Liminality is a term used by the well-known anthropologist, Victor Turner. During my graduate studies I had a professor who was keen on the notion of liminal space. It is was consistent part of his church planting jargon, but I must confess I failed to understand the concept. I later attempted to read an academic article about Victor Turner’s use of liminality and communitas. This article only served to befuddle me further, as it was mired in uber-academic language. In my mental filing cabinet I labeled the concept as “irrelevant, only theory.” That was…until now.
I have been reading Michael Frost’s Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. When I started reading the book, I was concerned that it was going to say the same hackneyed things everyone is publishing and blogging about; emerging this, emergent that, postmodern this, deconstruct that, yada-yada-yada. I have been on board with a lot of that stuff for years, lets start getting into some more depthy material. To my pleasant astonishment, each succeeding chapter—thus far (I’m in chapter 6)—has gotten better. In chapter five, Michael Frost teaches his readers a lesson about an anthropological term. It was his explanation of liminality that turned on the lights for me.
Victor Turner studied a people group in Africa that sent boys on a coming-of-age survival journey. These candidates for adulthood are sent into the wild to fend for themselves in the elements. The interesting observation that Turner made was that there was a special kind of bond that occurred among those boys that went into the wild together. This bond was more intense than our common understanding of community. The dire circumstances pushed this group of boys to their uttermost thresholds, therefore forcing these aspiring adults to trust and help each other interdependently. These boys then share a bond that stays with them until their deaths. This kind of bond, Turner labels communitas, community at a much more intense level. The consequences of this tendency are far-reaching. Turner states:
People of societies in a liminal phase are a kind of institutional capsule or pocket which contains the germ of future social developments, of societal change. (Victor Turner, as quoted in Frost, Exiles, 110)
Since most of the readers of this blog come from cultures that have nothing resembling this coming of age ritual, what does this mean?
Frost describes his intense quest for real community and coming up short. He notices a pattern of successive generations attempting a deeper, more authentic sense of community. Each time the efforts add to a long trail bitterness and disillusionment. His observation is incisive, “But I have come to realize that aiming for the community is a bit like aiming for happiness. It’s not a goal in itself.” (Frost, Exiles, 108) He goes on to describe how going on a common quest or mission can create a liminal experience. A group that goes on a mission trip together shares a new level of community.
Frost elucidates further on this topic with many more important observations. I have long thought that being on mission together can accelerate community. But I had not yet thought about the issues in such distinct ways. I also realized that I have been guilty of promoting mission in order to create community. This is a wrong-headed approach, mission should be done because we worship God by participating in his mission (missio Dei). Community is a beautiful byproduct of being on mission in community.