So what exactly is it that forms communities? From the sociological perspective, a key ingredient to the formation of a community is a common ideology. In fact, this is probably the foundation of most communities. For example, most churches or denominations are formed around ideologies, or doctrines. Adherence to the ideology places one ion proximity to the group. In some communities, there must be a public recognition of the groups ideology in order to be admitted into the circle. If it is not true for initiation into the community, adherence may be a "staying feature" which secures ones status of "in" and not "out". there are of course varying degrees to which members have latitude to veer away from the ideology. A good example of this would be the political realm. While the political ideology of Democrats or Republicans have identifiable characteristics that distinguish them, you would be hard pressed to find unanimous agreement between Republicans on every issue, despite their fundamentally shared ideology.
If ideology is a foundational element that elicits community, then what are the implications of this for the body of Christ? It is my experience that when a group of people share the same ideology about things, they seem to gravitate towards one another. This happens for obvious reasons. There is comfort in being around people who think like you. There is also the broader interest of collaborating for specific tasks. Not to mention the discussions and learning that arise within a group who intentionally seek to press out the implications for their shared ideology on other part of their life.
You can see this in action with the EMC. There is a different ideology floating around out there about how to be the church, live as a christian and engage in mission for God. It is this different ideology that has elicited the EMC with all of its different tribal expressions. I am excited about this new move of God in the church. It is a breath of fresh air for me and a lot of other people.
What fascinates me about pioneering a community formation is the concept of ideology, praxis and boundaries. These elements are located close together, but I struggle to map their exact coordinates. I am inclined to say, in a linear fashion, that ideology leads to praxis, which then leads to visible boundaries. The only problem with this idea is that we do not live in an air tight, theoretical world. In between ideology and praxis is our culture, worldview, heritage etc. And in between our praxis and boundaries are flesh, hypocrisy, and imperfect knowledge. In other words it is a lot messier than we want it to be.
I have found some relief in the concept of bounded-sets and centered-sets which was first presented by a sociologist named Paul Heibert. Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost in their book The Shaping of Things to Come, discuss this concept at length. I like their metaphor about the wells and the fences. When it comes to herding cattle, you can either build fences to keep track of the cows, or you can build wells, which then become centers for cattle to gather around. The fences would be cultural norms, moral codes, external behaviors and even doctrinal confessions. The well would be a strong ideology that informs and shapes the above externals, but does not erect a barricade to those seeking water.
In the bounded set, it is easy to see who is in and who is out. The only problem is that it erects a barrier to those outside. Not to mention the enormous temptation for legalism. I mean, you could be standing right next to the fence, wishing you were on the other side the whole time. But to everyone else, you seem perfectly fine because you are adhering to the external code.
In the centered set, it is a lot harder to patrol the borders of the community. But really, the goal is not to get people "in the fence". It is to get them closer to the well! So they can drink and stay healthy. So, the question is, what is the well? It is most ambiguously an ideology. It is too simplistically Jesus. Is it more realistic to say that it is the gospel? I want to say that it is. The more I look at this Christianity thing, the more I see that the gospel, if understood and applied, is the foundational ideology for Christian existence and community. Within the gospel is the churches DNA, its ideology and its power. When people are facing this, seeking this and living this, they are drinking from the well.
So what do I mean by the gospel the scholar would say? I would point you to a book by a scholar Michael J. Gorman called Cruciformity: Paul's Narrative Spirituality of the Cross. This book is dynomite! For me, it was the find of a decade. I found myself crying in awe of the cross and all the things I missed about the gospel in the Pauline writings. It is a must read. If the gospel is articulated and embraced, it becomes the governor of morality, relationships, spiritual formation, community, all the good stuff we try to facilitate with our own schemes. Paul does this by offering a pregnant constellation of metaphors. Could it really be this simple? Yes and no. The gospel is God's foolishness, but it is also a mystery. In other words, the well runs deep.