Community versus Society


There is a lot of buzz today about being missional.  In fact, according to Bill Kinnon missional is “the Western Church word of the moment.”  A whole debate is raging about the merits of missional versus  attractional models.  The missional movement started out as a way to change the conversation about what the Church is and how to reflect the Trinitarian outreach of God (Missio Dei).  But, according to Kinnon and others, “missional” has become overused and wrongly used and now many are trying to reorient its use towards the original intention.

This discussion is a game changer and is stirring a lot of enthusiasm and getting people to ask important questions.  Interest in community and contextualizing into our neighborhoods is high.  I recently attended a “non-conference” in Fort Wayne where these issues were discussed.  It was an edifying time and I enjoyed meeting many wonderful people.  One of the tensions in this discussion centered around the idea of community versus society.

Many are recognizing the need to embody Christianity in a significant way that enables us to be witnesses and not just peddlers of a message.  “Church as usual” isn’t cutting it.  We want to participate in God’s out-flowing love and missionary character.  Purpose is taking a center stage as the reason for community.  It’s been put this way: Rather than, “The Community for Me,” it should be, “Me for the Community and the Community for the world.”

On the surface this looks awesome.  How can you argue with the idea of reflecting the generous out-flowing nature of God?  Of course, this should be our orientation – it’s the message of Christianity.  But the danger exists in making purpose superior to people.  The Scottish philosopher, John Macmurray, has some enlightening things to say about this, which he explains by differentiating community and society.

“Any community of persons, as distinct from a mere society, is a group of individuals united in a common life, the motivation of which is positive. Like a society, a community is a group which acts together; but unlike a mere society its members are in communion with one another; they constitute a fellowship. A society whose members act together without forming a fellowship can only be constituted by a common purpose. They cooperate to achieve a purpose which each of them, in his own interest, desires to achieve, and which can only be achieved by co-operation. The relations of its members are functional; each plays his allotted part in the achievement of the common end. The society then has an organic form: it is an organization of functions; and each member is a function of the group. A community, however, is a unity of persons as persons. It cannot be defined in functional terms, by relation to a common purpose. It is not organic in structure, and cannot be constituted or maintained by organization, but only by the motives which sustain the personal relations of its members. It is constituted and maintained by a mutual affection. ” (emphasis mine)

In a society your importance is related to the end for which the group exists.  But in community, which cannot be defined in functional terms (“What do you guys do?”), people are the end.  We don’t think of a marriage as having to have a purpose.  In fact, if a couple says they are getting married to achieve some purpose, like starting a business, we would raise an eyebrow or two.  The partners and their love for each other is its own justification.

So, in our missional zeal to keep from being ingrown, which I would argue only happens when we are not truly committed to community, we are in danger of devaluing people.  Our witness to the world is a witness of love (John 13:35; 17:21).  Only as we commit to one another for the long-term because of our affection for one another do we embody the kind of community that is truly missional – one that reflects the communion of the Trinity.