When Communities Fail
Its maybe a little unfortunate that I should be writing this right now, at such a young age. Its come through reflection on some real-world situations I’ve faced, some discussions I’ve had, stuff I’ve read, in fact, from pretty nearly every single angle one might acquire the data with which to build up any kind of analytical picture. Its a tough area to go to, though, because I guess the blame for a community failing lies with all its members; even if its unevenly spread, no one is completely blameless. So here’s my own personal reflections…
I’ve been a member of several communities during my life-time that have gone beyond the normal institutionalised and geographical communities which we are essentially all subjected to. And throughout that time, I’ve experienced a succession of recurring themes: that each and every community that was being successful had a purpose, a vision, some communal task, however closely defined, however its undertaking was shared out. In some, everyone worked towards the one goal in a very front-line, direct approach, in others there were people who’s activities were simply administrative, but without whom, the outward facing participants would not have been able to stand confidently.
Whilst some communities have very inward facing purposes, most of those that seem to succeed are those with a healthy dose of outward facing purpose. This said, being focused both on an outward goal, and on the welfare of fellow members does make a community stronger and more appealing. York’s Stop the War group has generally fared better than many, and I put this down to the group’s social side, even though it amounts to little more than pub and coffee trips. Bradford’s group seemed more or less uninterested in each other, which meant the group fizzled pretty quickly.
But having a purpose really does seem to be the deciding factor between pass or fail. Churches with a real sense of vision will often succeed in drawing in new people. Sadly, for many, the concept of a church with a clear sense of vision translates in their mind as “a church with a charismatic leader, powerful sound system, dogmatic preaching/teaching and an Evangelical outlook”. If it is the obvious conclusion to draw, it is because it has become the normalised arrangement: motivated Evangelicals, demotivated Liberals. It really isn’t the theology (though obviously that’s highly important) but more simply the sense that the church is going somewhere, that the journey is progressing, even if slowly. If we’re not going forwards, as a certain vicar will say, we must be going backwards.
The fear of a clear vision is quite understandable amongst Liberal Christians, and indeed, Liberal Activists too. By their nature, they seek plurality, so it can be reasonably assumed that one definable vision might be off-putting to others. its a bit of a hang-over from the “one-size-fits-all” approach to church, the idea that somehow a church must appeal to everyone, either meaning it should have a monistic vision and attempt to prove it’s vision supreme, or, if one thinks (and quite rightly so) that such authoritarianism is troublesome, one loses the vision altogether. What if the right vision for your organisation is quite exclusive, but affirms that others have their own ways of doing stuff?
This was also a massive problem with York Diocesan Young Adults Networx, which was meant to cover the whole area of York Diocese (geographically the biggest in Britain). It was meant to be a chance for Young people across the diocese to meet each other, and share their experiences, often from within isolated situations. Somehow we could never condense the vision into something cohesive enough to really work.
Thankfully with the Christian (run) Cafe at the Climate Camp, we’ve kept the project fairly focused and motivated, and we’re doing all right for members, whereas the concept of i58 seems to be a bit too amorphous and thus feels a bit lacking in direction. Oh well. Again with the camp itself, its aiming at 4 things, and manages to carry them all off sufficiently well that its still growing. However, that in turn means resisting certain invasions that might derail, such as the trots who seem to be circling much like vultures.
I guess all of this is no more the case than when dealing with residential communities. Things can get all too cosy, or completely atomised, if a community has no vision. What defines the difference between a community and a shared house? Not just the sharing of food, in fact, not necessarily the sharing of food at all, though I find it quite a useful manifestation of community. The residential communities I’ve known that have really commanded respect in the community have been those that, whilst deeply concerned for one another’s well being, have also had a more outward facing impact, particularly when that has been central to the vision of the group.
Vision and determination to reach some kind of goal are not something to be feared, unless one really is worried about success. There are good goals and bad goals, and people will always say “I’d love to join, but…”; attractive groups are often attractive for reasons that stem from the aspects people find off-putting (certainly people love Climate Camp but wish it wasn’t about direct action, which completely misses the point!).
So if you have a community, try and figure its purpose. By my reckoning, the chances of it being successful in impacting the world, and perhaps, if its the aim, in drawing new people in, will be higher if you can think of some really clear outward facing goals. Maybe if you lack such goals, you should get everyone together and try coming up with some of them.