I said to Jim, before he introduced me, I was not a presenter, I was a “remarker”. I still think of this word more as a matter of trying to get the conversation started, not that I come with any expert stuff that has been tested out fifteen times over, but some thoughts. Even some of what I want to share with you are things that I have borrowed, with permission, from a friend of mine.
Here in our own gathering, in this place, for the past two days, there is a growing sense of good will. There is a sense of wanting to be here, to remain here, feeling good about being here, at least good enough to not want to get on the next plane flying out in the next five minutes. A sense of participation and, to that extent, a sense of buying into what’s happening, or at least participating in it. On some level there’s a community that’s begun to gather. Here we are beginning a journey together. Whether the journey will continue beyond this point, or end we don’t know, but at least we begin together. It seems to me that underlying all of that is the sense of a desire for connection, connecting, rather than orbiting as little individuals scattered through lots of space. We notice wanting to touch base with each other (and I do mean a physical touching to some extent), having a face-to-face on some level with other human beings, finding some level on which to relate rather than to be alone. We think we think of ourselves as part of church, whether we think of ourselves as part of a progressive church or otherwise.
We have before us a model, the man named Jesus. I am always struck by the fact that, before he began his ministry he started a community. He went out and gathered people around him to work with him, to share with him a journey. I think that also is a piece of our own identity, that sense of wanting to connect together, to be gathered, and to work with others. That in itself is a kind of radical statement in this day and in this time where we are a society that continues to hold up and worship the idea of rugged individualism. The sense of “I did it”. That is a radical statement, to say that you want to share with another, share the power, share authority, share the load as opposed to taking it all on yourself. When we do that, we call that, community. There are other names for it I am sure, but at least one that we commonly use is that of community.
I want to open up the discussion about community by sharing with you eight characteristics of community that I have borrowed from the doctoral work of a friend of mine named Berit Lakey, Ph.D. Then I want to make a couple of comments about them, or elaborate on them a little bit.
First, she says, a community has relationships that are characterized by interdependence as a first statement. It seems to me that when we think about that we’re saying that there’s a recognition of a need for another, and you’re not a solo person, you’re not a lone ranger. There is also an acknowledgment of not being able to do it alone. You need help. What I do, it seems to me, or what I don’t do, what I say, or what I don’t say, has some impact on somebody else. It’s not me in my little cave by myself, but it has impact. I recognize that there is a certain level of independence. We are also impacted by what others say or don’t say, do or don’t do. And so, to some extent, whether you like it or not, you are always in some kind of community because you’re being impacted by what someone says, doesn’t say, does or doesn’t do. But we also must recognize that if we are interdependent we are also vulnerable. There is risk involved in saying, “I can’t do it all.” Risk in saying, “I need.” The risk we take is that we may not get what we want or what we hoped for, or what we expect. We risk being disappointed. We risk not finding someone present for us when we would like it. If there is an interdependence of relationships, it seems to me then that there is an accountability. There is, within that, a sense in which I can be held accountable by those with whom I share community. I hold myself accountable to that community and I can also hold the community accountable, if we are in this together.
A second characteristic that Berit describes is that community has a sense of common history; it is continuous and it expects a future continuity. So it has come from some place, is some place (not in the geographic sense), and it expects to continue. There is not necessarily a rigidity about that. There could be some fluidity in that. People can come and go but there is a sense that you will go on. You will not die.
The third characteristic that Berit describes is that a community is a context for development and reconciliation of diverse agendas, and the commitment by its members to deal with the conflict that may, indeed, arise out of these diverse agendas in order that they will reach a common goal. Lots of assumptions tied up in that. But it does say that there have been some experiences that are shared, some history that you are certainly continuing to create, out of that history, out of your own experience, the community itself also spurs the development of ideas and thoughts and, in that sense, is helping individuals to grow. As the community grows its members will be at different places in their own growth, and the community’s agenda at a given point in time will differ. But the community also encourages and furthers that possibility. In seeking to reconcile what may be separated within, the community speaks to the accountability of the members own behavior as well as the community’s behavior. The fact that there is a commitment to reconciliation when there is conflict, and/or a diversity of agendas, says that there is a willingness to stay with it and not leave the community. It may not be comfortable, but you don’t leave it. You stay and struggle with it. You wrestle with it because there is something larger than your own individual agendas within the group. That is an agreed upon, mutually agreed upon, common goal. To place it in another context, I would say that for Christian community a common goal is the spread of the Kingdom. If we buy that, then we must struggle through our diverse agendas in order that we can achieve that which we agreed to be our purpose and goal, the spread of the Kingdom.
