By Alan Hirsch In trying to come to grips with what was happening in our own church, as well as in trying to answer the question of how apostolic movements grew so remarkably and against all odds, I have found Victor Turner’s ideas of liminality and communities to be essential keys to naming part of the mystery. It is these ideas that undergird what we at 100M call Risk-Tribalizing.
Turner was an anthropologist who studied various rites of passage among African people groups, and he came up with the term liminality to describe the transition process accompanying a fundamental change of state or social position. Situations of liminality in this context can be extreme, where the participant is cast out of the normal structures of life and is humbled, disoriented, and subjected to various rites of passage, which together constitute a test to determine whether the participant will be integrated back into society and allowed to transition to the next level in the prevailing social structure. Liminality, therefore, applies to that situation where people find themselves in an in-between, marginal state in relation to the surrounding society, a place that could involve significant danger and disorientation, but not necessarily so.
For example, in some tribes younger boys are kept under the care of the women until the age of initiation into the cultural understanding of manhood—around thirteen. At the appropriate time, the men sneak into the female compound of the village at night and “kidnap” the lads. The boys are blindfolded, then roughed up, herded out of the village, and taken deep into the bush. They are then circumcised (!) and subsequently left to fend for themselves in the African bush for a period lasting up to six months. Once a month the elders of the tribe go to meet them to help debrief and mentor them. But on the whole they must find both inner and outer resources to cope with the ordeal pretty much by themselves (think Lord of the Flies here!). During this shared ordeal, the initiates move from being disoriented and individualistic to developing a bond of comradeship and communality forged in the testing conditions of liminality. This sense Turner calls communitas. Communitas in his view happens in situations where individuals are driven to find one another through a common experience of ordeal, humbling, transition, and marginalization. It involves intense feelings of social togetherness and belonging brought about by having to rely on one another in order to survive. In many ways, communitas is what creates and renews a tribal culture.
If communitas is the result, then liminality is the catalyzing condition that produces the result. Liminality, according to Turner, occurs in the experience of disorientation, marginality, danger, ordeal, humiliation, or challenge that requires a group of people to get it done or fail in the attempt. Liminality is where we find ourselves out of our comfort zones, the unfamiliar, where we feel at risk, face a challenge, or are deliberately on an adventure. And it is absolutely critical in the formation of communitas as it is to learning, discipleship, healthy psychology, character development, child rearing, and in just about all forms of innovation and entrepreneurship. Refusal to engage in essential risk leads to a fearful neurosis and the decline of any living system—be it an organism, individual, or community.
To return to our example of the African boys’ shared ordeal, if they emerge from these experiences, they are reintroduced into the tribe as men. They are thus accorded the full status of manhood—they are no longer considered boys.
The related ideas of liminality and communitas describe the dynamics of the Christian community inspired to overcome their instincts to “huddle and cuddle” and instead form themselves around a common mission that calls them to a dangerous journey to unknown places—a mission that calls the church to shake off its collective securities and plunge into the world of action, where its members will experience disorientation and marginalization but also where they will encounter God and one another in a new way. Communitas is therefore always linked with the experience of liminality. It involves adventure and movement, and it describes that unique experience of togetherness that only really happens among a group of people inspired by the vision of a better world who actually attempt to do something about it. (Remember the response to the tsunami.) It is here where the safe, middle-class, consumerist captivity of the church is so very problematic. It is here where the adaptive challenge of the twenty-first century could be God’s invitation to the church to rediscover itself as a missional communitas.
In this perspective, apostolic movements were/are expressions of communitas and not community as we normally conceive it. As far as I can discern, liminality-communitas is always a normative element of Apostolic Genius.
This is an excerpt from the new edition of Alan’s cornerstone book, The Forgotten Ways https://goo.gl/wG08vD
See Turner, Ritual Process, and Turner, “Passages, Margins, and Poverty.”
Contrary to what we might think, danger can be good for us. As Corbin Carnell rightly notes, “Danger does highlight the paradoxical nature of good and evil—at least as to how we experience it. It highlights goodness and gives it a wholesome aspect that evil in itself denies.” Bright Shadow of Reality, 109.
Seth Godin has done much to translate the idea of tribal culture into corporate life. See his popular Tribes.