Let me talk a little bit about one of my other community experiences, which I will simply call the men’s bible study. I want to talk about why this experience made me lean toward ‘organic’ community models, as opposed to communities which have been thoughtfully created, or intentional community.
My men’s bible study, as I mentioned in a previous post, was completely un-planned. There was no goal, no vision, no strategy, no hierarchy. But there was a schedule. Saturday nights. A lot people who believe the same things as myself about community would think that even having a schedule would kill it, but in this case, it didn’t. Actually, it simplified things and made it a bit easier to thrive.
It is worth mentioning that I don’t believe that a community and a church-plant are the same thing. I believe they can be the same thing, but are not by default. However, if the purpose of a church is to equip the saints and be a platform for fellowship, then my men’s bible study was indeed a church. While I was going to this men’s bible study, I did not attend a church, but I don’t want to give you the impression that I believe you have to go to church to be a Christian. That’s a load of bollocks and we all know it. And it’s also a topic for another post.
How it happened
How this bible study happened is, I believe, crucial to understanding what I mean by organic community.
As I mentioned before, I was about 19 years old, working at a local cafe. The cafe was owned by Christians and some of the local community knew that, and so would try to support it as much as they could. Because of that, I got a lot more customers who were Christians than if I had been working at Starbucks, probably. I worked there for maybe 3 years, and during that time I met some of the most life-changing people in California. No, it wasn’t Greg Laury, Chuck Missler or any of those amazing lot. Nobody famous. These were ordinary blokes who, like me, were in need of fellowship and a sense of real relationship the local churches couldn’t give them. These people were Rick, Aaron, Kagan and Shawn (not a big operation).
Rick is an engineer and a master fabricator. He can take a bit of metal and make some of the most beautiful and powerful things you can imagine using his unusual problem-solving skills. A bit like Sylar from Heroes, but without the killing people part. Aaron is a pilot and an aeronautical engineer who seems to eek out every bit of horsepower a plane might have by, usually, popping a non-standard, blown engine into it, somehow. Kagan is a skilled driver and a generally nice guy who is the type of person to not say anything for an hour, then a tiny little line comes out of his mouth and you just sit there, stunned at the quiet wisdom. Shawn is a Fuller (I think) graduate who can probably recite the entire bible in English, Greek and Hebrew. His knowledge is mind-boggling. And then there was me. A hippie-designer with a vice for coffee and other nice stuff.
Over the 3.5 years I was a part of this group (it ran a little longer than that), we had a lot of visitors, some more regular (ahem) than others, but this was the core group. It was a bunch of guys who shared little in common, yet the bible brought us together.
Rick, Aaron and Shawn would pop into the cafe from time-to-time and I would take extended breaks to talk through any bible questions, often brining my own. We shared a lot of personal experiences, and it was clear we all were linked by our interest in the bible. These chats grew to be more and more common, and we realised we needed to meet outside the cafe more regularly (my boss was getting a bit cautious). Rick asked us to come by his house Saturday night, and the men’s bible study was formed. We never did name it, and I wonder whether that was a very good idea, now.
What we did during on Saturday nights
Saturday nights just kept happening. Rick kept inviting us round (he was the only one with his own place at the time). It became common and none of us would have missed it for the world. I don’t have a good memory, but I remember a lot of beer going around, among sporadic barbecues, showing off our latest gadgets, knives and guns, and sometimes cars. Some nights we wouldn’t even crack the bible open, and other nights we couldn’t peel ourselves away from it. We often sat at Rick’s kitchen table, with our Apple laptops and bibles open. Coffees, knives and car magazines strewn across the table. We would often sit for 3 or even 5 hours talking about anything and everything.
A few times we tried to do series – staying in one book of the bible at a time, going through it strategically. I would ask a question and Shawn would inevitably regurgitate a lot of what he heard at Fuller, mixed with his own opinions. We would often disagree, and then Shawn would throw in a hundred scripture quotes to support his views. We learned a lot this way. Things rarely got heated, only once or twice, but we were so built upon a foundation of love for one-another it rarely happened.
How it has affected me
In a word, we shared life. I became very close with everyone, but mainly with Rick. He and I talked about such deep matters that I cannot divulge here, and the 4 of us had unintentionally become a brotherhood. I learned so much from each of them, and not just about the bible, but about cars, engineering, welding, making a great steak and coping with others’ personal issues. This experience fundamentally changed me as a person.
