Reflections on Community, Authority and Ethos
by Len Hjalmarson

"Some people say that community starts in mystery and ends in bureaucracy. They start with great enthusiasm and a love that surpasses all frontiers, and end up with a lot of administration and wealth, loss of enthusiasm and fear of risk. The essence of the challenge to a growing community is to adapt its structures so that they go on enabling the growth of individuals and do not merely conserve a tradition, still less a form of authority and prestige." Vanier, Community and Growth

As I sit on this Wednesday morning and look back on the past two years of our journey, I realize it has been life shaping. And I ask myself what we would gain by "joining" another group?

The invitation is to join the Vineyard. We have been getting to know and love these guys. We have felt the need to connect with something larger than ourselves. What might we gain, and what might we lose?

We are already a community with our own unique characteristics. Those characteristics are notable both for what we lack, and for what we have.

We lack a membership list. We lack a board. We lack a written value set or a mission statement (Some of you are going to argue that you have seen those things here; but there is no link on the page that will take you to a list, so my point stands :).

We lack definition. We lack a clear authority structure. We lack a budget or a regular offering. We lack a building.. or maybe we have several :)

Because we lack definition and rigid structures or even a membership list, it's easy to feel that we are stuck in process and not moving toward a goal. But we have learned that definitions exclude as much as they include. As much information is lost when we define something as what we gain. So I wonder.. maybe the process is the goal?

Ok, we lack some things. But what do we have? We have friends. We have a mission. We have homes. We have those who are central to our group, and those who are peripheral. We have people coming to the Lord, once every month or two. We have people sharing resources, helping single moms move, buying food for others, praying for one another. We have new people joining our group every few months.

The leadership question is much more complex. I have been around leadership thinking for ten years (since seminary) and more intensely pursuing the study of leadership for the past four years (via Peter Senge, John Maxwell, Margaret Wheatley and others). But honestly, if someone asked me to define our leadership structure, I would be hard pressed to do so.

While it is true that my wife and I have set the tone, we have constantly invited others into the process, wherever there was interest. Our ethos is mutuality and communal.

Granted this is easier to do with a small group than with a large one. Also granted that it requires a certain level of maturity. But maybe that begs the question.. maybe in building large groups which then require more definition, rules and programs, we have missed the mark. We can all think of large groups that appear successful because they have grand programs that run along smoothly. Everyone knows who they are and what they need to do. Roles and expectations are clearly laid out. But unfortunately, for all their definition, these large groups often seem to lack the most important things: significant caring for one another, intimacy with God, real community, spontaneous initiative in mission and spiritual vitality.

Maybe in trying to create safety through roles and structure and programs we also limit flexibility and therefore what God can do with us. On the one hand everyone says that they want community; on the other hand we often import values and methods that work against that foundation. Hmmmm....

What I was going to say was that I am evolving some new thoughts on this process. I have discovered in the past two years that it is possible to "do church" while mixing believers and unbelievers. I have discovered that in this postmodern culture, "belonging before believing" actually works. When we invite people into our lives, and when we are living the gospel before them, Jesus draws them to Himself.

But what if the same is true of leadership? What if it is possible to invite those with a basic level of emotional and spiritual maturity (generally two sides of the same coin) into the process of leading? What if "belonging before believing" is also true of growing leaders?

I remember a story told by Paul Stevens, the Plymouth Brethren brother, in a class at Regent College some years ago. He recalled that one Sunday morning an elder announced casually from the pulpit, "The elders meeting is at such and such tonight at 7 PM. All those with a burden for the work are invited to attend." So Paul and his friend showed up at the appointed time. The elders declined to say that these two young bucks were at the wrong place. They just casually picked up and moved to another location. Not knowing what was up, Paul and his friend casually followed them!

What if instead of closed inner circle meetings we were to say, "Come if you have a burden for the work." Would this be placing too much faith in the Holy Spirit? Would it create new problems while taking care of others?

It might. But I'd like to go there and give it a try.


