I am part of a small ‘missional’ group. We had ‘emerging church‘ conversations, flirted with ‘new monasticism‘. We found the old ‘paradigms’ restrictive and so wanted to do a new thing, using new ‘alternative worship‘ styles.
There you go; I have established my credentials- the badges and trendy buzz words that have allowed me to find a groove to travel in, no matter how shallow and indistinct.
The reality is that this language has often felt contrived and pompous, and the journey of our group has been one of ordinary people trying to get along, whilst searching for a way to live out faith that has some integrity and authenticity. Groups like ours are not unusual, even if they are ephemeral, fragile.
Many small groups like ours set out with pioneering passion- they have this idea of the purity of community releasing a power in them to achieve something special. Often they are right- but very soon it will get messy. The enforced intimacy of small community will crack things open quickly- there is no place to hide at times.
Then there is the inevitable reduction in passion that comes over time; things that were exciting always feel stale with repetition. How do you refresh, revitalise and renew. How do you avoid creating a new narrow liturgy that ensnares every bit as much as the ones we gratefully left behind?
This is the trajectory of most small groups- excited start, success, stagnation, crisis, reinvention (or destruction.)
If we are to be sustainable, if we are to make the longer journeys together, then we will probably need some help in the form of some external connections- we will need to speak to people who understand, who have made some of the same mistakes and dreamed the same dreams. Sometimes we may need others to listen to our pain or laugh with our small absurdity.
Groups like ours are inoculated against organised booted-and-suited religion for the most part. However I remember some interesting research from my old group work days within social work. I nforget the references (I will try to add them later) but it goes something like this;
The success of a group depends to a large extent on the external context it is embedded within. An example of this might be an encounter group within a hospital or a prison. If the group lacks the support of the establishment this might be a plus at first- people feel embattled and react against their context – but it is simply less likely to be successful in the longer term. However, a little external validation seems to go a long way. So if the staff in the wider hospital speak positively of the group, see it as valuable and helpful, the group absorbs it all, and thrives.
Of course, the links to groups like ours is rather tenuous, but it is no surprise to me that many of the pioneers of missional groups that I know arrived at their adventure after many years of established churching. Despite their maturity, experience and a degree of reaction-formation against the context they escaped from, many of them still look back. Some return.
And this is no bad thing.
In Englandshire, there are good supportive links now for ephemeral groups- there is a wider recognition of the value of micro church through movements like CMS and Fresh Expressions. This is much less the case north of the Border in Scotland.
Last night (and this morning) I had a long discussion with David from Garioch Church, around this kind of stuff. We talked about the possibility of a new kind of network- an old theme for me. 5 years ago we tried to start such a network (see here and here for example) but things did not work out for various reasons.
So here is a question to people north of the border who find themselves on the ragged edge of organised church- where do you find your connections, and is it time to try this networking thing again?