As we start on this journey through Wendell Berry’s 17 Rules of Sustainable Communities, it does seem appropriate that Rule 1 is about the balcony. It’s about systems. You’re shocked, I know.
There’s a pivotal scene in the movie Grosse Pointe Blank where Martin and Debbie, who have come to their high school reunion, have escaped the dancefloor to catch a breather on the balcony. And as they watch their former classmates dance, they come to a new understanding about their relationship with one another. It’s one of my favorite movies and one of my favorite scenes. I’m just a fan of reconciliation, I suppose.
A systems approach tells us we need to spend time off the dancefloor where we dance, dodge, flail, and run into one another and get onto the balcony above the dancefloor where we can see better. Dancing deserves our attention and our energy. Interacting with one another and giving each other our full attention is worthwhile. But spending time off the dancefloor is where we gain perspective. When we’re on the balcony we can see how people dance with one another, who dances with whom, the patterns that are created, the groups that form, the places where no one dances, and the places where everyone wants to dance. As we get more skilled, we learn to see where we are in that dance too and how we have an impact on others who dance with us. And we begin to see the systems of a whole community of people.
Nice metaphor. But what does it have to do with sustainability?
If we ever want to be sustainable, that is, if we ever want to think beyond the immediate needs of the community, we need to gain perspective. With perspective, we stop worrying about crises and we learn to anticipate responses. We stop navel-gazing long enough to enlist help in changing the dance when necessary. We stop wanting things to be different and we see more clearly what the capabilities of the community are and what the limitations might be. We can spot opportunities for development and celebrate skills and gifts already present.
However, it’s one thing to get up on the balcony. It’s another thing to act based on what you observe. Because it means that we make choices based on the good of the community instead of choices based on strong opinions or personal needs. It means letting go of piety and a need to be right and opening up to a different purpose. It means letting go of a need to be liked and being willing to irritate people to help move the dance into a particular direction.
We must be willing to get on the balcony and then act based on what we see. That’s the essence of Rule #1. We have to be willing to see how what we do affects the larger system, the whole community. And we must learn to make choices with the whole community in mind. Some people think being a visionary means that we have a fantastic end-goal, some tangible result of a timeline and a punchlist. Instead, I think being a visionary is learning to make decisions with the Kingdom in mind because we have learned to see the Kingdom through the perspective we’ve gained. We have learned to see the whole community.
Now, when we’re talking about the church’s relationship to the community it serves, we need look no further than, well, Jesus. As disciples of Jesus, we’re called to spread the gospel. It’s a part of the Great Commission, after all, isn’t it? Go. Make disciples. Baptize. Teach. (Mt 28:16-20) It’s not a hard set of instructions, until you actually try to do it. We’ve been taught by our culture that making disciples is about getting people to accept Jesus as their savior. Sure, that’s a part of it. But let’s take a step back.
What if, when we go and make disciples, we stop insisting that others do what we do? What if we stop insisting that others believe how we believe? What if, when we go and make disciples, we are simply interested in having a relationship? What if we are as willing to be changed by that relationship as we would like others to be?
What if our church communities made disciples, not by converting people to the gospel as we see it, but by converting people (including ourselves) to the experience of true community? What if our churches were so involved in and engaged in the community that the entire community is lifted up because of our involvement? What if the church stopped existing for its own sake and existed for the sake of the community it serves?
When we think about a church being sustainable, you see, I think we always need to be thinking about how the decisions we make affect the community we serve. If the community fails to thrive, so does the church.
So, what are some ways that we can instill a practice of “getting on the balcony” in our churches?
How can we help our churches to develop a bigger perspective about the communities we serve?
Who, in our communities, can help us and how can we become more interested in and adept at being balcony people so that we can live into our great commission?