Communitas and Mission in Liberal Congregations

Unitarian Universalist congregations are generally mission-less.  Many of our congregations have a defining characteristic in common.  They have no discernible mission other than to be a gathering place for like-minded people.  Church has become an oasis, a refuge, and an escape. The most pressing work of the church has become maintaining an institution and a physical plant so that there is a place to gather.  Most of our churches have, in fact, become quite adept at this.  Unfortunately the community they create is not very generative. The congregation may do a wonderful job at maintaining a space for like minded people to gather, but two things are generally true of these groups: they are closed, insular circles and they do little that deeply involves them in or has any meaningful impact on, the world around them.

Groups with a definable, discernible mission find that they do not experience community so much as communitas.  Communitas is a social construct in which people grow bonded to each other through the experience of liminality, risk, adventure and engaging a common mission.  Christian church planter and missional consultant Alan Hirsch explains communitas as:

“a Community formed in the face of an ordeal, a challenge, a task, a mission that requires each player to find each other in a new significant ways in order to get the job done. Friends become comrades, team players, and they rely on and interact with each other in new ways.”

Communitas is an idea that comes from British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner and his work on symbols and rituals and cultural rites of passage ceremonies.  Turner thought communitas was indispensable to societies.  Communitas tends to eliminate rank, power, categories, division and other social separators to focus on the experience of being human. This, after all, is James Luther Adams’ explanation of church – a place where we practice being human.  Communitas begs to be the normative organizing paradigm of liberal churches. Communitas provides anti-structure – an alternative pattern of relationships, symbols and cultural characteristics.  This trait also makes communitas a good fit for liberal congregations who pride themselves on being progressive, but in many cases are now just defenders and practitioners of the cultural matrix and values of our dominant corporate culture.

A fascinating characteristic of communitas is that you can’t set out to create it. Communitas is generated by the act of engaging a risky journey together and a willingness to experience the transforming quality of inhabiting liminal space together as the group figures out why it exists and then gets to work on fleshing out the mission they have discovered.  Some well-known examples of a community creating communitas on a risky journey include:

  • The Fellowship of the Ring in the Lord of the Rings triology
  • Thorin Oakenshield’s company in The Hobbit
  • The Israelites on the Exodus from Egypt
  • The crew of (the various incarnations of) The Enterprise on Star Trek
  • Dorothy and Crew in the Wizard of Oz
  • Kermit and Fuzzy and the crew of Muppets in the Muppet Movie
  • The Breakfast Club

In each of these stories, there is group of people (or Muppets  or elves or dwarves) who are thrown together by circumstance or choice.  The fact they are on a journey together doesn’t create a special type of community described as communitas. What creates the communitas is the shared adventure, the trials and tribulations they experience, navigate and survive together, and the goal or mission of their quest.

When the five students in the film The Breakfast Club find themselves in Saturday detention together one morning, they are virtually unknown to each other.  By the end of the day they are intimates, having overcome the school’s vice-principal, and their own fears and insecurities to forge a bond that helps them navigate the waters of the rapids of adolescence.

When a varied assortment of men, hobbits, elves, dwarves, and a wizard leave Rivendell in the first book of the Lord of the Rings, the only thing they have in common is defeat of a common enemy.  Some of them actively dislike each other and it’s ONLY the presence of a common enemy that can compel them to have anything to do with each other.  The dangerous adventure they undertake not only breaks down these barriers but makes best of friends of sworn enemies (Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf).  There is no guarantee they will survive the journey, in fact, it is almost assured they will not. The odds are long against them completing their task, but it is the danger, the risk, and the need to work together that creates the bond of communitas among them.

