Forever susceptible to equal and opposite errors, we reject one thing in favour of its polarisation. Institutionalisation gives way to thoughtless anarchy, an over realised capitalism leads to an overblown socialism, and … so on.
Church life is no less guilty of over-reaction. When church groups ossify, and bureaucracy trumps connection and relational health, we cry foul and cast off the restraint it imposes, thinking that to be the solution.
We know and expect that new life is often accompanied by disruption. Life bursts from the ground. It finds it way through the crust, nudging its insistent sprouting into the light. Decay gives way to fresh, life perpetuates itself, young replaces old.
New groups spring up to satisfy the constant of the need for meaningful connections.
The question is not, should these groups, these connections, or these aggregations exist? The question is what do they look like, and what do they produce? And what drives them?
Loose Associations. The clue is in the title. They are associations; people gathered for a related purpose. They are loose in that there is no accountability, no more than that which simple exclusion affords. No harm was done; some good done. No real connection.
Networks. What is true of Associations is also true of Networks, with the inclusion of a slightly more formal structure, which includes some common goals, or modus operandi. Little harm done, some good accomplished. People have a sense of connective purpose, and thrown in for good measure, growing friendships.
Families. What is true of Associations and Networks is true of Families, plus some. Families are accountable to each other, for them to be an effective family. You can run but you can’t hide in a good family, any family. A connection is formalised yet less formal than Associations and Networks provide – because they are functional more than relational. Harm can be done, much more good accomplished.
Denominations. What is true of all three is true, potentially, of denominations. They are more formalised than all three, which may be the reason people eventually break with (the) tradition and create Associations. Back to the future. Denominations eventually tend to become top-heavy with Policy, Procedure and entrenched Personalities. Which is their death knell – for whom the bell tolls. Institutionalised harm was done, and some good done.
Apologetic/Preference. Associations have value, as do networks. They tend to be nimble and have little formal structure, which can be appealing. Denominations have value, but they can tend to the sluggish, which frustrates younger people, all people in fact. (It’s just that the young vocalise it.)
Families can be as families can be. But the building block of a civil (and I mean civil) society is the family. We are increasingly exposed to the notion of a reconstructed family model that is, in fact, no family – it is a perversion dressed up as a princess. And it may explain why family church groups have less enthusiasm expressed about them in preference for Networks and Associations. If people come from broken families they are unlikely to want a repeat, or, they are shy of the possibility.
But the health of a civil and just society is family based – or it should be. It has authority, and safety and belonging. We don’t get the latter without the former.
A family has the uncomfortable truth of accountability at its core – if it is to be a family and not a mere collection. And in a family, we aren’t ‘impressed’ by each other. Nothing we do is in comfortable isolation in a family.
But to our loss and peril do we minimise or disregard the institution of the family – and, an institution it is.
Church leaders, by the nature of their call/job and locale are in a form of social isolation. The antidote to this is not found in Associations and Networks. Only in Family.
The loneliness an honest Pastor admits to is partially normal (leadership has its costs) and partially abnormal (some costs are too expensive). Belonging satisfies a deeper, if more reluctant, need than casual connection can ever provide. The safety of someone actually knowing you, and your humanity, is wise and necessary, and, might I add, rare.
And this is why I am, In Praise of Belonging.