Creating Community for Those Who Don't Want To Belong

Some disjointed, but not unconnected, thoughts on creating community for people who don't want to 'belong'

Rosemary Neave, Sea of Faith (NZ) Conference, September 2001

Inclusive? Is this a good thing?
'Inclusive' is a buzz word these days — for language about God (God our Mother and Father), to describe people (brothers and sisters), for communities (an inclusive community, welcoming people of all races, sexual orientations), the Church (all are welcome). I must admit to getting tired of it, trying to get it all right, trying to not leave anyone out. Very un-PC of me, I know.
I think I first smelled a rat about this language when a former principal at St John's Theological College suggested that those people who were campaigning for inclusive language should be inclusive of those who don't want inclusive language by backing off a bit. (Think about that for a minute.)
Terry Veling (author of Living in the Margins) suggests that marginal communities should neither be 'exclusive' or 'inclusive'. He said that both words were derived from the Latin (claudere) meaning 'to shut'. So the opposite of exclusive, meaning to shut out, is inclusive, which means to shut in. Suddenly the penny dropped for me; I realised the source of my discomfort, not only in the word, but in some of the practice of 'inclusivity'.
Terry argued that in the inclusive model, the door is open to all comers, but the price to be paid is conformity to the status quo, to what is already going on. Now, I am not trying to knock some of the excellent 'inclusive' church communities that there are around, they certainly provide a home for many who can find no welcome elsewhere. But I am trying to question some of the assumptions, and try and understand why I don't want to belong to such a community any longer. What if we are not looking for a home, but simply a place to visit, or stay a night or two?
So what could a new community look like if it was neither going to include or exclude? Ken Goodlet says, "It would be a place where everyone is recognised, where heterogeniety is promoted, where cultural differences are upheld, and where the spread of so-called universal values are kept in check because they tend to ignore, gloss over or assimilate difference or otherness." Now I suspect there are people hearing this who think 'our inclusive church community is like that'.
And it might be, but I suspect the real test is in whether that is what it feels like to those who have entered the door quite recently, or whether there are some who have been there a long time but are moving out now because they have changed and moved but the community has not.

Setting up a space not a church?

Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild in their book Guard the Chaos describe the setting up of their group Womenspace (still going in England eleven years later). They called it Womenspace because they did not want it to sound as organised as 'womenchurch'. When people asked if they could join the group, the response was 'just come along'. The group was whoever was whoever was there that night.
I read this book five years ago, but I remember this section word for word because something about it sang to me. They were talking about being a part of something without belonging to it.
Somewhere this struck a chord for me. They reflected that this lack of asked for ongoing commitment seemed to be important to the many women who came. Somebody of course has to keep the space 'open' — booked, organised, food provided, etc, and that was the commitment Hannah and Jennifer made — to create the space and leave it open for anyone to come in. They comment that one of the richest characteristics of the group on any one evening is its diversity.
I no longer belong to one 'main' group, nor do I want to!
In the late 70s and early 80s I lived and worked at St Pauls, Symonds St. They were life-changing times for many of us baby boomers in the Church — anti-nuclear protests, the Springbok Tour, confronting racism at home, coming out as lesbian or gay... I lived in community — we lived and worked and played together. It was inclusive, intense, it was all-embracing, it was full of love and struggle and pain.
I no longer belong to one inclusive all embracing community like that. Though many of us look back with longing and some grief to the loss of that community, I don't want to go back. Life is no longer like that. There are a number of overlapping communities I am a now a part of; there is no longer just the one. I suspect this has happened to many of us, I recognise it as I go to an increasing number of 'decade' parties.
We drove to Wellington to be at a good friend¹s 60th birthday. She had booked out a large and amazing space, bought cases of champagne, hired glasses and invited along all the friends she had from her many networks — work, the theatre, her reading group, her ritual group, her neighbours, church communities, family, old friends.... I recently had my 50th birthday in very similar fashion at Waipu — people came from all over for the weekend and we had a great celebration.
Apart from enjoying it immensely, it made me realise how many of us now have to book a large venue to have a party to which we can invite all our friends, because our networks have grown so wide and diverse. Those of you in the Sea of Faith will not be surprised by the themes of postmodernity here — there is no longer one large all encompassing answer, or group, but a multiplicity of smaller more clearly identified but overlapping groups.
'Can all these people be our friends?' I hear someone say. I say a loud 'yes' — they are people with whom we have shared our lives, there are stories and events that have bound us together, even if briefly. They are part of the colour of our diverse and complex postmodern lives. And we are starting to realise that momentary liasons are not necessarily of less significance than those with a longer history, to recognise a connection when it happens and value it for what it is.

What is right with a one night stand?

