There’s a common thread in many of the great stories. It’s not just great story-telling, it’s not just great characters or even necessarily a good plot. In the best of stories, there’s often a deep-seated bond between characters that intensifies through the stories ups and downs.
We see this in the Harry Potter series as Harry, Ron and Hermione limp through their battle with he who shall not be named. We also see this in LOST, when Jack, Kate, Hurley and the others struggle to understand, not just the island, but their own purposes. What we see in these great stories is not just community but communitas.
If you’ve ever talked with solders who served in battle together, they’ll tell you how close they continue to feel with the soldiers with whom they served; a sense of brotherhood. They have a deep bond with people they had previously not known. A bond that lasts over years and circumstances.
Communitas is community, but it is more, it is a deeper level, a deeper bond, usually developed when individuals undergo some deep trial, some test, trouble, danger or trying circumstance. As Alan Hirsch points out, communitas is often brought about, when, people, together, experience liminality together.
Liminality is a psychological state brought about when people undergo severe stress together, they are brought to the brink. One’s sense of individuality often diminishes and melds into a hyper-sense of community, or, more precisely, communitas.
I have been in the experience of some sort of evangelicalism for the better part of my entire life. I grew up in, what at the time, was a large church, I went to a “Christian” university, worked for a “Christian” company, went to seminary, served as a volunteer youth leader, youth pastor, pastor and church planter. During those many years, I’ve experienced varying levels of community; some has been deep, some shallow, some real, some fake, some downright non-existent. My wife and I went to one church for almost eight months where no one talked to us. No one. Eight months.
Some of the deepest relationships I have are with fellow Believers. But I sometimes find myself wondering if there’s not more. I’ve experienced community, even what I would say is real community, deeper community than what many have experienced. But I’m not sure I’ve really experienced communitas and I sometimes wonder why.
I’ve come to think that at least part of the reason many believers experience community but not communitas is because we understand that the the life of the believer is to, by its very nature, involve others, but we’re not involved in anything that ever really brings us to the end of ourselves. We live lives of comfort, which breeds complacency, so the best we ever get is community. And, yes, while we all long for community, I wonder if it’s really as deep as we as believers should be going.
I’ve met believers in other countries; Muslim parts of Africa and China, even deep parts of Mexico and thsoe believers seem to have communitas while American believers only go so far as community. Why? These foreign (to us) believers experience trial, hardship and sometimes even persecution. By necessity, they live on mission in the face of hardship. It seems that some sense of opposition is necessary for community to turn into communitas.
But I also wonder if it’s not just the fact that American believers don’t face opposition but that we don’t actually live together on mission. What if we really lived as though we were, in our own contexts, missionaries on a mission? What if we understood ourselves to live in “enemy territory”? What if we understood the local church to be an outpost of eternity in time? What if we lived together in community on mission? Would that be enough to deepen our relationships to biblical levels?
But is there also something perhaps more subtle than not facing persecution and not living on mission together? I read the various “one another” passages in Scripture, I see that we are to bear one anothers’ burdens, restoring one another from sin (Galatians 6:1-2), we are to display our allegiance to Jesus through our love for one another (John 13:35), we’re to outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10), forgiving one another (Ephesians 4:32). Perhaps part of the reason we don’t experience communitas is because we’re not really involved in the lives of other believers. Not only are we not living together in mission, we’re not even facing life’s “everyday trials” together. We don’t go through much of anything together, do we?
Have you experienced real Christian community? Have you experienced more? Have you moved beyond community to communitas? Why or why not?