A Community of Collaboration

For several years, I have been hanging around conversations in seminary lunchrooms and church events where the talk goes something like this:

Yeah man . . . we’re searching for community here. We don’t know really what it is, but the church is supposed to reflect community, right?

The language of community is big in ecclesiological circles, be they the middle class mainline protestantism of my denominational background, or the radical, inventive postmodern tinged youngsters who make up what is called The Emerging Church. Whereas the conversation used to focus on the church as body, or the church as lifesaving station, or the church as social institution, the language has shifted to the notion of the church as a community. A communitarian strand is rising throughout the church, with church leaders calling for churches to use the language of community rather than congregation.

What seems to be strikingly omitted from this discussion of community is the question of what kind of community the church is to be. After all, all functioning and viable communities maintain some sort of identity.

We are part of the community, man.
What community is that?
The community man, you know, the community.
What community?
THE community…

The conversation goes on with often no mention of the nature of the community that we are becoming. We maintain a communal sense as if that is enough to redeem the church. But without a deeper identity, a recognition of the type of communal space we inhabit, then we find ourselves enagaging in mental masturbation as we play at being church in new ways. To identify one’s self with a community is to know the values, the mission, and the inherent identity of that community.

So what is the church to be? There are all sorts of ways to identify communal movements in the church. The church functions as a community of disciples proclaiming the reality of God’s kingdom. The church is a community of people who maintain the same (or if not the same, at least similar) beliefs. The list can go on and on.

What I want to argue for is that the church should ultimately be a community of collaboration. Recently, I was reading an article by Malcom Gladwell titled “Group Think: What Does Saturday Night Live Have in Common with German Philosophy. In this article, published back in 2002 in the New Yorker, Gladwell suggests that innovation doesn’t arise from contemplative, solitary individuals, but rather from communities of conversation and innovation. Gladwell uses the example of the early comic innovators of Saturday Night Live and compares their communal notions and identity with those of early German philosophers. In both cases, communities of bright and energetic individuals were formed, not necessarily with the purpose of innovation, but for whom innovation was a byproduct of their communal identity. These persons freely collaborated with one another, in a sense improvising as they went, leading to the development of new ideas, new techologies, innovation.

Collaboration is an interesting word. According to Webster, collaboration is defined as the act of jointly working with others, especially in an intellectual endeavor. It comes from the same Latin root for which we get the word “labor.” Certainly the notion of working together is important in any definition of church. Yet, later definitions of the word have taken on the meaning of cooperation with someone who is not part of our normal relationships, and in several instances may even be our enemy. Collaboration in this sense suggests that working together may not be enough, rather, we may need to venture outside our safety and comfort zones for true innovation to occur. A collaborative effort in this understanding of the word recognizes the synergy present in taking persons of very different backgrounds or disciplines, and putting them together in ways that lead to creative thinking. To co-labor with persons just like you is to find one stuck in the rut of past expectations and experiences. To collaborate with someone different is to have a relationship with a person who is much more likely to say, “Have you thought about this?” or “Why can’t we do it this way?”

Going back to Gladwell’s example, that was true of the early framers of the Saturday Night Live vision. While all were comedians and traveled in the similar circles of National Lampoon, Second City, and the other cutting edge comedy institutions of the day, there was a reality that there were very dissimilar people brought together to create this show. Lorne Michaels, the producer, was intelligent, verbal, and given to bringing folks together in networks of meaning, while Michael O’Donahugh (one of the main writers) was petulant, sarcastic, and difficult to engage in conversation. Michaels brought together a Chevy Chase, the man from a background of privilege and John Belushi, a working class, rugged, insane comic who knew no boundaries. Herb Sargent was the writer who had been in television for years. Allen Zweibel had been working behind the counter of a deli writing jokes for Borscht Belt comedians when Michaels hired him. Yet, when brought into community together, these persons began to develop something that had never been seen before. They were inventing new forms of comedy, new expressions that would become part of the popular culture. The diversity of this group became a unified force that couldn’t be beat on television for the first five years of its existence.

It has become a little too popular at times to use jazz analogies for the church, but as the son of a jazz musician, I continue to be amazed at the notion of collaboration in music. I remember the recent record of Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon, the bass player for the band Phish. On the surface these two musicians had little in common. Kottke, the master of the guitar was well known in both jazz and roots music. Gordon was the arena jam band rocker, one of the successors to the Greatful Dead. But in coming together, these two made a great album that pushed both partners outside their normal roles and to a new place. Again and again, we have seen musical collaborations that take music to new places, create new sounds, and bend the genre’s that so limit us.

The church as a community of collaboration recognizes the truth of the Apostle Paul’s teachings on spiritual gifts and the body of Christ which recognizes the uniqueness of each individual member and celebrates those gifts. Those gifts aren’t all alike, but differ wildly, hopefully leading to a collaborative process which fosters creative engagement with the world. Yet, as we exist today, fragmented into sub-specialties of denominational identities, distinct in ethnic heritage, church as a commodity to be consumed, there is little hope of creative collaboration. Far too often the goal of church has become conformity — theological, socio-ethnic, generational. Amongst my own tribe of United Methodists, there are any number of voices (both conservative and liberal) calling for us to specialize even further. “We are too far apart,” they say. “There is no way we can collaborate.” And yet, church as a community of collaboration doesn’t give up that easy.

What do we do when the diversity is so great, and the theological language is so different? That may be the time to go change the topic of argument and find a common place of collaboration. Frankly, we spend far too much time defining who we aren’t rather than looking about what we can bring to a particular idea, task, etc.

In United Methodism the rending of garments has been over the exodus of members from the denomination. While I think one can argue the significance of this numerical loss, some see this as the direct result of cultural accomodation and the “liberalizing of the church.” Persons on the other side are less concerned with the numerical loss, but see trends in the church that work to exclude people (specifically homosexual persons) from participation in the church. Thus, sexuality has become the rallying cry on both sides, the litmus test regarding orthodox doctrine and practice, which leads people to call for schism.

What they fail to see is the power of collaboration. The past December, rock and water came together in such a way as to wash several countries and communities away. We continue to stagger under the immense loss of life following the Tsunami Disaster. In that moment, conservatives and liberals alike banded together with the clear understanding that the call of God in the world was to offer support and love. United Methodists in the United States raised over a million dollars just days after the disaster. Currently United Methodists, working together, have given several million dollars, and the tally continues to rise. This happened because creative people with a variety of gifts banded together to deal with this problem. Technical types set up web sites and on-line donations within hours of the disaster. Communications specialists and creative professionals worked to develop resources to lift up the plight of the survivors in local churches. Pastors, liberal and conservative alike, called their flocks to give and give and give. While the tragedy is by no means over, United Methodists working collaboratively created a critical mass that led to a greater response than ever before.

That is the power of collaboration. St. Benedict understood this in the development of his rule. Certainly the Abbot and Prioress is given authority in the community to make decisions. But those decisions, according to Benedict, are to be made only after consultation with the community at large. Benedict goes so far as to suggest that maybe the quality of ideas from the younger members of the community are superior to those of the elders, and should be taken seriously. Benedict creates a rule of life which values and encourages collaboration.

That is part of what those known as “emerging” or “the younger evangelicals” (to quote Robert Webber) are arguing for, a space where collaboration is valued and seen as important to the life of the community. This infects all aspects of what if means to be church — theology, ecclesiology, praxis. To be a community of collaboration is to recognize that we all bring something to the table to share, and that all that is shared is valued.

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