Saturday, December 02, 2006

Community or Communitas?

There is a lot of talk in the church about community. But there seems to be too little experience of true community.

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”


Anonymous said...

Wow! That is powerful -- and so true. Thank you for the great post.

Pastor Rod said...

Thanks, Mark.

Anonymous said...

Well said. I've been frustrated for a long time by the focus on "community" in churches, particularly churches full of racially homogenous young adults with college educations. How hard is it to create "community" among a group like that?
It's sort of like Robert Putnam's idea of social capital. There's bonding social capital, which is a set of norms of reciprocity and trust among people who are like one another; then there's bridging social capital, those same norms but among people who are different from one another.
That's overly simplified. But the challenge of communitas is to build bridging social capital around a shared mission.
Thanks for the insight.

Pastor Rod said...


Welcome. Thanks for stopping by. And thanks for your contribution.


Paul Walker said...

Thanks for the helpful insight. I'd not come across the term 'communitas' before, but the subtle distinctino with community certainly rings bells for me.

I've just started reading Exiles and doing daily posts on my own blog as I work through it ( Looking forward to getting to the bits you quote in due course

Pastor Rod said...


Welcome. Exiles is an excellent book. (I did get a little frustrated when he was talking about politics. I thought he was too partisan.)

I would also recommend The Shaping of Things to Come which he wrote with Alan Hirsch.

Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to add your voice to the conversation.


Sivin Kit said...

I've been thinking lot about this the past weeks. And I found "Communitas" the best way thus far for me to integrate mission and community in the way I think about how we see and organize ourselves as a gathering of people.

Pastor Rod said...


Welcome. I'm currently reading Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat. Your interaction here is a reinforcement of all the things he is saying.

God bless,


Brad said...

Pastor Rod,

I can't find an email address for you, but I love this post, and I'm preaching on communitas this weekend and I wondered if you would mind if I used some of your commentary if I cite you.


Pastor Brad Hixon

Pastor Rod said...

Pastor Brad,

Not a problem. I'm flattered.

Kaleb Heitzman said...

Thanks for this gem! 10 years later and it's still relevant. That means there is actually something to it.

Unknown said...

I came across your Blog by accident searching the whole concept of Community verses Communitas... I have to confess to not fully understanding the differences, but get a feeling that Communitas goes well beyond Community, that Community exists in and of itself and functions to provide for me, my interests, my benefit, my gain... whereas Communitas is about mutual benefit.. so that I might want to be part of Communitas for what I can offer to others as much as what they offer to me... Is Communitas the missing ingredient from Church? Is Community in church what makes it a little club? which new comers struggle to break into... Do we therefore need to make church a place of Communitas rather than a place of Community. Can you tell me if I have it all wrong or If I am on the right track? and either way can you recommend further reading to help me.