A while back (Proper 9) I ranted at our Seeds Gathering @ The Den about the lectionary passage from Mark 6 where Jesus sends his community on mission. Out of this I reflected upon four themes that I felt had been important in my life and that of our mob.
1. Rejection and Scarcity;
2. A Stranger at Home and at Home among Strangers;
3. Dependence upon the Hospitality of Others;
4. You have enough for your mission!
(Unfortunately I haven’t got to post it yet… As with half my rants this year they are only ever half prepared to preach let alone for posting in public domain nevertheless I will post this one of these days as a proper Seeds website is currently under construction)
Being in the middle of John 6 for the last few weeks I used the Lectionary for communion and decided to rant about this passage again around the theme of communitas and Seedy Mobs. A concept which Mike Frost and the Forge mob have been giving a good run for a while now. (It’s in his new book Exiles is out in America) It is good to give this stuff another run because during my recent trip to Aotearoa with Brent we have been thinking hard about the historical importance of this passage in hooking together a sense of shared mission, identity and “communitas” at Urban Seed and beyond. (eg. The current Street and Hospitality Team at Central House have been doing some great reflection around Healing and their work at Credo Cafe). I feel this passage may emerge as important in trying to keep maintaining and building connections with each other and help to support similar missional activities beyond Melbourne’s CBD.
Mike Frost describes the work of anthropologist, Victor Turner who studied initiation rites in African tribal groups. This involved a process of three steps which include
1. Expulsion from tribe;
2. A liminal (transition, in between) phase (often involves renaming etc.)
In this culture boys grow up in the world of women and don’t mix with male hunter/ gathering culture. They sing songs, they play games, they drink milk and learn the stories of their culture. At a certain point of your life the men of the village drag the boys out into the jungle, circumcise them, give them some advice and for a time leave them exposed to the rigors of the wild.
What Turner discovered is that at first each would go in separate directions fending for themselves, however after a day they would come back together. In the quest for survival the group would develop a sense of community and intimacy so great that upon re-entry it would have a re-energising effect for the whole tribe. The connections and memory of similar experiences was life giving for other tribe members.
Beyond society, community or fellowship Turner adopted the Latin word communitas, to describe the intimacy that people experience when a group faces struggle or ordeal the likes of which no one can survive by themselves.
Other studies show that any group that feels marginalized by the mainstream society can experience this communitas, (eg. artists in NYC, gay community etc.) The key for finding true fellowship is to move into some liminal space, ordeal and adventure….which gives us an interesting framework to understand the Christian experience of mission and the missionary intstructions of Jesus in Mark 6.
Communitas and Risk: The vulnerablity of the disciples sent without stuff.
Communitas and Diversity : Jesus discipleship community includes a Roman Sympathizing Tax Collector (Levi) and an Anti Roman freedom fighter (Simon). Communitas provides the neccessary context for working out unity across lines that divide us. A bigger purpose. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” is the classic story of this.
Communitas shapes cultures: Another anthropologist Margaret Mead. The only thing that ever shapes cultures and changes the world is small groups of highly committed people.
Mike Frost was very critical of what he describes as the contrived nature of what passes as Christian Community in a lot of our churches. Communitas calls us beyond mustering up devotion for each other in our safe religious spaces, small group bible studies. He described it as a bizarre act of joining with people we don’t really know and singing love songs to Jesus when in Australian culture you can’t just burst into song; It takes an experience of shared ordeal, eg. An Aussie Rules Footy Match to get a bunch of blokes, and a whole stadium authentically singing with passion. Many churches have set themselves up on an entertainment basis where the only commitment is to turn up and tithe. The “audience” become passive observers of the communitas of the worship team. (who often work themselves into the ground striving for excellence but have a great time trying to do it…till they burn out.)
Frost suggests that we are often baby Christians. “We are mothered, we play games, we drink milk, get cosy, fat and complain.” Instead of singing another love song surrounded by strangers in community without conflict he suggests we need to leave the tribe and become a wilderness communitas, a band of brothers and sisters.
Communitas is a basic human need and reflected in Australian society through the popularity of team sports and amateur theater which act as liminal experiences of intimacy and reliance upon other people.
What does communitas mean for us at Urban Seed church or Seeds?