It amazed me to discover early in 2002 that our values were essentially Vineyard values. After reading Bill Jackson's book "The Quest for the Radical Middle," I realized that we are Vineyard. We value the things the Vineyard values. We are about missional community. We are about keeping the Word and the Spirit together. We are about being naturally supernatural.

But we are also about being outside the walls. We are more kingdom oriented than church oriented. We are characterized by informality, loose definition, and invitation. We meet every second Sunday and seek to live lives worthy of the Gospel. We are a relational network, centered around the resurrected Jesus.

It struck me this morning that we will remain Vineyard in our value set whether we join a Vineyard group or not. These values are who we are, not just a set of beliefs to which we subscribe.

We could join with the local Vineyard and maintain our set of values, because that is also who they are. We would probably sacrifice some of our flexibility. We would find ourselves on the edge of the leadership core, who are defined as those who set the tone. And this has raised for me the question of "ethos." On the ANZAC list this past week, David Orton wrote,

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment…" Mtt. 15

"God is doing a new thing - "See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up…" (Isa 43:19 NIV).

"Through the coming of Jesus God drew a line in the sand. The old order was finished and Jesus was the beginning of the new. The religious spirit and structures of the day were challenged to cross the line, but refused. Every season of renewal and revival is similar. The majority of us though do not reject "the new thing" outright. We edge right up to the line, stop, lean over into it, grab a part that’s working, pull it back over our side, and patch it onto the old.

"We can talk reformation, but actually do innovation. To innovate means to make changes or alterations in anything established; bring in new ideas, methods. Whereas to reform means to make better by removing abuses, altering; to restore to a better condition; to put an end to; stop (an abuse, malpractice, etc). Innovation merely introduces new methods to the existing order. But reformation carries with it moral and spiritual overtones that demand a finish to the old, and a new start.

"When disease or illnesses occur in the human body there are four options: treat the symptoms, cut it out, transplant it, or death. Much of what we do in the church is treat symptoms. We might get radical and do an organ transplant but we run the risk of recipient rejection. The new organ proves to be incompatible and is rejected by the host body. If the new practice doesn’t conform to the old values, it will eventually tear apart. "No one sows a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse" (Mtt 9:16 NIV).

"It is significant that the word used here for tear is "schisma" from which we derive our word schism or division. The history of revivals shows that every time God moves, there is division – a tearing of the new from the old. Old mindsets, attitudes, and values cannot adjust to the new thing God is doing. Strongholds of power and religious control are threatened and ultimately the new is rejected.

"A city-reaching friend recently gave me a brilliant ‘reading’ on the current church scene. He drew my attention to two words "praxis" and "ethos". He commented,

"We are hell-bent on salvation through "praxis"! There has to be a system, a process, a strategy, someone or something we can import to knock the socks off our city... We are eaten up with praxis – ‘Are you purpose driven? Or seeker sensitive? What model or method are you using? G-12 for your groups? Or some other model?’ I am not opposed to more effective praxis - but what we have ignored is "ethos" - that is, the texture, the intangible, that element which is almost indefinable, that which is difficult to quantify, but arguably impacting. It has to do with "how" to do "praxis" - the atmosphere, the attitude, the interior.

"We are attempting to engage praxis - more and better praxis - in an atmosphere which is blatantly unhealthy. Unless the church moves from unhealthy ethos, to healthy ethos, to vibrantly healthy ethos, anything we do will be sabotaged. It is not a matter of "ethos" over "praxis". It is rather, that we must see effective praxis intersect with healthy ethos. And we have ignored ethos altogether."

David goes on to talk about prayer as the center of this new ethos. We tend to be technicians who pray when we must rather than lovers of God who pray then work when we must. We tend to be managers, and not mystics. We tend to rely a great deal on our ability to work toward defined ends by virtue of efficient means, ie. we rely on our ability to strategize and analyze and implement our plans.

