On March 15, 2010

Communitas

I’ve written on this blog before about Robert Putnam’s work in his book “Bowling Alone.”  He makes the observation that has been cited by hundreds of different authors and speakers that while bowling as a whole is on the rise, bowling league participation is drastically reduced. That is more people are bowling, but they are bowling alone.

Now Putnam isn’t the Don King of bowling or anything. Instead he is making a convincing argument that we, as a society, are becoming more and more disconnected from one another. And it’s killing us.

Did you know that people who are isolated from others are somewhere around 2-5x more likely to die from a variety of causes than people who have deep friendships? John Ortberg makes the point that “People who have bd health habits like cigarette smoking, overeating, elevated blood pressure, and physical inactivity- but still remain connected- live longer than people who have great health habits but are disconnected.”

Which explains why my side of the family tends to live so long. We may be eating deep fried beef jerky, but so are our really good friends.

Now you might think that not being connected to a group of friends isn’t that big of a deal, but Robert Putnam makes a pretty big argument that it’s not just important. It’s life-giving. Literally. Putnam says that the man or woman who belongs to no groups but decides to join one cuts their risk of dying in the next year in half!

But for some reason people are dropping out of their communities left and right. Why? Why if this is engrained into our DNA for us to be connected, why are we still insistent on bowling alone?

There’s an anthropologist named Victor Turner who spent some time with an African people group who emphasize community a bit differently than we do. When a boy is born into this tribe, they live a normal, adolescent life…until they turn 13.

And on some predetermined day during their 13th year, they, along with several other boys are blindfolded, kidnapped, and taken to the jungle, where they are circumcised (happy birthday!) and forced to fend for themselves for 6 months.

I know this sounds a bit like the plot for the Lord of the Flies, but what is interesting is what happens during these 6 months. Because this little group of boys will start off as individuals, fending for themselves, but after a while they begin to learn that, in order to survive, they have to stay together. They will have to cooperate just to have food and water, and during this 6 month trial they will grow to have a connection that will last a lifetime.

It’s such a deep connection, that Victor Turner, needed to invent a new word just to describe it, and that word was Communitas. It’s more than just community, it’s community with a common goal that is greater than any one of us, but requires each one of us to accomplish.

So I’ve spent the last several months living in the book of Acts, this dynamic story of a group of people who, unbeknownst to them, are charting the course of history. They are sacrificing everything, property, time, even their lives, for a common cause. The relationships that are formed in Acts jump off the page as people who are deeply bonded to one another. And it shows up in all aspects of their lives.

Which is a bit different than today.

In college, I belonged to about a dozen different churches. When I wasn’t speaking at some church somewhere, we would try going to a church in Searcy until they did something we didn’t like. If I liked the speaker, or worship we might go back there next week, and if I didn’t it was on to something else. I had this stock-holder mentality to what it meant to be a part of a church. And if they wanted my sizeable tithe of $5 a week than they were going to have to cater to me.

Because that’s what community has come to mean. What can it do for me?

But that was a foreign concept for the first Christians. (If you wonder about this, or just generally enjoy feeling uncomfortable re-read Acts 5.)

The church started off as communitas.

And when she’s at her best she still is.

One of the things that has sustained me in ministry over the past few years, when things get rough, or people let me down (including myself), has been that I think I’m a part of a group that’s making a dent in the way things are. I talk often about the university that we are integral in beginning in Uganda, or the thousand plus people who go on mission trips from RHCC each year. I love being a part of a community that has a vision for how big the Kingdom of God is, and what their role is in it.

Community says we were created to live with one another.

Communitas says we were created to live for one another.

It’s time to stop bowling alone.

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  • http://jdeddins.blogspot.com JD Eddins

    Last night our small group met for 3 hours before anyone thought of going home. The last couples to break up left after 5 hours of being together and talking about life, God, death and Francis Chan’s book, Crazy Love. We weren’t worried about the fact that between our two families we have 6 kids and it was 10pm (way past their bedtimes), we we’re more concerned about what might happen if we didn’t stay connected and finish the incredibly powerful conversation we were having and plan a trip for next month. I can’t imagine trying to walk with Christ alone. I need to have someone else’s perspective, to hear someone else’s story. I need communitas.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    JD, thanks for sharing that. Leslie and I are a part of a small group as well that is really life giving. You know some of the richest time of community life for me was living in the dorm at Harding. I loved sharing life with so many people, and I’m glad to hear that wasn’t just a season for you JD. Thanks again for being so honest brother!

  • http://dustcoveredtalmid.blogspot.com/ Dan Gill

    I’m with you on community, Jonathan. It’s one of the blessings of family–it may not be the best family, but it’s my family.

    When the church (really the individual members) gives up community, not only the church and the members suffer, but the world does as well.

    I see this trend to individualism more among men than among women. Women seem to be more naturally relational. But men are starting to re-discover the importance of standing together. We were never meant to do this life alone. The Bible is clear and eloquent about that.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Thanks Bro. Danny! That’s exactly my point. I’m thinking about a teaching or post of the church (God’s people) as his ideal for the world. That is we operate as what God intended the world/humanity to be like. That’s exactly in line with this. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Maynard

    What university in Uganda? What city/area? I have a friend who runs a school near Kampala. I was there in December. http://www.vodafrica.org

    I like your thoughts and observations about community and communitas. My fav part was your (happy birthday!) line.

    I do, however, reserve the right to church shop and audit as I see fit because I much prefer church by myself than going to a political rally disguised as a church.

  • http://www.stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Maynard, I think it’s Mbale. But I didn’t know you were there last year. You’d love the RHCC 20/20 Vision, it’s a really big global vision. I’ve never seen another church do something like this, but I hope it’s contagious. It’s really great!

