To continue the ongoing discussion with Brandon, it’s quickly apparent that we could easily be criticised for trying to cling to a notion of community that may be more nostalgia than reality. Much of the ecclesiology we have inherited was developed when most people lived in a rural setting. If a small population is gathered around a tight, isolated geographical centre then the notion of community that develops is going to be very different than when we live spread out across an urban sprawl, or what emerges in densely populated larger expanses.
In his book “Liquid Church” Pete Ward talks about church as existing in the relationships between people and picks up on the themes from Bauman’s (excellent) “Liquid Modernity” that push us towards social network theory as a way of understanding how modern relationships work. Network Church is another topic on which good writing can be found at Steve Collins‘ site Small Ritual.
For the uninitiated the idea, roughly, is that very few of us these days have a ‘closed set’ of friends and acquaintances, but instead we’re all parts of various networks. Those networks have various points of intersection and different parts of it gather geographically at different times. A sense of broader community can come for a small group when they talk about friends elsewhere in their networks or are made aware of previously unknown connections. That sensation is a large part of what made sites like Friendster so popular.
I don’t expect to ever be within a ‘closed set’ and it’s probably a stretch to suggest that the modern institutional church really believes that either, but arguments can certainly be made that within the institution there are certain forms of network connection that are more approved of than others, and that there exists in certain sectors an understanding of in/out (christian/non-christian) far too short of nuance. If we believe (as I do) that modern urban life is more ‘open-ended network’ than ‘closed set’ then there is some clear rethinking to do about what church truly engaged and embedded in this context means.
In a sense this is what some would argue that ‘cell churches’ are and what mega-churches are devolving into. Greg at ‘theparish’ argues that when your sense of community comes from the small groups within a larger ‘church’, that the small groups should really be described as ‘church’. There’s a lot of merit in that argument, though that semantic shift is only really meaningful if thinking about the meaning of church in praxis flows with it.
We need to think carefully about what sort of community we are looking for, what sense of community we need, and how that manifests itself. And we need to do that without jetissoning 2000 years of ecclesiology. I sincerely believe that the development of the mega-church concept is a result of ignoring serious scholarship on the effectiveness of churches (on mulitple criteria) and instead embracing management/marketing techniques that tell us “if you’re not everywhere, you’re nowhere” and “bigger is better”. They are, to use a cliche, of the world, but not in it. I hope I’m trying to be aware of my needs, aware of the history of the wider community I try to be a part of, and critical of both.