I remember being asked in seminary to play guitar at a Friday night gathering. I was told that in doing so that I would be making an offering to the “community”. I didn’t have a clue what that meant. I was at school to figure out the meaning of life and to discover what Jesus was on about. As the father of a newborn who didn’t sleep much, and a steakhouse waiter by night, I didn’t have time or energy for “community”. Okday, there is a serious dose of narcissism, born of survival, in this story, I admit. But this word “community” seemed to me to be a buzzword that didn’t actually mean much in practice.
As I look back on twenty-seven years of congregational ministry, it still doesn’t mean much as far as I can see. We churchy people would like to talk about community—from the national level down to the congregational level—but you know what? It’s an ideal that I don’t see being realized. Or maybe a more generous way of saying this is that the bar for what constitutes community is pretty low. In fact, in my travels around North America and Australia, I would say that congregations are mostly a collection of individuals and/or families who have their real lives some place else—leaving their suburban silos for a church meeting or a Sunday morning service, and then returning to their separate lives. Church is a sideshow, a place where you get a little bit of “spirituality” and some “values” for the children.
Authentic community involves risk. It must cost you something, and I’m not speaking here about a tax-deductible charitable donation. Everybody is basically involved primarily in the economic project of ensuring some kind of security for one’s own. This takes two incomes in our age, and the vast majority of our life energy. Yes, friendships are forged at church. Yes, good things get done for the world. But at the end of the day, nobody is really asked to put much on the line. Unlike indigenous village life, our lives don’t actually depend on each other. We’ll be just fine on our own. In fact, isn’t that the very definition of success in North American culture?
Let’s stop assuming that a collection of individuals constitutes community. It doesn’t. In fact, it usually makes for disaster, as evidenced by the number of conflict resolution experts who are making their living off congregational members who are at each other’s throats. It’s not the fault of congregational members. We need to be teaching what it means to be in community, and that includes practices that are going to make us fit for community. Most of us got our training for community life in dysfunctional families. The moment anything approximating intimacy breaks out in congregations most people simply re-enact largely the unexamined history of our family of origin.
What’s to be done? Church culture, or any culture for that matter, is forged in a set of either unconscious or, ideally, conscious agreements about how we intend to show up with and for each other. Below, I describe a set of seven agreements for intentionally developing what I call an emergent or evolutionary spiritual culture. (I also teach the practices, but they are beyond the scope of this article.)
As preparation for these it is imperative that people be given the skills to regulate their own nervous systems. In the Secret Life of Babies, author and cranial-sacral therapist, Dr. Mia Kalef, refers to this as the competency to shift out of the hormones that cause to contract under stress (the cortical axis) to the hormones associated with a feeling of well being and expanded consciousness (the oxytocin axis). Getting triggered is beyond our control. What we do with the feelings is not. Under any kind of perceived threat, hormones that turn us into reptiles or mammals under siege flood us. Until people can take responsibility for managing their own nervous systems, any hope of civilized community is futile. This is why church congregations too often end up being sources of suffering, rather than living the life of Christ in community.
This is a very brief summary of the agreements:
Listen for the Crackle of the New: We commit to listening to our own bodies as sources of intuitive wisdom, and when listening to others, we tune in to hear behind and under the words to the energy field of the speaker. In the midst of all this, we keep an ear out for the new thing Spirit wants to emerge.
Speak True Words: We commit to speaking from a place of deep truth, which in an evolutionary paradigm, more often than not means suspending yesterday’s wisdom and stories, for what belongs to this very moment, and to this unique person and/or group. We allow our intuition to inform our speaking. Our truest words will always be a response to sacred Wisdom as it arises within and between. Speaking our truth is not to be confused with speaking the truth. In an evolutionary culture, our sentences should always end in …, or etc. rather than with a period.
Steward Spaciousness: We commit to knowing directly when we are in a state of contraction and when we’re in a state of expansion. When our body, mind, and heart are in a contracted state we will always be operating and making decisions from a past memory. The new future that wants to emerge can only happen from a condition of expansion.
Fail Bravely: We commit to understanding that in an evolutionary worldview failure is simply information feedback. We welcome feedback about how we are showing up knowing that this is not about our ego, but about our direct participation in the evolution of the universe. Failure is like our inner GPS system that tells us when we’ve made a wrong turn and non-judgmentally corrects our course.
Face Crisis as Opportunity: We celebrate that the universe is a great teacher, and that much of that teaching comes through personal and collective crisis. Furthermore, we operate from the wisdom that in an evolutionary paradigm, the crisis itself is a new birth. The crisis provokes the emergence of new and necessary intelligences required to transcend the crisis and be the new thing Spirit is doing in the world.
Take Responsibility, Receive Freedom: In times of crisis and conflict, we take 100% responsibility for the condition of our life, regardless of circumstances. While we know that this is not absolutely true, assuming this catapults us from the position of victim, to a deep inquiry about how we can both learn from and take responsibility for the life conditions that are facing us. We give up blame and shame. By taking radical responsibility for our life conditions we discover true freedom.
Hold Nothing Back: Surrender to Grace As the presence of the universe in human form, we realize that we are expressions of an immense, intense, and intimate creativity. This dynamism constitutes a natural grace that we may participate directly in by committing ourselves to consciously creating the conditions in our lives to amplify this creativity and live with maximum vitality. In an evolutionary paradigm this is to have the “same mind (and heart) that was in Christ Jesus”.
Bruce Sanguin is the author of five books. You can download a free copy of his latest book, The Advance of Love at www.brucesanguin.com. He is launching his new on-line site, Home for Evolving Mystics (mid-March), where he will teach a webinar on The Seven Agreements of An Emergent Culture.