Community or Communitas?

Here’s some precious insights on “community” highlighted by Pastor Rod that connects with a lot of what is on my mind the past weeks.
There is a lot of talk in the church about community. But there seems to be too little experience of true community.

Anthropologist Victor Turner suggests that we should think about this somewhat differently. He offers the concept of communitas instead of community. According to Turner, communitas grows out of liminality.

Liminality is a state of ambiguity, openness, and uncertainty. This transition state opens the possibility for new ways of thinking, feeling and acting. Differences between participants also become less important.

Out of this liminal environment grows communitas, a new social structure that is based on equality and common experience.

Michael Frost discusses this in his book, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture.

Men [the disciples] who otherwise would have nothing to do with each other are thrown together by their shared devotion to Jesus, and as they journey together, they develop a depth of relationship that literally turned the world upside down.
Michael Frost, Exiles, pp. 113–114

When the church focuses on mission, communitas naturally develops. But when the church tries to create “community,” it often goes bad.

Those who love community destroy it, but those who love people build community.
Michael Frost, Exiles, p. 108

The hunger for community is a legitimate one, but to pursue it for its own sake is the mistake. When we seek to build community without the experience of liminality, all we end up with is pseudo-community that pervades many churches.
Michael Frost, Exiles, p. 121

Many Christians have the sense that the church must balance an outward focus with an inward focus. In other words, they see mission as competing with community. The reality is that a commitment to mission is the soil out of which community grows.

The idea of worshipping with fellow believers and then bidding them farewell for the week in the parking lot—“See you next Sunday”—is the very antithesis of the experience of the earliest Christians.
Michael Frost, Exiles, p. 288

Community has an inward focus.
Communitas creates a feeling of belonging because the group has the common experience of being outside society.

Community focuses on encouraging each other.
Communitas focuses on the mission.

Community tries to create a “safe place.”
Communitas seeks to transform society making it more just and good.

Community is something to be created.
Communitas is a serendipity that happens in a state of liminality.

Community requires homogeneous groups.
Communitas cuts across all sorts of cultural, ethnic and ideological boundaries.

Communitas is most familiar in the form of battlefield camaraderie. It is what Henry V describes in Shakespeare’s play:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Henry V, iii

Communitas is what allowed a tax collector and a zealot to treat each other as brothers as members of Jesus’ inner circle.

Frost quotes from a soon to be published book by Alan Hirsch:

Communitas in the way I want to define it is a community infused with a grand sense of purpose; a purpose that lies outside of its current internal reality and constitution. It’s the kind of community that “happens” to people in actual pursuit of a common vision of what could be. It involves movement and it describes the experience of togetherness that only really happens among a group of people actually engaging in a mission outside itself.

Instead of liminal communities, most churches are private clubs designed for the comfort of their members, members who like to discuss religion in their spare time.

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”

About Sivin Kit

man of one wife, father of four kids
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7 Responses to Community or Communitas?

  1. Eric says:

    Off topic: Dude, your new look is awesome! And hey, I’m confirmed coming to KL, from 15-27 May. See ya at church (and maybe home group?)!!!

  2. sivinkit says:

    Eric – on topic “dude” (this is still a strange kind of slang for me) … looking forward to see you! Funny, I was just looking at Amy’s site this morning.

  3. Raj says:

    Good post. Thanks to you, I have ordered Exiles and “The Shaping of Things to come”. On top of that, there’s “The Forgotten Ways” thats due here on saturday. So many books, so little time…..

  4. Sivin says:

    Raj – sorry for infecting you with the “book buying bug”. But, I’m happy you’ve caught the “life long learning bug”! 🙂

  5. M2J3 says:

    Pondering on the difference in doing communitas in a chinese, malaysian, minority context as compared to the ‘kwai-lo’ context. Enthrenched “made in China” values will be deconstructed and emerging out of that a well blended kopi ( Kopi O + susu ). We have a long way to go, but….. don’t give up, press on.

  6. Sivin says:

    M2J3 – on the difference between “doing communitas” my mind goes back to some of the experience I had when I was in Germany attending women’s groups and home groups in comparison with what I experience here.

    It seems to me when it comes to the more “urban city” context the are more similarities. But then again this was more of Bavaria in Germany and from what I hear it’s different with Germans in the north or east.

    I do feel (and this is not researched) that it’s likely the more “made in China” kind of “communitas” might have more difficulty in dealing with conflict and disagreement.

    My 2 cents after a pretty good limau ais!

  7. M2J3 says:

    Guten observation.

    Wonder how much “local content” would be left after going thru the sickle. Plentiful Msian chinese @ Kampung Baru-s to be harvested.

    Maybe you should research and publish on doing chinese communitas in our context.

    Thanks.

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