from them, it means getting involved in their lives - dingy and musty as they are - and serve them where they are.

    Thank you again.

    -Alan

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  2. Bravo!

    This place reminds me not to create yet another layer of Christendom between myself and Joe Average or Jane Anybody."

    Musing on that one... and hopefully getting there.

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  3. Yes, that was my favorite line also, and a good reminder to keep it real.

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  4. Hey Rob,

    This post brings up so many interesting discussion lines.

    In this western world, we so easily "play christianese" in our own little worlds, neighbourhoods, job sites, and think we are being effective as stewarts of Christ. The problem is that we don't get involved the peoples lives that God is calling us to speak into whether it be from fear, or apathy.

    The other issue is the one of leadership and a flattened or flat leadership structure. Spending most of my post secondary schooling in small groups - both online and in class - I can say with vast experience that a leader will always naturally appear in the group - again, both in class and online. A group cannot function without leadership of some sort whether it is fomally put in place or selected through the natural dynamics of a group put together.

    Great post Rob!

    Neil

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  5. Thanks, everyone! I'm having a great deal of fun creating this series of posts.

    The idea of being in an "authentic" location, while still being in a Christian bubble, occurred to me several years ago at the King's Head in Winnipeg -- a bunch of us met there every Monday night (the Dead Pastors Society), and one night, we overheard the conversations at nearby tables, and realized that everyone in our area was from some church, somewhere in town.

    It just struck as kinda funny that the pub was filled with Christians talking ecclesiology and theology (which I think is great), but in some bizarre way, we were still in a bubble.

    The struggle continues...

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