To what extent is longevity a necessary sign of healthy productive communities or relationships? I know of many examples of groups of people who formed and met for some gathering only once — a one night stand, so to speak. For example, at a funeral, or after a workplace accident, at a dinner party. In my experience these encounters can be as life changing and profound as those in groups which last a month, a year, ten years or a lifetime and which may have a more intentional commitment to each other.
I led a workshop at the Sea of Faith Conference some time ago on new faith communities and someone asked how people joined communities or even found out about them. At least if you are looking for a church, you know what to look for — the building on the corner, and there is a sign about what is happening and who to contact. So how do people find their way to the huge variety of alternative faith communities that exist.
A fair question, if we are concerned primarily about having more of these communities. However, as the question was asked I realised that that was not my primary goal. (As interested as I am in supporting the development of new faith communities — in fact I am about to start a job networking amongst such groups.)
I am passionate about nurturing a spirituality that helps us connect every part of our life and our relationships — in our families, work places, community groups, our neighbourhoods, and our various friendship networks. Occasional gatherings for ritual or symbolic action or parties in these places are just as important and significant as gatherings in more intentional 'spiritual' communities. Let's get away from the traditional separation of our 'spirituality' from the rest of our life. Forming lots of groups that continue to perpetuate this separation does nothing to nurture a society that is healthier and more just.
Those who know me well will notice that I make a similar point about friendship and sexual relationships — the issue for me is nurturing a respect for all relationships of mutuality, either in the interactions of life companions or the chance encounter along the road (and anywhere in between). Longevity in either case is not necessarily an indication of a quality encounter, and a one night stand is not necessarily a meaningless encounter. Here is a challenge for us to celebrate and honour what is of value wherever we encounter it.

The Church as a 'Club'

For some of us the Church or our community of faith is the place where we connect all the different parts of our lives, the place where we reflect and take stock, where we try and make sense of our lives and of the world around us. It is where what is of ultimate meaning and value is recalled and celebrated. It is the place where we 'belong', warts and all. We are included.
This is a very important function of the Church or community of faith and it is to be celebrated and honoured that such places of welcome and belonging exist in our fragmented individualistic society. However let us not pretend that these places are other than a 'club'.
They have rules of membership, a language and way of doing things that is not immediately recognised by those who enjoy belonging and being a part of these communities. They are inclusive — they give a warm welcome to you to come and to join the club and then they wrap you up (shut you in) to the warmth of belonging. This is not necessarily a bad thing! But we should name if for what it is. It is not easy to nip in the back door and out again — we will be welcomed and embraced — warmly.
A few things that those who are not members of the club notice when they go into a Church.
  • hymn singing — often difficult and unfamiliar tunes, the kind of music not heard at any other time on our radios except 'Hymns for Sunday Morning' (do they still have that?)
  • words not heard in any other place — Lord, saviour, Lamb of God, heavenly King, sin, repent, Gospel, affirmation, blessed, salvation, fellowship, the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for you ... (New Zealand Prayer Book)
    the kiss of Peace — a time in the service when it is clear who has been there for a long time and who are visitors — who is a part of the club and who is not. I personally find it an embarrasment and I know many others who dread it
  • pews, sitting facing people¹s backs (we only usually do that in the movies) someone (a few people perhaps) up front inviting others to participate sometimes, but often with set words. No real conversation and interaction - even school is not like that now!
These are not necessarily negative things, if you are a part of the club then they can be what helps you to feel you belong and to feel secure. But don't make the mistake of thinking that an open door and a warm welcome means that people will feel at home and relaxed. Sure, some people will, and might stay and learn enough to feel they can participate and be a part of the story of that place.
These things are a real turn-off to many people, even to those who have some familiarity with the Christian 'culture'. For the many who now have not even a residual knowledge of Christianity, it is meaningless twaddle. A real turn-off to those who are honestly searching and it hides from people the jewel that may be hidden under this strange, but somewhat alluring veneer.

What if you don't want to join the 'Club'?

