By Steve Manskar
One of my all time favorite movies is The Lord of The Rings trilogy directed by Peter Jackson. The films are based on the novel of the same name written by J.R.R. Tolkien. The focus of the story is a band of Hobbits lead by Frodo Baggins. Their task is to carry the long-lost ring of power to Mount Doom in Mordor. All the while they must keep it away from the evil Lord Sauron. The Hobbits, with the help of many men, elves, and a dwarf, endure many adventures that include struggle and suffering. It’s never easy when the forces of evil are organized against you.
In the end Frodo and his trusted companion, Samwise Gamgee, manage to destroy the ring and return home to their beloved Shire where they are reunited with their friends Pippin and Peregrin Took. All four played important roles in the quest to destroy the ring of power and the defeat of Sauron.
The shared experience of the quest changed all four characters. The change is made apparent in a scene near the end of The Return of the King. The four Hobbits have returned to the Shire. One evening they all meet at a local tavern to share a pint of ale. The tavern is filled with Hobbits having a good time. There is lots of noisy talking, singing and dancing. In the midst of all this merry-making sit Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Pere. They are happy to be home. But as they look into each other’s faces they know all of them have been changed forever by their experience with the ring. We see in their expressions that there is now a bond between the four Hobbits. Before the quest they were acquaintances. Now they are brothers.
The Hobbits experienced what sociologists call liminality and communitas. Alan Hirsch writes about these two important concepts in The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. He argues that congregations need to cultivate communitas by providing liminal experiences:
“Liminality … applies to a 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. … 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” (page 220 & 221).
Early Methodist societies were communities marked by liminality and communitas. The routine of weekly class and society meetings, daily life shaped by the General Rules, and the expectation that they grow in holiness of heart and life set the people called Methodists apart from their neighbors. Methodist people were equipped to live and witness as “salt and light” for the church and the world. Regularly practicing the means of grace (acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion) coupled with mutual accountability and support formed people who shared significant connection with one another through their common commitment to growth in holiness of heart and life.
Disciple-making requires more than Christian community. It requires a community that provides regular opportunities for members to experience liminality and communitas. Covenant Discipleship groups and the lay pastoral leadership they develop foster a Christ-centered, rather than a church-centered, culture. A Christ-centered culture forms congregations into a pilgrim people who participate in Christ’s mission in, with, and for the world.
Discipleship does not often require us to fight Orcs or go to battle against evil wizards. But it is a way of life that sets us against the grain of the culture of consumerism that dominates the contemporary North American church and the world. The practice of discipleship provides experiences of liminality that lead to the communitas Christians need to participate in Christ’s mission in the world.
How does your congregation provide experiences of liminality?
Where do you see communitas in your congregation?
What is your congregation doing to develop a culture of communitas?