I agree, and I confess that I am too weak in this area; maybe one of the lessons the Lord is teaching me by forcing me to rely on Him rather than a clear sense of direction. Maybe that's why I've been fasting this week...

But I am taken with this concept of "ethos." It reminds me of something I wrote a few months ago.

A friend related to me that the physicists who are researching quantum dynamics and who are working with the very smallest particles came up against another mystery. It seems that while there were some things that were definable, one of the largest questions remaining was about the power in matter. No one knows where it comes from. This caused one scientist to theorize that "Perhaps the power is in the blank spaces."

Blank spaces are what we lose when we organize. Blank spaces are those elements of community that remain shrouded in mystery. In fact, community itself IS a mystery. You can plan it, organize it and pray for it and still not get it. It requires something spontaneous and unreachable by human effort and thought alone. It requires more weakness than strength, and we aren't very good at weakness.

Community is where we have to go to be a faithful expression of the life of Jesus. Unfortunately, we have built congregations rather than communities, buildings rather than temples of living stones, and audiences rather than families of faith. Building communities requires completely different skills than building an audience. Clay Shirky writes,

"[Building a community] will require different skills and attitudes than those necessary to build an audience. Many of the expectations you make about the size, composition, and behavior of audiences when you are in a broadcast mode are actually damaging to community growth. To create an environment conducive to real community, you will have to operate more like a gardener than an architect."

In his article Clay outlines five things that broadcasters must consider in the connectivity age:

1. Audiences are built. Communities grow.
2. Communities face a tradeoff between size and focus.
3. Participation matters more than quality.
4. You may own the software, but the community owns itself.
5. The community will want to build. Help it, or at least let it.

Clay spells out some of the essential differences between a centrally controlled organization (what I tend to call "institution) versus a true community. Clay continues:

"Broadcast connections can be created by a central organization, but [community] connections are created by the members for one another. Communities grow, rather than being built. New members of an audience are simply added to the existing pool, but new members of a community must be integrated. One of the most important things you can do to attract community is to give it a fertile environment in which to grow, and one of the most damaging things you can do is to try to force it to grow at a rapid pace or in a preset direction.

"Small groups can be highly focused on some particular issue or identity, but such groups can't simply be inflated like a balloon, because a large group is a different kind of thing than a small one. Most broadcast organizations assume that reaching a large group is an unqualified good, so they push for size at any cost, and eventually bump into the attendant tradeoffs: you can have large community, but not a highly focused one; you can have a focused community, but not a large one; or you can reach a large number of people focused on a particular issue, but it won't be a community.

"With these options, broadcast organizations will (often unconsciously) opt for the last one, simply building an audience and calling it a community, as in "The community of our readers." Though this may make for good press release material, calling your audience a community doesn't actually make it one.

"The order of things in broadcast is "filter, then publish." The order in communities is "publish, then filter." If you go to a dinner party, you don't submit your potential comments to the hosts, so that they can tell you which ones are good enough to air before the group, but this is how broadcast works every day. Writers submit their stories in advance, to be edited or rejected before the public ever sees them. Participants in a community, by contrast, say what they have to say, and the good is sorted from the mediocre after the fact.

"Media people often criticize the content on the internet for being unedited, because everywhere one looks, there is low quality -- bad writing, ugly images, poor design. What they fail to understand is that the internet is strongly edited, but the editorial judgment is applied at the edges, not the center, and it is applied after the fact, not in advance..

Community is made possible by [structure], but the value is created by its participants. If you think of yourself as owning a community when you merely own the infrastructure, you will be astonished at the vitriol you will face if you try to force that community into or out of certain behaviors.

"Real community is a self-creating thing, with some magic spark, easy to recognize after the fact but impossible to produce on demand, that draws people together. Once those people have formed a community, however, they will act in the interests of the community, even if those aren't [the leaders or managers] interests.

September 9, 2002 on the 'Networks, Economics, and Culture' mailing list.

My conclusion? I don't have one.. this is just the process.

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• © 1999-2002 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on March 5, 2003