the weblog of Alan Knox

Man-made or (super)Natural Community

Posted by on Apr 29, 2008 in community, discipleship, fellowship, spirit/holy spirit | 18 comments

Last week, while we were on vacation in the mountains of North Carolina, we had several opportunities to spend some time at a few waterfalls in the area. We enjoyed stopping by the side of the road and walking the trails to the falls. Usually we only had to walk a few yards into the woods to find the waterfall.

We saw small waterfalls that were only a few feet high, and we saw Whitewater Falls which claims to be the highest waterfall in the eastern United States. We saw cascade falls, tiered falls, and plunge falls. We even saw one fall that was called a “sliding rock” with swimming holes at the top and bottom, although Jeremy and Miranda said the water was too cold for swimming.

All of the waterfalls were different and all of them were very beautiful in their own way. We enjoyed the natural beauty of the water, the sound of the water cascading over rocks or falling into a pool below, and the deep green of the woods around the waterfalls.

However, there was one waterfall did we did not enjoy. In fact, once we stopped to look at the waterfall, we only stayed for a few seconds. Why? The waterfall was not natural. It was a man-made fall. Yes, there was water cascading down over rocks, but above there was an earthen dam that controlled the flow of water. We could immediately tell that there was something different about this fall. Even though it had all the proper ingredients – water, rocks, sound, woods – it was not the same. This waterfall was contrived… controlled… man-made. It was not a real waterfall.

As I have been thinking about these waterfalls, especially in relation to the man-made waterfall, I wonder if our churches are similar. Could it be that many of us are not experiencing real Spirit-created community, but instead are we experiencing something that is contrived, controlled, and man-made?

I’m thinking specifically about alot of “small groups” of people who are placed together because of age, interests, etc. Placing people together does not create community, although it could certainly allow God opportunities to create community. The question is, are we trying to create something, or are we allowing God to create the community. If we are allowing God to create the community, are we giving him complete control, or are we setting limits for him. The more we become involved in trying to create community, the more contrived, controlled, and man-made it will become. It will not be a community that finds their identity in Christ and shares fellowship in the Spirit. Instead, it will be a group of people who find their identity in a certain person, location, time, etc.

I’m sure that the people who created the waterfall wanted to make something that was just as beautiful as the natural waterfalls around the area. In the same way, the people who try to create community themselves are trying to create something wonderful, something necessary. Probably, in many cases, they are trying to create a community because they have experienced and lived in a Spirit-created community. But, man cannot create something that only God can create. We can create something close – something that looks right – something that feels right at times – but it remains contrived, controlled, and man-made.


18 Comments

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  1. 4-29-2008

    How do you see this purely Spirit-community being established in the NT? Can you give some examples of community that developed without human intervention?

  2. 4-29-2008

    J.R.,

    I think all examples in the NT are Spirit-created communities. I think there’s a difference between “human intervention” and “man-made”. Every community – even Spirit-created communities – will have human participation/intervention.

    -Alan

  3. 4-29-2008

    Alan,

    I have studied quite a bit about the “cell-church” model. In “cell-church” theory, they talk about “homogeneous cells,” and something one presenter called “slice of life” cells. In both cases, it takes some human intervention to work towards the intended make-up of each group.

    An application of what you are talking about here, if I understand it correctly, might be “random” cells. Or even, “natural relationship web” cells.

    Then there is the question of pre-determined, recommended sizes of cells.

    Although I do think you are on to something here with the idea that God himself knows best how to arrange community, I also wonder if a legitimate application of certain spiritual gifts (administration, word of wisdom…?) might be the organization of small groups in such a way as to facilitate authentic community.

  4. 4-29-2008

    Okay, your original post seemed to imply that any involvement from man corrupted the Spirits’ work, so I appreciate your refinement.

    How do you determine what is Spirit-created community vs. Man-created community?

  5. 4-29-2008

    David,

    I think that the Spirit would use all of the gifted people necessary to create community. I wouldn’t put emphasis on any certain gifts, especially those which seem more important to us. In fact, it seems from Scripture that we should put more emphasis on “less important” gifts. Perhaps, man-made community happens when we put more emphasis on certain gifts over others.

    J.R.,

    As I answered David, the Spirit works through individuals. My distinction between “man-made” and “Spirit-created” communities would be the source and the controller of the creation, maintenance, and life of the group. The point of this post is that we often try to force something that the Spirit is not doing. We are part of a wonderful Spirit-created community, and we try to recreate somewhere else using the same means that the Spirit used before. However, it then becomes a man-made community. The distinction may appear to be thin, but I think it is very important. We have to be willing to get out of the way, let go of our plans and methods, and let the Spirit control what he wants to create.

    -Alan

  6. 4-29-2008

    Fair enough Alan. I will keep reading along with interest.

  7. 4-29-2008

    This is a problem that I ‘perceive’ to be happening at the mega church that my wife attends (and that I used to attend), and probably is the same at many churches, mega and non. The church boasts of 50+ ministries (well, that was the figure from a few years ago; it’s probably more now).

    I personally see the man-made waterfall effect happening. It looks very beautiful, and it looks like it’s very beneficial to various people. The “problem,” I guess, is that you can’t take a look at any one thing that’s going on there and say, “you know, that’s a bad thing.” Just like a man-made waterfall isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing. But the problem that no one seems to see is that it’s not always authentic. Don’t get me wrong… I’m not the judge of what the people are doing and whether or not every little thing is man-made or authentic, but as I said, my ‘perception’ is that much of it was created by man to try to carry out the mission of the church ‘leadership.’