Today, I am still an avid car freak, and have owned some very, very nice pocket knives. Thanks to Rick I have learned the love of engineering and skilled fabrication. Shawn showed me how a person can be passionate about apologetics, and how it can be a useful skill. Aaron showed me how to careen through life in a way that was productive and less harmful to others.
But was it ‘church’?
For those of you interested in the model, you might be disappointed to hear that there was no model. I remember one Saturday night, maybe a few months from when we started, one of us said they thought maybe we should worship a bit. For me, worship has always been a sticking point. The popular understanding of worship – singing together at a stage with a band – never worked for me (don’t ask why). But I thought we should give it a go, so we asked a couple of my friends, Adam & Justin, to come and bring their guitars. Justin lead us in worship, and while I will not confess to any spiritual experiences, it seemed to work, and I would hazard a guess as to why: I think it worked, for me, because I knew each person there intimately. I knew everyone’s personalities. I knew I wasn’t being judged for my lack of apparent participation. I knew each person there knew who I was, and that that was enough for them.
Whether or not it was ‘church’ depends on your definition. For me, it was the closest experience to ‘church’ I have ever come across. But it wasn’t just church, it was community. We had a natural overlap of life, and a real friendship with one-another. There were problems and we dealt with them. We even ‘tithed’ into a central pot to cover the costs of coffee, beer and food. We worshipped together, we ate together, we studied together, we dealt with serious problems together. In a temporary case of Aaron and Rick, we even lived together. If this isn’t community, I don’t know what is.
Why I think community should be organic
I believe communities should be organic because of this experience, compared with the rest of my community experiences. It’s not to say the rest were bad, but none of them came close to the fellowship and friendship that happened in my men’s bible study. Maybe my other experiences of community weren’t really community at all – maybe they were just really good initiatives. That’s what I believe nowadays, that we calla lot of things community that aren’t really community. This isn’t necessarily bad, just a little bit confusing. Initiatives in themselves are great, and necessary, but I suggest that if they’re not communities, let’s not call them that.
I believe the organic nature of how the men’s bible study was formed and grew was fundamental to its success. Mainly, because each person had equal investment. Not practically (Rick often bought the food and we always used his place), but more emotionally – because there was no plan, each person felt free to invest. Because there was no hierarchy, each person felt free to input. It was because of a lack of structure that the community itself was free to thrive. In fact, we never even mentioned the fact that we were a community, and this is where I get a little controversial.
Why I suspect communities can’t successfully be ‘created’
In the rest of my experiences of community, there was a schedule, a hierarchy and a goal. We tried to start out where we should have ended up, and the original ‘vision’ unintentionally stifled its own growth. The framework was too rigid for the mystery. This is not to say there weren’t the best intentions – there were, but there was a lack of wisdom. This is really about people. Individuals make up any community, and each individual must be allowed and invited to invest in an equal measure. When we prescribe hierarchies, schedules and even vision, we inadvertently shut the gate to individual investment, rendering the community nothing more than another organisation run from the top-down.
Is community ‘community’?
This reality begs the question is community community?
What I mean is, the men’s bible study wasn’t a community. It was just a group of people doing what people do – organising themselves in whatever way they see fit to do what they want to do. Along the way, we grew into an entity that unintentionally ticked the boxes of what many Christians believe community should be today. We never thought of ourselves as a community in that way. We thought of ourselves as just a bunch of friends interested in each-other’s company and in the bible.
In the case of the men’s bible study, what Christians believe community should be happened all on its own. It was not organised by a community developer. There was no website where you could ‘get involved’. There was no affiliation with a larger organisation, depending on your definition of the ‘church’.
I’m not saying every community should do what we did. I’m not saying ‘created’ communities can’t thrive, but what I am saying is that communities are made up of people, who are created in God’s social likeness, to be social. Everything we need to create community is at the disposal of most individuals, without the [I would add ignorant here but, oh wait I just did] help of outsiders with genuinely good intentions. I’m not saying don’t create community, or have a desire to be a part of a community. But I am saying, don’t wait for someone to serve you a community. Don’t search for your nearest church’s webpage on home groups. Do, however, identify people who you can relate to. It’s not that every community should be comprised of people you already know and trust, mine wasn’t at first, but don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and try things out. Spend time together. You will know without much time whether or not it’s right. Organised home groups and other organisations can work, but in my experience it’s rare, and not the best place to look first.
If you are someone who has a God-given talent for organising people, God bless you, and please understand what I mean. You are not redundant, you are a gift. If you want to create community, have the wisdom to carefully build the framework for mystery to thrive within. In this case, the health of the community is the beautiful mystery.