Stages of Community

Let’s get the attributions in right off. We’ve been positively influenced by the teaching of a brother named Steve Meeks. We don’t know a lot about him but we do know what he taught about community and the challenges of it, have been meaningful to us in the adventure of simple churching we’ve been on since 1990.

In brief, Meeks suggests that whenever a group of people set out in partnership, even a group as small as two, the members will begin a journey of four stages: Initiation, alienation, transformation and incarnation.

Initiation, what we call the honeymoon phase, is filled with excitement and warm fuzzies. Everything is new and positive. We see this a lot in house churches, particularly when people arrive tired and wounded. They come into the welcoming living room of an organic fellowship and believe that they have stumbled into an outpost of heaven. As near as they can tell, this has to be the perfect expression of New Testament church life. It is in the warm glow of the initiation stage that most churches, small or large, are planted. Exhilarating! Satisfying! The way church oughta be.

We’ve all been there…and we wish we could stay there. After watching people go through this stage for a couple of decades, I have to say I cringe a bit when I see folks run full tilt in to these new relationships and energetically sing the praises of this wonderful, fresh experience of home church. From seeing this happen numerous times I have a couple of “scripture” verses that I use often.

“Many are called, but few can stand it.”


“You can run, but you can’t hide.”

Here’s the thing: all groups (or newbies) must pass through the initiation phase and, like a rocket, reach apogee before experiencing a fiery reentry and return to earth — reality bites. This is what Meeks calls, “the alienation stage.”

Here is the point when the members of a fellowship begin to notice what has been there all along. The flaws that were easy to overlook or even notice, suddenly become irritating and sometimes intolerable. The kids are noisy. Brother Bill never helps clean up the table or even offers to bring a box of crackers, much less a salad of side dish. Somebody else is argumentative and another is too loud. Here I could insert a drop-down list of problems and peeves, but you get the picture.

msi_-_storm_lrOr, the home church honeymoon can end when transparency becomes unavoidable. The light-hearted fellowship of the initiation stage suddenly gets serious as dirty laundry comes out. When that happens, members start to feel vulnerable and realize that the insulated individualism we have come to depend on may dissolve before the prying eyes and ears of others. Fears and weaknesses that have been carefully concealed may be exposed and honesty become required. In a big church such exposure is easily avoided. In a house church, you can’t hide forever. What is left but to run?

Or be transformed.

The third stage, transformation, depends on the conviction of the members of a fellowship that we don’t have the option of turning away from a community with which we have a covenant relationship. The New Testament church formed in response to Jesus’ new commandment, that we love one another. Have you noticed that there is no way to obey this command of Christ by yourself? Jesus gave a command that required relationship. If we are serious about obeying the Lord, then we must seek out a community to love. Only in such a community can we declare to the world that we are His disciples (John 13:34-35). Moreover, it is in such a community, with all of its faults and challenges, that we can grow, that is be “perfected in unity” (John 17:23). Unity is the glue that holds us together through alienation. If we defend the unity in the bond of peace within the fellowship (Ephesians 4:3) and make it through, we will be transformed.

Finally, there is the incarnation stage. This is the point at which the love of a fellowship becomes obvious to outsiders. These are the people who are recognized as disciples of Jesus because they love one another as He has loved, with a love so reliable they can reach out and love others. Relationships in an incarnational community aren’t jealously exclusive, they are solid and dependable and lavishly shareable. New people can be received and welcomed and, yes, allowed to go through the trials of relationship, too. Incarnational communities are characterized by three things, made memorable by the acronym, “TIP.”

  • Trust or transparency.
  • Integrity.
  • Patience.

I could go into depth on these, but I’ll save that for another post. For now, I’ll just say that these three qualities are developed as a result of having experienced the other stages and they are vital for a group to persevere over the long haul. By them, a fellowship can weather the storms that are an inevitable part of life together and in the process, be a visible witness of the presence of Christ in our midst.


The image above was lifted from



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