Do you have to belong to the Church to be Christian? I remember asking this in my evangelical teenage years, and I remember the answer — a resounding YES! These days I answer with a resounding NO!
  • I want to reflect on what is of 'ultimate meaning and value'
  • I want to do this with others, because I am a social animal
  • I want to find a way of celebrating what I/we discover
  • I want to continue to connect with others who work for a more just society
  • I want to help others to do this too (because the Sydney evangelical in me continues to live on)
But these days I belong to so many friendship networks — why is it necessary to add another? I am passionate about friendship, community, and about spirituality. Does one community/group I belong to have to be labelled 'church', 'christian', 'spiritual' for this function to be fulfilled? Or can it be woven in and out of all my friendship groups?
Like many others, I am now wary of being 'trapped' into some new group which will make even more demands on my time, commitment and energy. I want to be able to have the time and energy to pay attention to the networks I do have and want to continue to nurture, and I want to be have the time and energy to respond to new connections with people I meet along the way. I want time to visit some people whose dog had been run over. We met while walking our dogs — a brief but real connection. I want time to go to the funeral of an elderly neighbour who did not have many friends, and who we had fought with over a fence, but who was a real part of my life. I want time to have coffee and catch up with a friend I haven¹t seen for some time.
I commute between Waipu and Auckland and I don¹t have a lot of time to belong to yet another 'group' to pay intentional attention to my expression of the Women's Resource Centre was the setting up events which are easy to come to, that don't assume you will always be there, that don¹t have assumptions of previous church 'enculturation', but nevertheless provide a framework for challenging reflection or celebration.

Spirited Conversations is such an environment

Gathering in a 'normal' place of meeting that is familiar to many people — a bar and café. It is widely advertised — someone turned up last month because they saw a flyer at their dentist! It is focused on a subject — people can decide if it is something they are interested in or not. You don¹t have to know anyone — but you might say "hi" to someone near you as you might in any café. You can come once, or every time; you can eat and drink or not; you can give a koha or not; you can participate or not.
They have been going for about three years, there is anything from 12-60 people there. Everyone of them has been memorable in its own way, and has caused us to think and be challenged and to go on thinking. Someone once said that they felt at the end of an evening there was a sense of incompleteness — there was so much more to explore, it was not all tidied up. However this is the very point - the conversation does not finish on the night, it begins and leaves you with a sense of incompleteness and a desire to explore further. Most people I have asked say that in the weeks following a conversation, they have had countless other conversations with other stemming from that evening. Not many sermons have that effect.

Walking the labyrinth

This another example of this form of 'low-commitment' gathering. The Labyrinth is a meditative pathway — you enter the path, wind your way into the centre, stop and come out again. The one the WRC uses is based on the one in Chartres Cathedral, where it was designed for the pilgrims to walk at the end of a pilgrimage in the 11th Century. You need no prior knowledge or enculturation. It can be set up anywhere and advertised. You can enter into the walk at any number of levels, but I have not met anyone who is unmoved by the experience. "Experience of what?" I hear someone say. Experience of your own G*d made self, a sense of connectedness with the created world and with humanity, a sense of awe and wonder, a sense of the choices that lie before you.

Seasonal Celebrations at St Matthews in the City

Another example of this type of approach. Held in a central city Church which is known to have open doors, with concerts, a gay christian community, AA and others meeting there regularly. The theme is one that is easy to identify and connect with — Winter, Autumn, Spring. Music is likely to be simple, repetitive, easy to join in, or it can soar around the rafters played on the CD while you listen quietly. You are not asked to talk to the person next to you, or give your name, though you might say hello to people over a mulled wine (winter) or champagne (spring) afterwards. There are strong, clear and easy-to-identify symbols — the bounty of the harvest and planting of bulbs in the autumn, darkness and candles in the winter. We do take up a collection and give half of it away to the City Mission, or East Timor or Youthline. Mixed in with this music, symbol and colour there is mention of G*d and Jesus and justice, and a call to refocus, and recommit.
Once again it is widely advertised, including in local papers, a growing group of people are drawn to it and find it magic — an accessible open space where those who gather can reflect on what is important and recommit themselves to it. A lot of children are often there and seem to find it easy to connect and relate to what is happening.
Christchurch Cathedral is filled once a month with a similar service — Nosun Services, for people who don't go to church/hardly ever. A simple format of lighting candles, music, water, burning bits of paper.
After years of involvment in putting together liturgies for people in an effort to help people connect and belong, it is a challenge to form liturgy around those who gather, and with little expectation of previous enculturation.

"Is such minimum commitment and maximum flexibility a good thing?"

I hear some say. Can such one night stands ever be a good thing? It goes against the grain for many of us, but this is the way many people are looking at the world and choosing to participate in it. I am not saying we should not have places of security and belonging, I am just saying it's not the only thing we should have. It is different and perhaps challenging to open yourself to this kind of possibility, but I for one find it energising, spontaneous, and serendipitous, and many others seem to find the same. I want to see more of it.
Rosemary Neave

Paper adapted from one first printed in Vashti's Voices journal.
Communities Australia magazine - article by Ken Goodlet, quoting Terry Veling March 1999
Guard the Chaos — finding meaning in change by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, 1995, Dartmon, Longman and Todd
Living in the Margins — Intentional Communities and the Art of Interpretation by Terry Veling
G*d - we use this spelling suggested by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza as way of getting beyond traditional patriarchal associations of the word.



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