02 Community on the Frontier


I want to take this post in two stages. First, I want to tell you an old, familiar story. Then, I want to teach you some missiology jargon so that you can glean the concepts and quickly discard the jargon.

First the story. In the book of Acts, we find the disciples of the risen Jesus gathered together, unsure of what they ought to do. Jesus had told them to wait for the Spirit of God to clothe them in power. Wait for this, he said, and then you will show the world who I really am.

So they waited. They prayed, begging God to work, to show them what to do. And then God did something they could not have expected.

The Spirit of God came upon them, leading them to speak in languages they didn't know, and together they preached the world's most successful sermon, with thousands of people choosing that day to follow Jesus.

But that was just the beginning. They went everywhere, speaking boldly in the name of Jesus. They were opposed, imprisoned, and beaten. But they didn't care. They were in this together, and they had been sent out by a man who had conquered death, so they ventured out into a hostile world, let the chips fall where they may. They preached, they healed, they worshiped, and they served.

And it's in these early stages of the church that we learn about their shared life together:

"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." (Acts 2:42–46)

These are some of the most compelling verses in Scripture. We long for this type of community. Though many of us tend to isolate ourselves, deep down we all long to be known and accepted. To have people with whom we have "all things in common." People who open their tables to us, people who will have our backs, who would sell something they love to meet our needs. Isn't that what we're really looking for in our churches? This kind of authentic community is basically the holy grail of church life.

Hit pause on that for a minute. Now I want to feed you some jargon that you can quickly forget. In The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch draws on the anthropology work of Victor Turner to draw out some important insights about authentic community. Turner gives us two (unnecessarily esoteric) terms: liminality and communitas.

Liminality he defines as "the situation where people find themselves in an in-between, marginal state in relation to the surrounding society, a place that could involve significant danger and disorientation, but not necessarily so" (163).  It's the reality of being on the move, on the fringes. If you're sticking with the status quo, you're not experiencing liminality. But when you step out to make some changes, to do something that few have tried, that's liminality.

And here's a key point: pursuing a mission necessarily leads you to experience liminality. It's as we strive for a goal that we get ourselves into uncharted territory, that we find ourselves at odds with prevailing norms, that we experience the kind of discomfort that comes with challenging yourself.

Turner's other term is communitas. Why not just call it community? Honestly, he should. Just add a modifier: true community. He defines it this way:

True community "happens in situations where individuals are driven to find one another through a common experience of ordeal, humbling, transition, and marginalization. It involves intense feelings of social togetherness and belonging brought about by having to rely on one another in order to survive" (163).

Can you see where this is headed? Turner is saying that true community comes within the context of liminality. In other words, we really connect with each other as we set out in pursuit of a common mission.

It's time to tie the threads together here.

True community is a byproduct of mission. It's as we challenge ourselves, stepping out into discomfort for the sake of a mission that we truly grow close to one another.

This is precisely what was happening with the early church. We want to emulate their closeness and care for one another, so we gather in groups and hope that this happens. Often, we discover that if our sole purpose is to try to grow close to another, community is elusive. It's hard to band together around an unimpressive goal. "Let's enjoy being together" runs out of gas pretty quickly.

But if we pursue the goal of the early Christians—to show the world around us the love of Jesus—then we will naturally connect with each other. Working side by side provides a relational glue that can't be manufactured any other way.

So don't set out to create tight-knit community.

Set out, instead, in pursuit of God's mission. Throw yourself into the task of showing the love of Jesus, of making disciples. If you do this, you'll quickly realize that you need the help of other believers. And when this happens, you'll take a moment to stop and think and realize that you've developed profound friendships. We think we want to grow closer to people in leisure and comfort, but what we're really longing for is the kind of community that only materializes on the frontier.

Mark Beuving