What happens when you try to build a Christian community (“plant a church” is sooo 80s) that is made up of people who found themselves on the fringes of their former churches? Do you create a tightly-knit community of Christian refugees, who live together and show incredible solidarity in the way that many refugee communities do in this country? Or do you, by accident or design, end up with a “ring doughnut” church, where everyone finds himself or herself on the edge, and there’s no-one in the middle? And anyway, who’s to say one is better than the other?
This reflection is born out of my own experience as part of such a community - revive in Leeds, UK. Revive began as a relatively small group, with the first few meetings in single figures before we grew quite quickly after a couple of years and then declined after we had to move out of a big house into a church hall. It soon became clear that those who had formed revive from a place of alienation from the church were again beginning to feel alienated. We realised that we had formed a doughnut, with a tiny group of people sitting in the hole trying to counter the centrifugal forces at work in the community. The church shrank as some people flew of the edges altogether, and others joined, only to find a hollow shell at the heart of the “family”.
Now we are small again (probably around 30), and people are reassessing their feelings about revive and many are talking about a need for community, even a “rule of life”. Everyone involved is five years older, and this time a bit more willing to sacrifice their independence a bit, but I wonder what we will do differently if we grow again? Here are a few thoughts off the top of my head:
I’ve already got a pictorial metaphor in my opening paragraph, and I can feel a whole maths book of diagrams coming on, but I will try to resist turning God’s people into lines on a page as much as I can. However, here is a way that one might think strategically about growing a doughnut shaped-church. First of all, here is a doughnut church, with a majority of the membership starting to feel disenfranchised and a knackered minority struggling to keep things going:
Here the fringe has been broken up into new communities:
Hopefully these groups might exhibit the powerful community values of a refugee community. Such values were probably there at the beginning, and are now part of the problem, as people feel their absence. But what happens to the centre in this new configuration? Well, maybe one group wants to gather around the idea of serving the other groups. I personally feel called to this role, and so do a few others in revive. We used to be called leaders but I think we’re going to have to come up with a different name. Such a group might see itself at the centre of a network, or it might be that the thing at the centre, bringing some centripetal force to bear on the groups, is a shared set of values, or an event, or a project. Within revive we are moving away from a leadership team and a Sunday meeting being the thing at the centre to which everyone must submit, and replacing it with something a bit like a “rule of life”. Don’t ask me exactly what that means just yet - I’ll get back to you on that.
Of course, the other option would be to have nothing at the centre and to leave it to market forces to see whether people really want to have a common identity at all. Ultimately it may be better for the groups to go their own way geographically, culturally or in other ways. This is verging on a kind of cell church idea, but I think it’s probably more in line with the thinking of Wolfgang Simpson.
There are probably rules of group dynamics that describe what I’m writing about here. If there are, I’d like to hear about them, because I think the phenomenon I’m describing is quite common, particularly among groups that reject an autocratic or “purpose-driven” model of leadership. Many of these groups have also rejected the idea of growth, which I feel is a riskier move. Growth is a sign of a healthy organism, but we have been sold the image of a tree just getting bigger and bigger, whereas within that tree the cells are multiplying at the smallest level.
Personally I love the small - being in a group where everyone knows my name, and they know me well enough to take the mickey out of me, wrestle with me during a boring prayer time, challenge me about my amazon.co.uk addiction and babysit for me at the drop of a hat. But I also love the large, and judging by the number of small groups that put on alt. worship at Greenbelt, so do many of us. I really don’t want us to give up on the dream of reaching our friends because we don’t know how to break through this strange barrier. I’ve described revive as a doughnut in the past, and heard one or two others express the same image. Maybe we should embrace our inner doughnut and see it as a sign that we need to grow and multiply? Just a thought…
is a founder member of Revive in Leeds, UK.