Forces are at work in late modernity’s culture to make us yearn for community (koinonia) and that at the same time prevent us from participating in community. Hence, the rise of the small group movement. Yet, for all the efforts put into small groups, it is not entirely convincing that small groups are creating the community we have hoped they would create. That is why we need books like Theresa Latini’s new book, The Church and the Crisis of Community: A Practical Theology of Small-Group Ministry. It’s a good book; it’s a serious book; and it’s a rigorous book of practical theology.
Latini’s book is too thick to skim so I want to slow down with her first chapter that describes the “crisis of community.” She’s mastered the literature on community and on how late modernity (or postmodernity) opens up a crisis in communal relations, and anyone who has read Robert Bellah or Robert Putnam know some of this stuff. But she helpfully compares traditional societies with late modernity’s societies in order to show the differences — this helps us see where we are.
Big ones: What is your experience with small groups in your church? Do you see unachieved expectations? Are the expectations achievable?
Latini sketches two themes: environment of trust and environment of risk.
In the traditional society, the environment of trust involved kinship relations that stabilizes social ties (think large Italian or Irish or Polish or Serbian families today, but most of us don’t experience this), a local community provided familiarity (folks didn’t up and move to another town or state or country), religion and rituals interpreted the world, and a tradition connected the past to the present.
In modern societies social ties are established through friendship and sexual relations (and folks may well be expecting too much for both), abstract systems (internet relations, etc) stabilize relations across spans of time and space, and there is a future orientation (and not a tradition orientation).
Next she studies the environment of risk.
In traditional societies, threats came from nature, violence came from marauding bandits and small armies, and there was a risk of fall from grace and influence from magical influence.
In modern societies, threats came from the “reflexivity” of modernity, violence comes from the modern engines of war, and there is a threat of personal meaningless from the reflexivity of the self in modernity. What is reflexivity? social practices are constantly under examination and alteration in light of new information — all of life seemingly is in the constant shift mode. Thus, I think of how we each watch TV. As a kid, we watched a few channels, had to get out of our chair to change channels, and we went to the movies to see a movie. Today you can watch anything you want … but we watch through a cable provider, and you may watch through Netflix (and it’s struggling, no?) and you may have Apple TV, whatever that is, and you may store TV shows and watch them when you want … and who knows what’s coming next, but it promises to be better and better … you get the point: things are shifting.
We are disembedded from community (the numbers decrease on community participation all the time); intimacy is being transformed; all of these factors are at work and de-stabilize the self and lead us inward to stabilize it, and we do this to construct our own identity. We are thus “reflexive” in our self. [No wonder therapy and spiritual formation movements are thriving.] There is a dizziness in our freedom.
And religious orientation has changed too. Folks differ; we encounter so much diversity; distrust of religious leaders is common; and beliefs are subject to change and falsification. [I would add that distrust of authorities leads us today toward greater belief in the charismatic leader we sense we can trust, leading to heroism. Sometimes I feel like we are back in Corinth when Paul observed that some were following Peter and others Apollos, etc.]
Small groups, in some ways, are the attempt to recapture the traditional society by people dwelling in late modernity who have no way of connecting to the realities of a traditional society. We lack the structures that can guide us into security in a riskier world. In other ways, small groups have to know what late modernity demands of us and does to us in order to know what a small group can accomplish. Small groups can be a grassroots level of re-establishing genuine koinonia.