The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Meaningful members of meaningful groups

Posted by Ron George on August 16, 2009

The community of faith

The community of faith

I recollect from some classroom or another that sociologist Peter Berger says everyone wants to be a meaningful member of a meaningful group. Even if Berger didn’t say it, I’ve found the maxim to be true. It’s one of those obvious fundamentals we seldom ponder because we take them for granted.

Groups are meaningful in a variety of ways from innumerable perspectives. Some groups are meaningful because they bestow prestige and benefit their members in tangible ways. Some country clubs, I suspect, are like that. Meaningful groups form within business organizations at many levels, and the benefits are various types of promotion and perquisites. Certain civic clubs and organizations function the same way, especially when one is a member of the group’s governing elite. Prestige flows from such associations as well as tangible benefits stemming from knowing “the right people” with access to political power and financial resources.

Groups may be meaningful for the good they do — Habitat for Humanity comes to mind, though it’s certainly not the only one — and it’s not uncommon for these organizations also to bestow the kind of prestige and social advantages derived from, say, country club membership. When the right people support charitable organizations, benefits seem to multiply incrementally in all directions.

Most groups are interest groups, from political action committees and vast professional associations to labor unions and international organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America and the National Rifle Association. Members of interest groups share common values, which they promulgate and defend in a variety of ways, and they are usually willing to make personal and financial sacrifices for the sake of the group and its values.

Communitarian groups, however, are somewhat different. They too have values and goals that members are willing to promulgate and defend, but the fundamental purpose for their existence is simply being in relationship for the sake of affirming their identity as a community, which in itself is an expression of the community’s values and goals. Communitarian groups become more than the sum of their parts by gathering in solidarity and sharing common life.

I believe most Christians want their churches to be communitarian. Few communities of faith, however, are not alloyed with other models, and there is always the possibility that a congregation’s communitarian identity will become secondary to its meaning as an interest group of one sort or another. It is debatable whether such a development is desirable, because it’s clear that churches do not have to be communitarian to be meaningful to their members; indeed, it may be an essential question for every Christian congregation to examine what kind of meaningful group it wants to become and to own that identity, for better or worse, or to change it if need be.

We associate with groups in order to become meaningful members of them. That doesn’t mean all aspire to group leadership, but it does mean that we seek to find our role in membership based on knowledge, skill, life experience and potential for advancing the group’s values and goals. Meaningful membership in a group gives us a sense of contributing to the group’s welfare as well as receiving benefits of group activity. Meaningful membership in a group imbues us with a sense of well-being and self-satisfaction that our group activity is of benefit to others as well as to ourselves. Meaningful membership in a group makes us feel safe; indeed, the longer we’re affiliated with the group, the more secure we become, the more wedded to its values and goals — and the more committed, personally, to other members of the group.

Over the long-term, becoming a meaningful member of a meaningful group is of the essence of what it means to be human, to become a mature adult and to understand one’s self as having lived a good life. In spiritual terms, becoming a meaningful member of a community of faith is to live into understanding one’s self as being redeemed from ego-driven selfishness. Meaningful membership in a community of faith is a way of self-transcendence empowered by love, which is the fruit of faith in God — the willingness to let God love us.

Loss of one’s meaningful membership in a meaningful group is one among many devastating things that can and do happen in life. It’s a kind of death, really, and to suffer such a loss is to find one’s self in grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. These have been described as stages, but more likely they are elements that flow into the amalgam of disconcerting experience that grief seems to be. They distill out of the roiling cauldron of emotion following discovery that our meaningful group no longer feels safe and secure, that our sense of well-being and personal commitment have been shaken; indeed, that the meaning of our membership in the group has been lost.

Spiritually, it’s not unlikely that our very faith has been shaken, insofar as our meaningful membership in the group was an expression of our willingness to love and let ourselves be loved by God in community. Something dies inside, our hearts ache and we are bereft. There is no single cause for this type of death. Particulars vary from case to case across a broad spectrum, but it ought to be of intense interest to any community of faith that meaningful members fall away, perhaps disillusioned by what they once believed was a community of faith that was, in fact, a club more interested in recruiting the like-minded than manifesting its values simply by gathering to affirm them.

None of which is to say there is no hope in this. Christianity means nothing if not that there is hope for all in the acceptance of death without fear. It is the way in which Christ Jesus leads us, by his cross and resurrection, to become his community of faith — and meaningful members thereof — the seed from which God’s realm takes root on earth as it is in heaven.

It’s just that some will seem to have died along the way — meaningful members and interest groups alike.


One Response to “Meaningful members of meaningful groups”

  1. Jim A said

    The question arises – at the end of this reflection – are the dead still members of the group?
    In some interest groups the dead are very much members — “Why if so and so were still alive, we would not even consider this sort of thing.” Sometimes to the good, and equally often to the harm of the group.
    And in the Church – the communion of saints and the cloud of witnesses, are these dead not with us still?
    So where is one to go, what does one do, if one looses membership in the group? Not just “membership” in the technical, name on a list way; but membership in the sense of having one’s presence and contributions – past – present – and future valued? Does one become one of the “dead,” present here among us?
    More questions here than answers, but perhaps that is what is needed now.

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