For the last 18 months I have interviewed or have corresponded with people who are either leading a small group or are part of a small group that meets on a regular basis for community and spiritual direction. I plan to continue to do this with more groups and in more depth. My hope is that we can gain more information from a variety of groups to see what is working and what is not. Most of the information I gained from these interviews so far comes from groups who have been meeting on a regular basis for more than a year. In a couple of cases they have been meeting for over a decade. I am certain I will be revising my thoughts on some of this but I wanted to share what I have learned so far.
There seem to be two distinct types of groups forming out there. One is primarily educational. Everyone agrees to read a book or an article usually written by a well-known scholar. They may meet once a month and discuss what they learned. They may meet weekly, go chapter by chapter and discuss the ideas in more depth. They may read something as scholarly as John Dominic Crossan or something as new age as Eckhart Tolle. For these groups the emphasis is on education and the focus is about the particular books. Most of them are interested in the changes that scholars have made in the interpretation of the Christian story.
The other type of group tends to focus on spiritual experience. They may read a book, even a scholarly book on occasion. However, they tend to be more interested in an inspirational reading or if they do use a book, it is often a book on spiritual discipline or practices. The members of these groups are more interested in their own spiritual development so they often focus on practice. They tend to meet more often. They often include a simple meal and almost always make time for guided meditation or silence together.
In both cases true community can develop simply by being together as an intentional community as long as there is opportunity for open discussion and sharing. However, the groups that have formed for the explicit purpose of spiritual experience appear to deal with the challenges of sharing and openness. I believe they are both a necessary part of true or sacred community by definition. I refer here to the willingness to be vulnerable ultimately leading to greater intimacy and connectedness. That same willingness to be vulnerable allows us to see the divine or sacred in the other. And that can only happen when there is mutual trust among the participants. (See last month’s article.) http://progressivechristianity.org/resources/community-making/
There is one other caveat. The groups primarily gathering for spiritual experience tend to meet more often and appear to have longer lives as a group. I will try and watch that data for future reporting.
There are things I was able to mine from the respondents that seem to be common to all the groups who consider themselves successful. I will list them briefly:
1. There needs to be some basic organization and some agreements about why you are there, what is your purpose and how will you settle differences. It is helpful to put these on paper and review them on a regular basis. It helps when someone new wants to join the group.
2. There has to be some system of leadership. This may not be an inspiring teacher or what might have been the agreed upon figure head. But it is the one who deals with the calendar, follows up with emails, and makes certain someone is going to have a plan for the evening. It may be the one who plans the meals. There has to be someone who makes certain things happen in an organized way. Sometimes someone must let the group know there is an issue that needs to be addressed.
3. All of the groups stating they were trying to create true or sacred community had some ritual. It may be a simple opening. “Let us all hold hands in silence before we start.” It may be the way they chose to close the gathering. I was told by two different respondents that when their leadership changed due to a move in one case and a death in another, they stopped doing their simple group rituals. Interestingly they both shared with me that it changed the group. One respondent said they did not feel as close. The other said it was hard to get their group to settle in and to become more focused.
4. Whenever possible, share a meal. I sincerely believe something changes in a small group dynamic when we break bread together. No one made this clearer than Jesus. Dom Crossan devoted an entire chapter in his in- depth book on the historical Jesus (The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant) about the importance of the “Common Meal Tradition” to Jesus and his early followers. This is not just a nod to a tradition today. It is an exchange that can have a spiritual impact on the participants and a deepening of relationships.
5. Most of the groups agreed there should be a time to review how the group is doing and if any changes need to be made. After these groups had been around for a while this appeared to just happen naturally.
I suspect you may sense I have an affinity for the second kind of group and you would be right. It may be because I have participated in both types and am now part of a small group formed around spiritual practices. Our stated and agreed upon purpose is to develop sacred community and to truly open and loving relationships. We eat a simple meal and meditate together once a week. Most of us have been doing this for over seven years. We still feel blessed every time we are together. Yes, there have been issues over the years but we worked them out with love and compassion. We are careful before we invite new participants to make certain they have the same goals and purpose for being there.
We have become extremely close as a family. We know that when any one of us stumbles, when any one has a serious illness in the group, when there is a death in our group, we will become the compassionate family we have created. There will be real, loving support for whoever needs it. It is an amazing comfort, especially at this stage of life.
There is a lot going on in the religions of the world today. As a result there are all kinds of scholarship breakthroughs and new discoveries. They are interesting and even challenging for those who are still trying to hang onto the old religion of our past or are searching for some new way to understand their faith. I personally have an affinity for the Jesus I have come to know over the last 40 years. I spent many of those years, like a host of others, deconstructing the old story built around the concept that Jesus was the substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of all humanity.
A couple of decades ago, it became clear to me that my need to focus on the deconstruction was over. I became far more interested in being a follower of the teacher I had come to know. I became engrossed in an attempt to define the teachings and the path Jesus left for us. I found it helps to lay those teachings next to the teachings of some of the other great teachers of history as well as some of our modern mystics and enlightened contemporary teachers. It was not so much that I wanted to find which one was correct or the best. I was interested in learning which teachings offer support to the others.
Somewhere along the way it occurred to me that if I wanted to learn just who Jesus really was, I had to intentionally practice his teachings to the best of my abilities. You see, I believe when practiced they can lead to a new awareness. Jesus might have called it being awake. It is a path that can lead to a clearer understanding of who we are and what we are not. It is learning in part to observe the observer of our life. It is seeing and experiencing the connectedness of all life. It is being awake. It is discovering that you are awareness.
We can talk all we want about how Christianity was changed in the Fourth Century, and about the many ways the Jesus story was twisted and turned to benefit the Empire. And yes, it is still used to benefit empire thinking. But sooner or later, if we really want to know who Jesus was and what he was teaching; if we want to know who Buddha was and what was he teaching; if we want to know who Sri Krishna was and what he was teaching, we will need to start practicing those teachings. I am afraid there are far too many people who would prefer to debate the scholarship and forget to practice the teachings. It is like studying the way a Steinway piano is built but never learning how to play it. As a former piano teacher once told me, “no one learns how to play the piano, no matter how great it is without practice, practice, practice.” In my personal opinion that is a lost opportunity.
So you might want to gather some friends together and ask them if they would like to form a group to study a path or paths that could lead to a new awareness; a new understanding of who and what they are. You might want to let them know you would like to learn how to play on the path…that you would really like to practice, practice, practice. You just might experience true community and in the process discover who you are.