Community is about People

I think a lot about community because I’ve facilitated them for over 30 years and now I run an online one called The Lasting Supper. So, it’s always been a practical problem for me and not just a theoretical one. However, I’m always thinking about community in an attempt to try to understand what makes it healthy and functional rather than toxic and dysfunctional.

In 2012 I wrote a book, Without a Vision My People Prosper, that is a compilation of all my posts and cartoons that explored this idea of community up to that time. I was specifically interested in how it applied to the church. Bonhoeffer’s development of the idea of community in his important book, Life Together… that visionary thinking in the church can actually destroy community… was a very influential idea that pressed me to explore it and even experiment with it in my own local churches.

I made some interesting discoveries and have come to what I hope are helpful conclusions that may benefit others. I’d like to share these thoughts with you.

There is a lot of confusion happening in the church when it comes to community because I believe we are confusing what it’s for.

I believe the strongest community is about the people. There are other things community can be for and I’m going to talk about those. But I claim these other things move further out from people as the center, thus weakening the strength and even jeopardizing the health of the community.

Here are the other things community can be gathered around besides people:

Proposition: a community can gather around shared ideas, values, or beliefs.

Purpose: a community can gather around a common mission.

Product: a community can gather around a valued product and productions… that is, what it manifests, its style, ethos, services, etcetera.

So let’s consider a church as an example of a community that might be experiencing some confusion. The church is made up of a collection of people. They are gathered around shared beliefs. Their common mission is to evangelize and bring more people in to this community. The product they value is their interpretation and application of the gospel which translates into their praxis, style, membership, church attendance, volunteerism, and financial support.

The confusion begins when the leadership of the church assumes that the collection of people is homogenous, that they actually all do share beliefs one hundred percent of the time, that they really do want to evangelize and bring in new members, and that they all always want to come to church, enjoy its style, volunteer, and support it financially in the way it hopes and even expects. From my experience and observation, this is rarely if ever true. What actually comprises the community is a wide diversity of people who each possess a bewildering array of beliefs rarely constant or consistent. Most people do not want to be evangelists but are legitimately more interested in themselves, their family, and their friends. Finally, most members do not measure up to the church’s ideal and lofty expectations it exerts upon its people. Church communities are rarely homogenous but usually very diverse, even if secretly. They are rarely outward looking but usually inward looking. They are rarely composed of high functioning, faithful, generous, sacrificial members, but are usually comprised of very normal folk just looking for a place to belong, believe, and be blessed.

pic2The confusion amplifies when the leadership emphasizes one of these three over the people. That is, when a church insists that the community gathers around its theology (propositions), or that it gathers around its mission (purpose), or that it gathers around its ethos and style, etcetera (products), then it will never experience the richness that true community can bring when it gathers around the person.

Confusion is guaranteed because any member at any time may question the community’s beliefs, doubt the community’s mission, and reject the community’s products. Normally, then, when this happens, the member must finally come to a decision to fall back in line or leave, to conform or depart. The community gathered around proposition, purpose, and product cannot abide these things being challenged. This only makes sense. Of course, when the people are gathered around these things, these must take precedence over the person, and therefore it’s the person who must be sacrificed when they collide.pic3

We can compare this phenomenon to any business or organization.

If a person is a member of, say, the National Rifle Association but eventually comes to a place where he no longer agrees with its ideology, then it would only make sense for him to quit.

If a person is a member of the military but finally concludes that its mission to subdue and subject the citizens of its target country is morally wrong, then it would only make sense for him to resign.

If a person is an employee of an pharmaceutical company but no longer believes in and can no longer with good conscience work for the company, then it would only make sense for her to move on.

The very same thing happens in many churches that are gathered around shared beliefs, a common mission, or what it produces. When members can no longer abide by these, then it would only make sense for them to conform or leave.

Here’s the question I have always asked and experimented with: What if the community was gathered around the people? What if people were the center of the community, rather than theology, mission, or what it produces? What if, in fact, the theology, mission, and products of the community were expressions of the community that benefited the people within it? Wouldn’t, then, diversity be encouraged and embraced? Wouldn’t missions be more organic, indigenous, spontaneous, and occasional? Wouldn’t what the community produces be more expressive of the community as it is rather than what we wish it to be? Then, wouldn’t these graciously serve the members of the community? If people, and the love of the people, was at the center, then all these things would mean to serve the people and never dominate, exploit, or coerce them. What the community believed, did, and produced would be more volitional and natural rather than forced and fake.

pic4I’ve come to believe that you cannot enjoy the strongest expression of community consistently when either proposition, purpose, or product, is at the center, but only when people are. You may enjoy moments when the priority of people and proposition, purpose, or product intersect, but this will be rarely, because if these three externals aren’t expressions of the community but instead are the heart of the community, then the people will suffer for their sakes. The people become expendable at the service of these things.

