Fat Geese Stuck in a Fishtank

Just over a week ago, I started posting my notes from some talks of Alan Hirsch’s we attended. Today, I continue recounting these with notes from Thursday evening, which was the culmination of Forge Chicago’s week-long training. (If you’re in the Chicagoland area, I highly recommend you check them out.

  • [When it comes to church], the adventure has gone out of the venture
  • Communitas [def]: The type of community formed in adversity.
    That ‘adversity’ can also include short-term missions, sports teams, etc.)
  • Communitas – a form of solidarity- forms after wins or losses as long as the team comes together.
  • During storms and events like 9/11, communities turn into communitas by a shared experience – often hardship.
  • Communitas is a new way of relating. People who were friends or associates become comrades. This is an entirely new dynamic.
  • When communitas is established, people will have a lot of “remember when…” stories, because their relationship was borne of, or developed in adversity.

Church is not to be a community or an association. Church was designed to be communitas.

Communitas is a common theme in movies:

  • Relationships formed in a battle (Braveheart!)
  • Relationships formed on the run or on a mission (Lord of the Rings)
  • Relationships formed in emotional conflict
  • Relationships formed in recovery or illness

Communitas is what the hero(s) in a story walk away from the adventure with. (Frodo and Sam, The Fellowship of the Ring, etc.)

We watch movies to experience this feeling vicariously through others. Why don’t we do it ourselves?!! We’re missing life!!

Faith is the biblical form of heroism. Abraham had faith and became the hero of the story. Moses, Noah, David, Jesus. All of these had faith and truly lived life.

Men in church today are too passive. They need a sword and a quest. They need a mission to die for. The fact that men no longer have this is reason that churches fail.

This actually makes a lot of sense. What do men choose over church? Watching sports with friends. Going fishing or hunting. Working on a buddy’s car. What do these have in common? Communitas. Relationship born of adversity. Though the stereotype says that men discount relationship, experience tells us otherwise. What would happen if church offered communitas?

Alan introduced the concept of liminality. It comes from the Latin word ‘limen’ which means threshold. Wikipedia defines liminality as “a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective state, conscious or unconscious, of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes”. Neurologists have found that there is a fundamental change in the brain when we go through a liminal moment. Examples of liminal moments in a primitive culture are the rites of passage, transition, and reincorporation, where boys are taken from their family, left to fend for themselves, then incorporated back into their society. These incredibly defining moments are what turned boys into men. Interestingly, most cultures have had some form of this, the notable exception being America in the past several decades. There is no rite of passage, so we end up with “boys who can shave”, in a state of perpetual adolescence.

The bible is loaded with liminal moments and adventure! How did we get so boring? Today, we are motivated by fear, not by a cause. (When is the last time you remember a true political cause for something? Something that was not a reaction based in fear against something.)

At Forge, they put their ‘interns’ (average people joining the mission) at risk in order to create liminality and build communitas. Shouldn’t every church be all about this?

We can do a lot more than we think. We never know it though, because we avoid risk at all cost. Even in familiar settings, we can seek out risk in order to grow. This often requires nothing more than a slight change of context. (An example: A walk in the forest at noon is very nice. At night, the same walk is terrifying.) When we change the context, we create risk. When our lives depend on it, we learn. We think. We find adventure.

Mission is a form of liminality.

If you organize your church around ministry, you very rarely get to mission. If you organize your church around mission, you can’t help but do ministry. And – you ‘become the church’ along the way. Living on mission, when we risk something, forces us into liminal moments. As we go through them, we come out the other side as communitas.

How does the bible end? What is the theme after Jesus ascended? Are we to rest? No way! The theme of the end of the bible is that in heaven we will rest. While we are still here, the message is don’t settle down!

Life requires disequilibrium. We talk about wanting things to calm down, but that is not healthy. When we reach stasis, we die. When our heart monitor shows no tension, that means we are dead. Our lives can be compared to a fish tank. The temperature must be managed very carefully. The level of food, oxygen and salt are critical. The pH must be neither too high nor too low. If an aquarium is not kept in a very precise tension, fish die. If our lives do not have adequate tension, we die. The same goes for our soul. We need to wake up and get engaged.

Churches are fishtanks. They have been very carefully managed to create an environment similar to the real world, but entirely artificial. No matter how closely you manage an aquarium, removing a fish and putting it in the wild will cause tremendous shock. If Christians are not engaged in life, the real world will shock them into a spiritual death because they are not prepared for it. They left culture entirely and create the ‘holy huddle’ – a sort of simulated reality, and they can no longer relate to anyone or anything.

Leadership must create a problem before they can create a solution. We need to be forced to risk something. There must be liminal moments. If we do not change our context and grow, we will die.

A key problem in church is that we don’t disciple people in real life. We create sterile fishtank environments and call them “youth group”, “college group”, “married group”, and “men’s group”. But the problem is – none of these exist in the real world. They are microcultures we have created entirely separate from the culture of the city. People leave these sterile environments and they are dead. Alan compared this concept to the movie ‘Finding Nemo’. The biggest fear of the fish in the tank was going out into the ocean. Ironically, the environment that their tank was deigned to replicate. We need to bust out of our fishtanks and create communitas within culture – not apart from it.

I’ll end with a story by Soren Kierkegaard from Alan’s book “Untamed“.

Soren grew up in the countryside surrounded by farms that reared geese. Each spring he would watch as a new gaggle of goslings hatched and grew. Over the course of their churt lives, these geese would gorge themselves at constantly refilled troughs of grain until they were so fat they could hardly walk. He imagined they believed their lives to be perfect, as every need they had was catered to in abundance.

When autumn came, the truth became apparent. The wild geese that had spent the warm summer in Denmark would gather in preparation for their southerly migration. They would circle in the skies above the farms, calling out any stragglers to join in their flight. At this point, the farmed geese would lift their heads from the feeding trough and look into the skies, heeding the call of their untamed cousins. Listening to the call of the wild, they would become animated, running as best they could around their anclosures, emulating flight. Of course, their gluttonous diet and life of luxury meant they were far too fat to get airborne, and they probably didn’t really want to join their untamed cousins on that perilous journey anyhow – but their instincts drove them at least to emulate flight on the ground. The wild geese would fly off and the fattened, domesticated geese would simply return to their barnyard existence, ignorant of the farmer’s grim ultimate purpose – they were destined for the table.


Kierkegaard ends his parable with a warning: while a wild goose can be tamed, seldom does a tame goose become wild again.

As disciples we are called to an untamed existence. Like the wild geese, we are meant to live wild and dangerous lives, flying abovethe heads of our generation, calling them to the authenticity of what they were created to do. Instead, we have allowed ourselves to be dulled into a life of mediocrity, where the only journeys we ever take are in our dreams.

We have become tamed and complacent. Fattened up on food, entertainment, comfort and debt. Reading this post may even awaken some deep call within you like the tame geese had, but because of the American dream and because of the microculture of the church, you will go back to the daily grind until the feeling passes.

Question: What risk are you willing to create in order to force liminality, force yourself into an untamed existence and build communitas?