Congregation as Communitas: Rare, but Possible

In several of the more recent posts in the series, "A Missional UM Future," I've noted that in general terms the congregational format of Christian community is fairly incompatible with the level of trust and the depth of "communitas" (as Alan Hirsch uses the term) to form disciples well or send them into mission with some hope of good returns.

This weekend, I've met an exception-- a congregation that IS making and sending disciples, and against some pretty high odds. Siemers-Fulton Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf, or, more simply, Christ Deaf Church, in Baltimore, MD, is that congregation.

I've never met a more connected, deeper community in a congregation anywhere. This congregation is literally saving people's lives-- transforming them, providing a venue for deep celebration in worship and real-life fairly constant connections (in all kinds of ways) not only to their pastors but to each other.

How is this possible? Actually, because they're not an exception. Their community IS communitas. They share at least one common ordeal-- being deaf in a hearing world (some are blind and face other challenges as well)-- but with a common commitment to being in ministry in the name of Jesus Christ with all they can.

Christ Church of the Deaf has not contrived its communitas. It simply lives it. Powerfully. Together and individually.

And it fits perhaps none of the typical stereotypes of an "emerging" church-- or even a "contemporary" church. There is no praise band-- but there is a deaf choir that sings with their hands and bodies. There is no PowerPoint-- but there is a video camera that functions as the "amplifier" -- by enlarging the image of the movements of the presider so those who maybe can't see them in person can get them in a larger format. And there is someone who voices the ASL for those who do not understand ASL (myself included!), and someone else who types up everything being said for viewing on a large TV (yes-- TV-- and it's even a CRT-- not even plasma!). They sing hymns. They celebrate Holy Communion straight from the liturgy of the 1989 hymnal-- but not by reading it with spoken words, but by enacting it in ASL with their bodies. Way more multi-sensory in every way than most congregations, even though at least one of the senses is inaccessible to the majority of folks there. Certainly more kinetic. Ages are all over the map. And its the most diverse congregation in terms of ethnic background and national background I've ever worshipped with.

Communitas. In a congregation. But a congregation in which their communitas PRECEDES their congregational format. They care for each other interpersonally first. And when they gather as congregation, it's a celebration of all the ways they are already communitas.

I don't believe anything like this is close to replicable in the average congregation. Sure-- a lot of the technologies they use could be repeated, and maybe they'd help a little in hearing congregations. But that would be missing the point. Sort of like adding "typical" emerging doo-dads and gee-whiz techniques to a worship event at an attractional congregation doesn't replicate what a truly emerging missional church, living out its mDNA, can actually do. To borrow a phrase from John Houseman describing the sound of an electronic organ that was digitally mastered from a variety of original pipe organs in the movie "A Christmas without Snow"-- "It is a good imitation of a great sound." But in the end, it's the great sound that's needed. This deaf congregation in Baltimore hears that great sound and reproduces it faithfully.

May we all find or find the willingness to find such communitas in or alongside our churches-- even when it may not be possible or reasonable to think it can be expressed as part of our current congregational formats.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards