Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Brief Review of Organic Community

I really wanted to like Organic Community by Joseph Myers. I really, really did. The title is perfect. If I had to imagine the title of the book on cultivating Christian community I wanted to read, I would imagine its titular phrase reflecting that which I have become a believer in -- "organic community." As such, I dove into Myers's resource, a joint publication of Baker Book House and Emergent Village, eager for confirmation and education.

I was disappointed.

There is quite a bit of good in the book, most notably the very concept itself: creating environments where community grows naturally, as opposed to setting up a "program" that artificially thrusts something resembling community -- in most churches, Sunday School or small groups -- upon people. In his Foreword to the book, Willow Creek teaching pastor Randy Frazee forewarns:
What is the main idea? It is a major shift "from programming community to using principles of organic order to develop an environment where community can emerge." In the pit of the stomachs of most church leaders I know, there is the gnawing sense that Christian community has to be more natural, spontaneous, and life-giving. Yet most of us in ministry today have been trained to offer up models that are often overprogrammed and contrived.

Yes. Thank you. Already, the book is speaking my language, resonating with my growing convictions.

And most of the ideas proposed in describing what this "organically ordered environment" looks like were on the right track. Myers writes about cultivating community in and out of an existing environment rather than establishing a master plan and expecting an automatic falling in line. Echoing a growing cultural disenchantment with the small group cure-all, he writes:
I'm not asking you to dismantle your small group program. I'm asking you to rethink using small groups as the master plan for people's lives . . . I question [the manner in which] they are promoted and structured. At their best, small groups supply an organic-ordered environment for some people in some seasons of their lives to grow their sense of healthy community and belonging. At their worst, small groups deliver a manufactured environment that is promoted for all people and for every season of life.

Essentially Myers is calling for flexibility, improvisation, nurturing people as people and responding to them, rather than approaching them as numbers or ideas and trying to plug them like tabs into a small group slot. It's like envisioning the cultivation of community like it's jazz music, not a line dance polka.

There is more good stuff too. Myers contrasts bottom line thinking with story (stats vs. stories) and number-crunching with shepherding. "If we only concentrate on the numbers," he writes, "we'll miss what is really happening." The chapter on Measurement is itself quite good and would make an excellent stand-alone article. And the parallel view he offers between the forming of church community and the way friendships develop (not according to someone's master plan but almost spontaneously, naturally, which is not to say not deliberately).

But I found Organic Community's deficiencies as bothersome as those in Simple Church (another book I really tried to like) and ultimately, like Simple Church's critical flaws, practically negating of the book's usefulness. I have the same primary criticisms of both books:
a) too much appropriation of business models, which is due to
b) not enough Scripture.

Simple Church urged church leaders to think more like Apple and Nike. Organic Community is too emergent to plug The Man like that, but Myers continually refers to his business, his clients, the way work projects are conducted, the way employees interact, the principles gleaned from his organic approach to secular leadership theory. The book is chock-full of quotes and book excerpts, but nearly all of them are from self-helpy leadership gurus or business books.

In the few times Myers gets around to citing a Scriptural example, they mostly appear offhand; I got the impression he felt them obligatory but not necessary (if you see my distinction). A Bible figure may get namechecked as being a good example of whatever concept he's discussing. But the vast majority of the illustrations and the quotes come straight from the business world or other leadership/relationship theory books. The most indepth biblical citations occur n the later chapters, which ironically enough, are the least satisfying, ideologically. For instance, it was refreshing to encounter a long blockquote of Jesus' provocative encounter with the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28), until the quote ended and Myers summed it up as an example of God wanting to cooperate with us and Jesus inviting the disciples to collaborate with him on his worldview. In the next chapter, Myers says holding people accountable for their behavior (speaking of church leadership) violates the description of love as keeping no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5). Clearly Myers is preaching tolerance (and I don't mean to unintentionally scare-quote that word) and forgiveness as if they are the antitheses of accountability and discipline.

The last three or four chapters in fact are insufferably mushy. Lots of gobbledygook and touchy-feely ecclesiological utopianism, punctuated with a few eisegetical treatments of Bible verses ripped from context. It was a terrible way to end a book that seemed to begin on the right track. Myers is an idealist, to be sure, but for all the honesty in surveying the problems with forming community, he appears very naive and impractical on how vital Christian community may be formed. He says nothing about the place of elders, ministers, pastors, whathaveyou in the place of community structures.

His takes on cooperation and rotating authority sound great when the goal is nobody getting their toes stepped on, but even those who've just dabbled in leadership know that if everyone's say is equal and there is no accountability, nothing gets done but good feelings.
The silver bullet for this sort of thinking is, Who decides what to do when everyone disagrees on what to do? Myers doesn't address that. I guess because focusing on what to do implies a master plan, which we shouldn't have because God didn't have. Or something.

Once he gets around to creating new words and redefining old ones my enthusiasm for the book's concept had already been drained. Reading his recommended resources at the end is depressing. Out of 78 books in the bibliography, about 6 of them could qualify as halfway on the subject of Christian community or theology of church (I'm loosely categorizing, for the sake of charity, and including in those six books on practical church growth). This sort of means that for a book that is ostensibly about cultivaing Spirit-formed community within the Body of Christ, it is about 90% informed by secular leadership, business, psychology, and self-help resources.

I'm still sold on the concept of organic community. I will just look for another resource to explicate that concept theologically and practically.

Thoughts on Organic Community
The Formation of Reformation, Part 2: Experiencing Community

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a good concept that somebody else will probably try to develop scripturally.

Great review. Thanks for posting this.