    I ran into the problem in a personal way when I was still a part of a small group last fall. The ‘leadership’ of the church wanted all of the many small groups to watch a six week series of videos that the ‘senior pastor’ recorded so that everyone could be in on the VISION that the pastor had for the church.

    I dared to mention that I thought perhaps it would be better for us if we as a group discussed what is going on in our own lives and found our own “vision.” And then, since all the groups are part of one common larger ‘church setting,’ perhaps all the groups could report (for lack of a better word) back to the ‘leadership’ what’s going on in our individual groups and see how the larger body (and ‘leadership’) could help with the visions of the smaller groups.

    Over the years I’ve shared a lot of things in our group, some of which has gone over very well with others and some of which hasn’t, but I’ve never seen such an array of blank faces as when I mentioned that perhaps the small group knew what it needed better than the senior pastor did.

  8. 4-29-2008

    J.R.,

    I appreciate the questions and comments. You’ve helped me think more clearly, and (I think) better explain my position. I hope you continue interacting with us on this topic and others.

    Joel,

    Yes, you’ve given some good examples of what I’m talking about. I think people usually have very good motives when they try to create community. But, we have to realize that community is not something that we can create – at least, not the kind of community that we need.

    -Alan

  9. 4-30-2008

    Alan,
    Excellent post! I’ve seen the difference first hand. In the case I’m thinking of it was a group of people who were hurt in a church split and were looking to start another church. It seems that what they were doing was trying to re-create something that God had been doing in the previous church. Unfortunately it hasn’t been working out as well as they had hoped. But they seem to be somewhat satisfied with this less than perfect replica of what God WAS doing…Or maybe they haven’t found any better options in other churches. Anyway, it does seem very contrived and man-made rather than a work of the Holy Spirit.

    Blessings-

  10. 4-30-2008

    Alan,

    I agree that we, on our own, cannot create community.

    But would you not agree that the way we choose to structure our meetings can either facilitate or get in the way of community?

  11. 4-30-2008

    Brandon,

    Yes, that’s another great example of what I’m talking about. Thank you!

    David,

    I was not thinking specifically about church meetings in this post, but, yes, I agree with you completely! What we allow/do and what we do not allow/do greatly affects whether or not the Spirit is hindered in created community among us. I was not thinking about church meetings because I think that most church meetings do little or nothing to aid community and do much to hinder community.

    -Alan

  12. 4-30-2008

    The conversation reminds me of an experience we had at a large 1,200 member church in Tulsa. After attending the Sunday service for a time, we decided to join a small group. We did not know anyone in the church, and they had a very unique process. We filled out this sheet of questions about our life and our testimony. Then the leaders of these groups were given a copy and together they prayed and chose a group for us. The leaders invited to their home for dinner and we spent time getting to know them before we decided to accept their invitation to join. We did join and it was one of the best groups I have ever been in (and I have been in a lot). They had an intergenerational approach so the group looked a lot like a family. We had older couples in their 60’s and teenagers. There were people with kids and then people like us that were married with no kids. The group had singes and divorced people alike. It was a beautiful mix.

    I don’t know where that fits in your matrix for “man-made” or super-natural” community Alan, but it just came to me and I felt compelled to share.

    If anyone is interested, I preached a message last summer called “Family and The Church.” I think some of the things I share about intergenerational church vs. man-made affinity groups has some application to this post.

  13. 4-30-2008

    Alan,

    I am a little surprised to hear you say that “most church meetings do little or nothing to aid community.” I suppose there is a sense in which this is true, if you are only thinking about “traditional, Sunday-sermon, sit in the pew, spectator” type of meetings. But, my experience has been that many small group meetings (and some not-so-small group meetings) actually do a good bit to facilitate community between believers.

    Would you not agree, for example, that when believers meet together to pray for one another, talk about their lives, share insights from Scripture, confess sins and needs, etc. that the community among them is enhanced as a result?

  14. 4-30-2008

    J.R.,

    It sounds like the leaders of the megachurch were trying to give space for the Holy Spirit to work within the small groups. I listened to your sermon podcast, and thouroughly enjoyed it and agreed with it!

    David,

    Yes, I was talking about “traditional, Sunday-sermon, sit in the pew, spectator type of meetings”. I also agree that church meetings should work to enhance community instead of hinder community. I’ve seen how making a few changes to the way the church meets can enhance community.

    -Alan

  15. 4-30-2008

    Glad you liked it Alan. As a pastor, I also am not a huge fan of the pew setting that is why when I planted I made the decision to do church around tables. It has been a huge blessing.

  16. 4-30-2008

    J.R.,

    Yes, I read your post about meeting around tables. I agree that there is something special about sitting together around a table. I read several of your other posts as well. The one about church in the cracks was excellent as well.

    -Alan

  17. 5-20-2011

    I really like the analogy! I’ve been dreaming of the same thing, and I believe the Holy Spirit must be the facilitator of our community since we’re His family. I also think that there will be seasons of contrived, awkward, even hurtful relating because of our fallen state.

    I’m doubting that perfectly grown organic fellowship won’t ebb and flow, come and go. If our focus is on loving God and loving each other, we will build healthy lasting relationships that will remind us to just seek and follow Jesus through the down times.

    This is what was glaringly missing from most typical churches I’ve attended. Everyone was on their smiley-best behaviour and saying we’re family, but we didn’t know each other in real life outside of the church building.

  18. 5-20-2011

    Esther,

    Yes, there will be ups and downs, good times and bad times, with any community. It is only by remaining focused on Jesus Christ and living out of the Spirit that he gave us that any community can continue in spite of difficulties.

    -Alan

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