People can experience an incredible sense of community around an idea. For example, like many churches do, a shared belief in the imminent return of Christ can be an incredibly binding experience. But what happens when this hope, this glue that has held the people together, is dashed? The sense of community is threatened and even destroyed. Or, like a church who’s mission is to be the most effective at church growth in town… the members have been gathered around this common goal. But once this goal becomes unachievable because of other competing churches who are growing while it is not, what happens to the strong sense of community that drove these people before? Or like the church gathered around its products… the way it does church? What happens to people when this changes and who no longer agree with the direction the church is going or question the way the church is functioning or start getting bored? They must quit because the church’s life comes first.

But, if love is the glue that binds us together (and this includes mutual respect, grace, kindness, patience, and the dignity of each person), then even when the theology, mission, and expressions of this community change or are questioned, then this can be an expected challenge in the life of the community, an occasional transition and change the community sometimes endures. But, the community is willing to because these changes are always in the interest of the community and each person within it.

I realize the fear is that if we don’t keep our theological propositions central and firm, if we don’t maintain focus on our purpose, vision and mission, if we don’t nurture the what the church produces in terms of its persona and style, and we insist that people are the center of the community, then all those things would suffer. I claim that when we place people at the center, the community’s propositions, purpose, and products, can be fluid, constantly open to change in the healthy best interest of the people.

It’s when these other things, which I call secondary, fluidly rotate around the community as its manifestations and expressions, that the people experience the richness that community can offer.

Impossible? No! I must share what I’ve experimented with in communities and still do with my online community The Lasting Supper. What if loving the people were central, the proposition of the community was that every person deserves to be loved, the purpose of the community was to love all, and the product of the community was loving real people in practical ways that would translate into the mutual respect and dignity of each person along with the equality of the rights and freedoms of all people?

What if? I’ve seen it happen. I see it happen every day. And it’s beautiful when it does.

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12 Responses

  1. Adam Julians says:

    After what you I wrote about conforming or being cast out, what you write about rejecting products and either conforming or leaving is music to my ears.

    At the same time I can’t get away from an authentic approach to evangelism. In the sense of good news, isn’t this what I, you and everyone needs in the light of what we experience and see reported in the news and media?

    So people and love agreed in principle which answers the question what the world needs now is love sweet love (thanks for the reminder Burt Baccarach) :-).

    So what about the how? Surely we need both creative people and practical, both heart and mind United?

  2. I hoped I would be clear that I didn’t want to put a value on any kind of community no matter what they’re gathered around. What I wanted to suggest is that the richest experience of community is when it is about people, not the other things.

  3. At first I had a knee-jerk reaction of criticizing the apparent absurdity of placing people as somehow different and separate from propositions, purpose and product. Then I sat back and thought some more and realized the initial reaction was based on the very assumptions people have who lead groups based solely on those things. Yes, people have propositions, purposes and are invested in products. Further, to even consider people is to engage in, to varying degrees of conscious appraisal, propositionalizing in the form of a worldview. In other words, people are viewed via the lens of belief in a particular nature, proclivities, etc. The mistake is not in having any of these thoughts, they’re quite inevitable. No, the mistake is in thinking that any of these thoughts encompass the whole of a person or humanity. Hence why people should be at the center, it removes them, not from consideration of those three things, but from being narrowly defined as being only about one of those things. If community is about engagement, which I believe is a central point here, then actively engaging with life means propositions will change, products will come and go and purposes will expand, contract and shift. To focus on any one those to the exclusion of all else is to force a limitation that is antithetical the expansive joy of healthy community.

    Nicely done, David. Thank you.

  4. Adam Julians says:

    Yes I hear that about value on community basted on what the community is gathered around. I have a few different communities I belong to centred on dancing, skiing, creative writing, comedy, meditation and church and then friends and family that are not parts of any of these communities.

    What I hear is with it being about people – it not being about being like the Borg in Star Trek – losing your own identity and being consumed by the identity of the community to be part of it.

    I probably would identify with you with people but then I would describe myself as a people person. I want to leave room for people to be as valued for what they bring if they are, say, practical people or interested in tasks that benefit a community too.