A fourth characteristic is that a community assumes common identity and confers that identity on its members, giving its members a sense of collective awareness. I think this point, in particular, seems to be related to this morning’s discussion around prophecy. We talked about aspects of prophecy and attempted to give definition. In the course of that discussion, someone talked about his own sense of “getting off on violence” and having to come to grips with that, if he, indeed, were going to be a peacemaker. Then he made a statement which I challenged. His statement was, “Come on, now, we ALL feel that way.” Then he indicated that even in literature class, e.g. the story of Achilles when he carries the bloodied body across the battle ground, we all “got off on it”. The fact that we read that literature, was for him an example that his reaction was true for everybody and has been true historically. I challenged that statement. That was not my history, that was not where I began with literature, and, “no”, I did not “get off on violence”. I raised that as an example to demonstrate that, while we may have a common identity, we cannot assume that our personal experiences can be universalized. We have a tendency to do that. In this country, people in power, people with privilege–and more often than not that is European Americans–tend to generalize from where they stand as if the rest of the world sees things the way they do, and they do not. So it is making room within the life of the community, within the context of a common identity, for difference that is key. We may have arrived at that community by different routes, different pathways, but the things that are experienced on the journey are valid for the individual and may bring value to the life of the community.
The fifth characteristic of community that Berit describes is that it fosters growth and development of its members and helps them to create meaning and coherence in the members’ lives. I think that speaks to the existence of a collective responsibility, if you will, for all of us in community to help each other to grow and to become, not into identities the community would proscribe for us, but (and this, I think, is a big “but” because it calls for faith), into whom we have been called to become. That is a continual, evolving process. With the help of the community we may be able to find out more and more about that. Listening for clues about who that may be and how that growth may happen for us. The community has some responsibility, and the individual within the community has some responsibility, to call the community to keep to the task of facilitating mutual growth.
A sixth characteristic is for a community to be in existence it requires communication. It need not always be face to face, for you can have community with people who are in lots of different geographical locations, but there is a requirement that you communicate with one another. To not communicate is to operate on a set of assumptions that have never been verified. There is arrogance and pride in that. Often, as community grows and its members become more comfortable being a part of it, identifying as part of that entity, there is a sense in which we begin to take the community for granted. We make certain assumptions and often don’t check them out. When we don’t do that, we may cause unintentional injury to another. We are accountable to the community for that, as the community must, indeed, be accountable to the individual members for injuring them, even if unintentionally. If it is unintentional, we need to be called on it so that it can be responded to, at least, in a positive way.
A seventh characteristic of community is that it may occasion strong feelings of joy and exuberance when its members recognize the connectedness they feel to each other and to the community, but it isn’t required. You know we often get into a community and we expect it to “feel good” all the time, and when it doesn’t feel good we attempt to leave it. When we become uncomfortable, when we are feeling terribly vulnerable and may have some of our actions or words called into account or questioned, we are more comfortable leaving. So, while it’s wonderful to feel the joy it is not a requirement in order to say that community exists.
Finally, community is a dynamic process that requires an openness to new influences in order for that community to continually be able to respond to the needs of its members. I think it is a fallacy to assume that once you’re in a community, you can close it off and that everyone in the community without any fresh air can always meet your changing needs. It seems to me, in a progressive church, to close the circle is not to be progressive, but it is to be insulated. Community is that dynamic process which has a moving out and a moving in, not rigid lines that either imprison its members or lock other people out.
Having these eight characteristics in place with a consciousness and intentionality speaks to the question of inclusiveness and making community a place for people to come, to be who they are and not to play, as someone said earlier, “shadow games”. If we are to be real in community, then the persons themselves must be able to come in the fullness of who they are and to have a sense of being cared for as they are, and not as the community may want them to be. Finally, to be able to recruit is to be community as I have described it. A community is a model of invitation, a model of invitation that has that has openness, accountability, and vulnerability as foundational in its structure.