Anything from worship to poetry to community organizing can sell short the real possibilities if it sells like-mindedness. This some of what I overheard last week when my friends Travis Reed and a new friend, Tom Yaccino invited me to drop in on a conversation between Walter Brueggemann and Peter Block filmed as a part of Travis’ project, The Work of the People.
Walter was a professor of mine in seminary and we’ve caught back up since I’ve moved to Cincy where he now lives. And Peter Block’s work, specifically Community: The Structure of Belonging, has been very influence in my understanding of how transformation takes place—be it transformation of economically depressed neighborhoods, national politics or smaller things like church worship approaches. But this was my first time to meet Peter in person.
There’s lots to share from the 3 hours we spent on Peter’s front porch in Hyde Park, but the piece I want to focus on is the resonance between his principals of community and Walter’s understanding of the community’s narrative. At one point in the conversation, Walter roughly said, “the church has colluded with the notion of like mindedness.” Much like American mainline traditions originated around ethnic emigrants (Scottish Presbyterians, Italian Catholics, etc), in the 1980s churches began to form around like-minded sub groups. The converts to this kind of Christianity were acculturated to expect that the best church for them was one that applied the truths of the gospel to their perceived needs. At first this meant that those whose pains, inspirations, or anxieties seemed dismissed or shamed by the church were awakened for the first time to the news of Jesus Christ’s love in them and interest their callings. But churches quickly learned that different types of people needed different applications and so those that grew most quickly added the steroid of “target demographics” and organizing around their like minded values. The collusion that Walter is then critiquing is that we see the God's good news as identical with our version of the world. Until, in that clever phrase of Anne Lamott, ‘You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.’ The counterpoint of this, of course, is the defensiveness and reactive-ness to any critique, or prophetic challenge.
This began earlier than 80’s church growth, as businesses and government learned that diversity and complexity are just that, too complex to streamline. 'No wonder Brueggemann enjoys finding the counter-testimonies in scripture to challenge this myth of homogeneity.
In the recent political conventions we see both parties vying to “frame the debate” and even more, to offer a narrative of America. Politicians, poets and preachers all know that the story plays a huge role in determining the outcome. So if those who need us to “follow” them can convince us of that story then we’ll buy their proposed plans (however spelled out they may or may not be).
But the real interesting turn in the conversation was what Peter Block did with this critique. He proposed that “like-mindedness actually sells as a substitute for community.” Instead of diving headfirst into a messy life of complexity where our various stories and gifts must combine to create new possibilities, various forms of empire profit by selling us a complete story where we already know all we need to know about one another. He went further to say that groups who form around such closed narratives necessarily exclude alternatives.
Because of this tendency, Block avoids forming small groups for transformation with the old invitation that asking people to “tell their story.” Such a beginning only reifies people’s desire to get their story fulfilled using others. Such a starting point presumes excluding new alternatives and possibilities, and people. Instead he asks people to join the group on terms of possibility. He uses two questions:
- Tell me/us what you’re good at.
- What are you willing to teach?
These seem odd group building questions. But at their core they invite people to form as neighbors into something they don’t yet know, a “collaborative network of belonging.”
Neighborhoods, churches, business ventures need not be homogeneous groups of people—in fact, when they are they will necessarily be exclusive. They can also be places where gifts and calling are brought to bear. So this brings me to my last question. How does the gathering of worship do this?
- Insofar as your worship tradition includes teaching, how does the narrative include room for prophetic critique- where participants/presenters might have to consider a different or wider truth than they originally organized around?
- Does the shape of your worship gathering promote the telling of multiple narratives (sometimes puzzling or rupturing to the story attendees come with) or do the spotlights close in on the same one? Do they neatly fit inside a story from one of the major parties or major corporate interests?
- How does your congregation’s worship life (including that weekly gathering hour) ask people to offer what they are good for the good of the church and their neighbors.
- In an inventive age where resonance is felt across our various values and gut (to borrow from Doug Pagitt), how is church designed to rupture the tendency toward like-mindedness?
Beware how anything from worship to poetry to community organizing can sell short the real possibilities if it sells like-mindedness.