• At one level just turn up and tithe is a big commitment for us at our Sunday Gathering (we don’t even have that expectation!!!) However central to Urban Seed’s spiritual life there has always been core staff many who share communitas by living together and sharing Communitas around the agenda of Christ’s commission in Mark 6.
o Preach: Youth and Schools Team, City walks and education
o Heal : Residential Community, Hospitality, Credo Cafe as healing
o Casting out of EvilAdvocacy and Engagement: Personal and Political Action in the face of evil eg.casino protests.
• This has been one of our points of tension with the mother church CSBC which started Urban Seed by inviting young people to live in communitas. For a city church community is a rather more detached concept. Some who have burnt out on communitas may choose and like the anonymity of a city church.
• This may describe numbers of people here. For those that aren’t staff or ressies… What is your sense of mission? Where is communitas? How could you find or re-find this and of what value would it be in your life?
• Mission oriented churches often tell people your mission is your workplace but we leave people stranded and alone as individuals in this. All the responsibility for healing, preaching and casting out the demons without providing the communitas; the intimacy and accountability needed to sustain this work. Ultimately an impossible task.
• Jesus sends people out in twos. I like threes. Dave Andrews always said with three people you have four relationships as opposed to one. This is good for energy, conflict circuit breaking and accountability. How could you find two other people to join in a common sense of mission in your life, work place, sport etc?
• I have always played Cricket. At times it has been life giving and at other times it has been exhausting and frustrating. Re-creation can be a powerful force for community in our society or equally enforce values of competitive individualism. This year I found a way to play cricket with homeless people through Credo Cricket and find a way to hang out with them and a couple of other Christian’s around my local club. These simple changes have transformed my enjoyment of cricket and have added to the vibe around the club.
• In giving this emphasis I want to also to say that I think its ok for the church to be a place of refuge for people. What is important to me however is the question; What is the nature of that refuge? What creates it? Annette once said of our gatherings “ it seems like a safe place to feel terrified” I like this because it doesn’t suggest escapism. What’s unique about this place to me is not that it’s just low commitment church in a funky alt. worship type setting but that it is a low key way of activist types have found to gather in a way that is not exhausting but honest and even reenergizing. Hopefully it’s not just an escape from church we hate but a place for the hard therapy and imagination that we need to be able to reengage with the difficult reality of the inherited church and the difficulty of the economy and terror of the world we find ourselves up against.
• With the move to the Den I have been keen to explore the notion of Seeds as opposed to Urban Seed church. Seeds has been a brand for assorted discipleship activities over the decade of Urban Seed’s life. What I like about it is that it helps me think beyond my preconceived ideas of church as a worship service in the city to a movement of people committed to communitas that comes from a shared mission. My question is how can we better structure what we do to support people in their mission of joining with other people, in their suburbs, in their workplaces in the whole of their lives? This is much more important to me than cool graphics on a power point or quirky liturgy tricks with paper shredders.
• This Sunday gathering is just one point of meeting, it is not the main event, it’s not an institution, it’s temporary, it’s an improvisation that has come from a core of people who have been bonded by communitas and after years of being the church on everyday except Sundays. Stuart Murray Williams suggests that churches should “reimagine themselves as a monastic missionary order, communities of encouragement, support and training from which we emerge to live as Christians in the workplace and to which we return for reflection and renewal.” This is my hope for Seeds.
• I think that this concept of communitas also raises many questions that can’t be easily explored here. One cannot live permanently in communitas or its power is rendered meaningless. The whole concept depends on an ongoing tribal life. As a youth worker I mourn our lack of truly liminal, risk taking, rites of passage in our culture but this is surely connected to the fact that families and tribes themselves are under threat. In many ways the sustaining of any sense of community is vitally important and countercultural. In our bid for the heroic let us always remember the menial acts of servanthood that hang any sense of discipleship tribe together. It concerns me that this process of communitas can be presented as a very male journey/energy etc. I have a problem with this if it excludes women or devalues the importance of communal values, energy, arts etc. that are often described as feminine.
• Whilst there are many (and often necessary) compromises I believe that Mark 6 indicates that whatever our position in life it can never simply be business as usual following Jesus. Communitas is the sort of community we are created for, called to, long for and need.