The 4 Stages of Community: what the church can learn from the slum

The idea of "community" has become something of a cultural obsession over the last few years. Even our churches now pursue Community Cred, with labels like "intentional community" or "authentic community" on everything from cell groups to Sunday morning meetings. 

And yet, as is often the case, the best place to learn about community is not from the affluent and powerful, but on the margins, among the poor. 

A few years ago, Scott Peck wrote a fascinating book about pursuing community called, "A Different Drum." In the book, he describes 4 stages of community:

Stage 1. Pseudo-community

Everything is cool when you're part of a team! (having a yellow removable head, empty black eyes, and painted-on smile is a bit disturbing though)

Everything is cool when you're part of a team! (having a yellow removable head, empty black eyes, and painted-on smile is a bit disturbing though)

Wanting to be nice Christians, we hold back our real feelings in order to avoid conflict.

What we end up with is fake, or pretend, community - the most common type of community anywhere. Sure, we are friendly and pleasant with each another, but we actively avoid any kind of disagreement.

In this environment, individual differences are minimized, unacknowledged, or ignored. 

From the outside, the group seems happy, but individuality, intimacy, and honesty have been sacrificed for a veneer of respectability and pretend peace. 

Sadly, most churches are stuck in this stage. In fact for many Christians, being nice and respectable is central to being a follower of Jesus. Yet, as I've written in my upcoming book, Subversive Jesus, being nice is the antithesis of what Jesus calls us to. Instead he calls us to be dangerously loving, vulnerable and honest.

Living in slums and inner cities most of my adult life, I've noticed that tiredness, brokenness and a lack of coffee tend to rub away any inclination towards fake niceness.

Back when I lived in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, I used to share a weekly message from the Bible at the local homeless drop-in center. If my message was a bit boring, you could bet someone would be ready to let me know, with added F-bombs for extra spice. Truly, I LOVED that level of honesty. I always knew where I stood.

And that is the key lesson we learn from the margins at this stage of community: Open Communication. Without open communication, we can never move beyond this pretend stage of community, into something more real...

Stage 2. Chaos

Sooner or later, individual differences surface or someone foolishly begins to practice honest communication, and the group will almost immediately be thrust into conflict and chaos.

Individual differences come out in the open and the group attempts to suppress them. But in doing so, the group only finds "forced unity" instead of true community. The danger here is that the group will return to pseudo-community instead of embracing the pain.

Our church is perfect. Authentic Community without any conflict ever - Yay!

Our church is perfect. Authentic Community without any conflict ever - Yay!

This stage is often a time of unconstructive bickering and struggle. And it is no fun at all. Yet it is crucial to move through this stage if we are ever to find the kind of community connectedness we long for.

Church people in the midst of conflict often long for the smoother days of pseudo-community. Christians are not supposed to disagree or be in conflict - EVER - right? Yet, once again we need to learn from my neighbors on the margins. 

Yesterday, my slum community erupted in chaos as two young women screamed at each other about some disagreement they were experiencing. It was awkward, chaotic, and they lacked the conflict resolution tools we take for granted.

And yet...and yet!... they had dispensed with the usual pseudo-community you find among suburban neighbors in the West. They were at least willing to engage each other truthfully, not just ignore the issue or pretend it wasn't there. And as a result, those two women are more likely to find true community, by travelling the path of chaos rather than remaining in pseudo-community.

Stage 3. Emptiness

In Philippians 2:7, it says Jesus emptied himself in order to walk among us. And the way for us to move from chaos to true community is to follow Jesus through the experience of emptiness.

This is the hardest, but most important stage of community. It means facing the need to empty ourselves of barriers to communication. According to Peck, the most common barriers are expectations and preconceptions; prejudices; ideology and solutions; the need to heal, fix, convert or solve; and the need to control.

This stage of emptiness is ushered in as people begin to share their own brokenness - their failures, fears and fragility, rather than acting as if they have it all together. 

I see this vulnerability and truthfulness in the life of Jesus himself, who wept openly, spoke out angrily against injustice, and was often tired, disappointed or frustrated with the group of disciples he was building community with. He never held back or covered these feelings up.

And I've seen moments of it here in a Cambodian slum as my neighbors weep in desperation at their circumstances, rail against the injustices of their lives, or let their true poverty be known. This is not a constant reality. Like humans everywhere, people in poverty also seek to impress others at times, or cover up their weakness. But it's just that much harder to wear a mask when you all live in close proximity. Ultimately though, as we journey down this path, we hope to reach... 

Stage 4. True community

According to Peck, true community emerges as the group chooses to embrace not only the light, but also the darkness and brokenness in each other's lives. We are accepted for who we truly are - who God sees us as - not who we pretend to be. It is at this point of radical acceptance, that an extraordinary amount of healing begins to occur.

Jesus calls this becoming "like a little child" and he declares that when we do so, we will enter the Kingdom.

And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)

And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)

I don't wish to imply that a slum community or inner city is some kind of utopia where people live in heavenly community and sing Kumbaya all day long. In fact, there are many little hells that we experience every day. And yet, there are also many glimpses of true community on the margins, such as:

  • The raw honesty of broken men in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting sharing their pain and failures as well as their small victories...

  • The radical hospitality of Cambodians who barely have enough to feed their own families yet welcome a stranger to the dinner table...

  • The acceptance of quirky people (with mental health issues) dressed in bizarre clothing in the Downtown Eastside who would be rejected or laughed at anywhere else...

  • The willingness to be real, truthful and fragile in moments of sharing about the Khmer Rouge regime among Cambodians who lived through the war...

And so on....

So, what stage is your church or group of believers in? Where would you like to be? 

Shane Claiborne once said, "We decided to stop complaining about the church we saw, and we set our hearts on becoming the church we dreamed of."  So, there's your challenge: Be the church community you want to see.

What simple act of open communication, vulnerability or radical acceptance might you make this week in order to move closer to true community?