    If you know the track “Hemispheres” by the Canadian rock band Rush then that’s where I’m coming from in needing both heart and mind in unity.

  5. Thanks David. Yes. This is not to diminish these things or degrade them. I’m pointing out what makes the richest community experience… the most direct experience of loving and being loved in and of itself… from which these other things radiate.

    Down with the Borg!

  6. Absolutely! I’m reminded a bit of Ken Wilber’s integral theory with the four quadrants of the human experience. I’ve connected it to my theory on relational dynamics but it definitely runs along your notion of community quite nicely. Without an appreciation for the person as a person, from which all else is derived, community becomes stale. Up with healthy expansion!

  7. Oh yes! Wilbur. Great connection! Thanks David.

  8. Caryn LeMur says:

    Hi David. Good text, by all means. I think it was your use of a Venn diagram that threw me a bit off.

    I noticed that you stated: “It’s when these other things, which I call secondary, fluidly rotate around the community as its manifestations and expressions, that the people experience the richness that community can offer.”

    May I offer that a diagram that emphasized a solar system would work better? I believe you are arguing that people are at the center of gravity, and that all other things should rotate around the people.

    I do not think you are arguing that ‘people’ should only operate within the overlap of Purpose, Products, and Propositions – that is, the Venn diagram is used for showing the best ‘combination’ (or overlap) rather than the object that has the greatest gravity.

  9. Yes Caryn. I would agree somewhat. But purposes, propositions, and products, are indeed OF the community… manifestations OF the community… the people… so I didn’t want them to appear as separated. But I need to think more about your idea. This whole thought process is in development. Thanks.

  10. Caryn LeMur says:

    May I offer that, in a deep emotional sense, we are offering ‘corporate culture suicide’ to other organizations? And that is why they cannot agree with your theory?

    Take the Vineyard Church. Their intense desire to experience god within their own self (via gifts, prophecy, what have you) is one of their purposes. To see their organization as part of the ‘kingdom of God’ invading enemy territory (like establishing a beachhead during a war) is one of their propositions. And their music is a lovely product that they can share or sell to the world.

    But underneath this p3 view are the human issues of power, achievement/status, and peer approval. [using Murray/McClelland’s model]

    I offer that these issues are the deeper (and often uglier) reality that drives a church institution.

    When the people are put first, then pastoral and board power must be given up and the vision of the (current) people (of this year) must be followed. Who is now ‘running this church’?

    When the people are put first, then our achievement is not measured in attendees, but in number of vulnerable expressions met by equally vulnerable disclosures. There is no ‘achievement’ or ‘status’ when all people are equally human — now, the pastor is no longer on a pedestal and the elders are admired only for being human and struggling like all of us.

    When the people are put first, then there is only peer approval from the wounded people that were helped… if at all…. But this is not something easily measured by the regional director or national headquarters.

    Community is a living and evolving creature … a corpse is dead. One cannot easily measure a living and evolving creature … but one can dissect a corpse to incredible detail.

    To embrace ‘people’ as the center of gravity is like embracing the changing wind as the center of gravity. I know that Jesus mentioned this approach in John 3…. nonetheless, in my current thinking, the reality is that churches are run based on the uglier motives disguised as products, propositions, and purposes, and with the makeup of the scriptures applied on top of it all.

    We are offering ‘corporate culture suicide’ when a church considers your model for community (or other models, for that matter).

    The only person that can dare embrace models of community are those willing to give up power, achievement, and peer approval.

    After all, when we offer a person (in reality) demotion to the level of the lowest, no measure of achievement, and approval only from the poor — all for the sake of life-giving community to others – – we are making the same offer a Certain Man made to all of us 2,000 years ago.

    And ‘except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone’ has been ignored many, many times.

  11. Yes Caryn I totally totally agree. I know this is why most churches won’t accept this model and even can’t. It’s suicidal to the system they know. I do realize this. I’ve even experienced it. I began thinking about this many, many years ago and started writing about it on my blog. Those posts usually received the hardest comeback from pastors.

  12. Adam Julians says:

    I hear what you say about ‘corporate culture suicide’ Caryn – that seems not too different to the “death to the Borg”.

    Can I suggest that in the midst of what we talk about with love and being centred on people we have this age old problem of human nature in that ALL of us like to feel powerful, secure and approved of. So yes that seed must die for fruit to be produced or at least held onto lightly.

    This is true for any human. and institution or ideology etc.

    So then, human love comes under the same kind of imperfection as human institutions and it takes something other than that.

    If one or an institution is to die to self, one/it needs something else to trust in.