Genuine Community

By Jim Tune

How would you like a church in which everyone gets along, people are able to share intimate details of their lives, and conflict is minimal? It sounds good, but according to the late M. Scott Peck, this church would be a disaster.

In The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, Peck described community as having four stages. The first stage looks attractive, but it’s deadly. He calls this level pseudocommunity. At this stage, people are pleasant, and conflict is avoided. The problem? If you’ve experienced this, you’ve probably enjoyed it, but then realized that something’s missing. It’s bland and joyless. Conflict exists, but it’s buried. “Beware of instant community,” Peck wrote. “Community-making requires time as well as effort and sacrifice.” Avoiding conflict, he argues, is an illegitimate shortcut to nowhere.

Aug17_JT_JNEvery community begins here, and most remain stuck here. But Peck encourages us to move to the second stage of community: chaos. In this stage, individual differences begin to come out. Things get messy, and people try to force each other back into line. Things look bleak. The group sometimes blames the leader, or tries to impose order and organization as a solution.

This stage is messy and unhealthy, but it’s a step forward. “You are not a healthy community, but you are able to confront the issues openly,” Peck wrote. “Fighting is far better than pretending you are not divided.”

The third stage is emptiness. This is the hard part. People begin to empty themselves of expectations, preconceptions, and prejudices. They hold on to their ideologies, but begin to drop their ideas about people who think differently. They no longer believe they have to heal, convert, fix, or solve others. They actually begin to appreciate and celebrate interpersonal differences. In this stage, we give up our attempts to fix the group, and get to know each other as human beings.

The hardest thing, Peck said, is to give up our desire for control. In this stage, it looks like things are going to fail. People begin to share their defeats, failures, doubts, fears, inadequacies, and sins, but it’s still not safe.

But then a soft quietness descends. People begin to express the deepest parts of themselves. They aren’t trying to heal or convert each other, but ironically, healing begins to occur. The group has arrived at the fourth stage: genuine community.

“When I am with a group of human beings committed to hanging in there through both the agony and the joy of community, I have a dim sense that I am participating in a phenomenon for which there is only one word. I almost hesitate to use it. The word is ‘glory.’”

I used to worry when church got messy. Now I realize messiness can be a good thing. Nobody enjoys going through the suffering necessary to build true community, but it’s worth it. Genuine community involves a kind of death. It’s never easy to die, but, as Jesus told us, it’s always the path to life.

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