    About the political aspect of churches (especially ones in the Bible Belt). Did you see the recent Barna poll about young people walking away from church, primarily for that reason? I hope you find a place where you can belong and give yourself fully to without the political rally aspect of it.

  • http://wayoutwise.blogspot.com Jeff

    I’m not sure how a real-deal Christian can bowl alone. What I mean is, I love my alone time and look forward to periods where I can stop, think, relax – to decompress from the pace of life. However, I need that time because the rest of my time is spent helping somebody with something whether it is helping others succeed at work, talking over life’s troubles with friends or trying to help kids or community with different activities. Christians need to be living like the Acts 2:42 church and that doesn’t include hiding away because we don’t like the preacher, the Elders, the Bible classes, the lack of activities, the amount of activities, whatever. Christians are called to be community because we are called to serve and unless we are only serving ourselves we can’t be serving alone.

  • Maynard

    I didn’t see that specific poll, but I’ve definitely seen that trend. I’m actually much more pleased not being in church (is it okay to tell a career preacher that?) than I was when I was an every Sunday soul. However, there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not talking to God, about God with friends and clients, and pray with friends more days than not. I understand Jeff’s point about not hiding out, but I’m not done with rehab and detox yet and I seriously believe I’m healthier without being involved in organized religion. It may sound as if I’m grasping here, but I’ve also found that when I’m talking to non-Christians and non-church goers and tell them that I believe they can be saved and in a healthy relationship with God without church attendance, that people are really receptive to that. The people I know (friends, colleagues, clients) that aren’t church attenders, for the most part do not have a problem with God, but it’s his churchy kids they can’t stand, but somewhere in the mix they drop God because some church person has offended, insulted, or hacked them off. . . or they’ve belonged to some narrow denomination that insists believe like us or else (not just a C of C slam, either). I’m not saying this will be a lasting stance with me, but it’s where I am now.

    Love your blog, man. You’re a great communicator and you have the ability to disaggree with someone yet love, respect, and value them at the same time. I’ll bet God thinks you’re pretty good people :) for a Campbellite.

  • Joe

    I haven’t been to church for over a year now, and I miss it terribly. Yet, now that I’ve officially “detoxed”, I’ve found that being around anything church-related is more acutely nauseating than it ever was before. The principle of “conform or be excluded” seems to underlie everything that churches have to say. It seems, sadly, that community is the carrot used to lure people into falling in line. I see the Christians on campus at my university doing this all the time: offering community to kids who are at a vulnerable part of their life, if those kids are willing to sacrifice their own opinions and beliefs for those of the group. This makes me all the more skeptical that I’ll ever resume going to church.

    I feel that I’m much in the same place as Maynard, though the path that got me here is very different. I love what you say in this blog, but I can’t help but feel that the reality is much darker and more complex.

  • http://dustcoveredtalmid.blogspot.com/ Dan Gill

    Joe and Maynard, I encourage you to keep searching for community, and to keep searching your own hearts. I have no doubt that you do that. I’ve been where you are. There are no perfect churches. They are made up of imperfect people . . . like me. I am sorry you’ve been hurt or put off by churches. Still, I know this: the Bible is clear that we are made for each other, just as we are made for God. I know that I would be lost and in darkness were it not for my brothers and sisters. We cannot stand alone. We were never meant to do so.

  • http://wayoutwise.blogspot.com Jeff

    Maynard, please don’t here me as being down on someone nor in a church. I believe strongly that Christ founded the church for us to be a part of it but it has been fouled up at times. I have found a church that accepts me and lives me with all my faults and they are very visible and painful faults.

    I hope you might find a part of the body who will love you unconditionally and I hope you will return that love. We are all God’s children and the sooner we all work on our relationship with God instead of working on our brothers and sisters the better off we will be.

    I heard this the other day-we have a perfect product (Christ) and a flawed delivery system (the church).

    I knowGod is working through you and believe He will lead you where He wants you.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Jeff, the vision that the book of Acts has for community has inspired and frustrated me through the past few years. Thanks for still holding that up as a standard.

    Maynard, I didn’t know that man. Last we’d talked, it seemed like you had found a great place to worship. I hope this season is short in your life brother. Trust me I know about the negative side to church too. And the things that frustrate you frustrate me. But I think the stuff that you are talking about has less to do with church, and more to do with people that have their own agendas and have baptized them using God as their ultimate endorsement. I still have great hope in what a group of people can do together when they get a vision for Jesus’ Kingdom today. In fact, many of the greatest changes in human history have happened because of church people standing up to the status quo, at great personal risk to themselves, for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

    Joe, I hear you man. I know that organized religion can turn dark very quickly. But I hope that you still have place in your life for some kind of spiritual community brother. There’s still a lot of redemption that happens there, and I’m pretty sure God can use you to bring that about in someone else’s life, even as He does it in your own. About the surrendering one’s opinion to a faith community, remember this: http://stormented.com/2009/03/the-certainty-of-doubt-2/ You helped me write it.

  • Maynard

    Storment, I had told you that when I was in LR, that I had found a church that I felt comfortable in. Dan, I do sincerely appreciate your concern, and, yes, we are the body of Christ and are made for each other. The joy that I have found is that I am now an active part of that Body more than ever before and am a recipient of it now more than ever before as a non church-services attender. I have been surrounded by Christ-like people. I do hope and pray that I find a church home, but I really like the movement that I’m seeing where people are being more real. . . and having impromptu church in their homes. . . small groups not affiliated with any denomination. . .

  • http://dustcoveredtalmid.blogspot.com/ Dan Gill

    Maynard, maybe you have discovered church. It doesn’t have to be in a building with a steeple, you know. It wasn’t in the book of Acts.