What about a congregation? A congregation with a concrete mission has taken on a task and an adventure which can create a bond of communitas among those involved.  A faith community committing itself to an important mission creates the environment for communitas to develop.  Not all missions will do this.  Many of our congregations have an implied mission to be a gathering place for like-minded people.  There is little risk or adventure in this.  In order for a mission to be able to create an environment in which communitas can develop, there needs to be the very real possibly that the group might FAIL in its mission.  The Fellowship of the Ring had no guarantee they would succeed, quite the opposite. All the members of Frodo’s band assumed they were on a fool’s errand, a last ditch desperate attempt to stop the evil consolidating power in the east.  The five students in the Breakfast Club have no guarantee that each of their tentative attempts to be vulnerable and share deeply would create any bond at all with anyone.  The crew of the Enterprise had as its mission to go where no one had gone before.  There has to be an assumption in such a situation that you might not return  alive.

Goals worth achieving are worth risking failure to achieve.  Yet all too often, a faith community will do nothing unless they can almost guarantee a positive outcome at the outset.  Playing it safe very often does, in fact, makes us feel safe, but it comes at the expense of growth, learning, having powerful transformative experiences, and making a measurable impact on the world.

Perhaps one of the reasons so many congregations are mired in dysfunctional systemic dynamics is a lack of communitas.  It’s not uncommon for a small cohort of people to grab hold of power in a congregation and never let go.  Although communitas doesn’t completely eliminate power differential, it certainly minimizes it.  The five students in the Breakfast Club begin their Saturday in a decided social hierarchy common to many high schools with star athletes and richer students at the top and the more socially awkward, nerdy, and poorer students at the bottom.  By the end of the day, they are all more or less on the same, level field as peers.

Communities develop norms and rules that exist to maintain the status quo.  They react strongly against things, be they ideas or structures, that seem to threaten what already exists. Change therefore becomes something to fear.  Communitas can only arise in an atmosphere where a group has agreed that their journey together will change them. Communitas sees change as a spiritual practice.  Communitas exists to discover what is needed and to find ways to make it happen. Communitas is a risky adventure experienced together. Community, as comforting as it can sometimes be, is being together with others in a prescribed manner that is experienced alone.

Communitas is, by its nature and definition, a community formed in the middle of a risky adventure, but church life has ceased being an adventure.  Alan Hirsch explains what many church leaders and consultants already know:

“Churches are very risk averse. They are not places you normally associate with adventure. If you want to achieve something beyond the status quo you have to reach outside the status quo. We have cultivated a safety awareness and a middle class obsession with safety and security.”

Understanding communitas and seeking to create the environment that makes it possible will help liberal congregations focus on mission. First, we must be willing to take risks and go on adventures.  Scary, yes, but worth it.  After all, if Frodo and company don’t have the guts to start out from Rivendell, then not only does evil win, but there is no more story.  Because our congregations have become guardians of the status quo, there is little interest in creating new stories, going on new adventures, or relating to each other (other church members) or the world in new ways that form a comradeship or a team out of a community.

In order to create the environment that enables communitas to develop, our congregations need to become more pliable, more flexible, more open to adventure, more resilient, and more willing to adopt change as a spiritual practice.  I’ll discuss resilience and change as spiritual practice next time.

4 thoughts on “Communitas and Mission in Liberal Congregations

  1. After Ron posted links I have been mulling over your posts. I find them dynamite except am puzzled by broad generalizations you use in discussing UU congregations. Your experiences of UU churches and mine have been very different. The one’s I’m most familiar with have inspired people to step far outside their comfortable boxes to investigate and bring about change.

    1. Hi Cathey,

      I think it’s great that your experience of UU Churches is different than mine. My general experience is that UU churches are insular, fearful, little clubs mired in systemic dysfunction to the point that congregational life is an ongoing drama dealing with conflict and petty concerns, meanwhile no great change is affected for the better in the world or in the members. That is why I have made mission my mission. My experience is that congregations are not places that inspire people to step outside their comfort zones to investigate and bring about change – if they were then all this mission stuff would be irrelevant as congregations would already be doing these things. My experience is that UU congregations fight change like the plague, they are dens of the status quo and even changing the proverbial paint color on the youth room wall sends them into a tail spin from which they take years to recover. I wish it were not so, but that’s been my experience. I am happy you seem to encountered some churches who have grown beyond this. It is my experience that these types of places are the rare exception not the norm. I would consider yourself considerably blessed.

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