Tribes, Seth Godin, and the Church

I just received my copy of Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin. Godin is a best-selling author of The Dip and his blog is hugely popular. In this review of Tribes, I want to listen and pose questions to Godin — as if the entire book is an answer to the question — how might we become a better church?

At 150 pages and a 4″x6″ footprint, the book is brief. The internal construction of the book matches the externals: Tribes is not organized by chapters. Instead, Godin’s thought flows from topic to topic through subtitles. Within the subtitles are nuggets of wisdom embedded in stories of tribes.

The format of my review will be as follows: I will put forth a quote or idea by Godin, and then I will reflect on the church in light of his insights.

For Godin, “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” As I think about the church, my take-away is this: Christ-following tribes are connected to each other through the work of the Holy Spirit with the shared understanding that we are to continue Jesus’ work in the world.

“A group only needs two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.” As Christians, we go back to the elemental understanding that where two or three are gathered, Christ is in there with them. Our shared passion is Christ, and we speak of this love to one another. Size is not the issue here.

“Tribes need leadership, sometimes one person leads, sometime more.” Some churches prevent gifted leaders from leading because of their gender, age, lack of experience, or proper credentials. “You can’t have a tribe without a leader, and you can’t be a leader without a tribe”.  Christian communities are most alive when those who are gifted at leading do the actual leading — and it is often different leaders for different tasks.

Just as in the Grateful Dead community, people love to belong in tribes. It gives them a deep sense of connection. Christian communities that create deep encounters establish deep connections that last a lifetime. Ever since our church youth group spent a week with the homeless in LA they have functioned as a tight-knit family.

Godin notes that before the Internet, tribes were local. Now, tribes transcend those boundaries. The same is true for churches. Over the next generation, churches will need to make the transition to church beyond the local. Our churches will share commitments on ways to embody Christ in the world, but not necessarily the same geography. So, a church community might be a tribe that spans the globe, but physically gets together rarely. Instead of the pew as the meeting place, or even the cafe, it might be facebook or ning. The software platform might be the primary space where encounter occurs. To move beyond the local will be one of the major challenges for the church to engage in the next fifteen years.

In the same way that the church might be twelve people spanning the globe, it may also be a fairly large-scale phenomenon as well. Big or small, each type of community will have its own unique challenges.

Godin describes tribes that are stuck — they discourage innovation and foster conformity. Many churches fall into this category. Tribes foster group participation at a high level. Everyone wants to share and give something to the group effort. To be alive, church leadership needs to shift so that this kind of participation might occur.

Tribes are no longer squishy — there are many tools that connect communities in a tight way — Twitter is one example. However, Godin is clear to point out that these changes are not about the Internet. Blogs, wikis, and youtube are just tools that have reduced the barriers to connect and organize groups. Rather than being about tools, tribes are about people and their connections.

Godin talks about leading, not pushing. A community might start simply by sharing one’s passion online (e.g. for wine). A community might begin to follow. The same may be true for new churches. A church might begin on a blog, or an existing church might be renewed there.

Tribe leaders may also work within institutional boundaries. You might have an internal tribe within a church — a group highly influenced by a person or persons with particular insights about how things ought to run. It may be few track with this person, or if the church community is large, it could be in the thousands.

Godin’s plea? Everyone needs to lead. We need you to lead, he writes. I resonate with his idea — the barriers must come down for everyone to share their gifts with everyone else. Churches create barriers for participation — these people can do this, and those people can do that. It is no wonder that our members must go elsewhere for deep participation and passionate involvement in community. We need to take down the barriers and let everyone give what they have received from God to the others in the community. If not, people will go elsewhere — if they do not officially leave the church, they will remain as an empty shell, relocating their gifts where they will be received.

Wow — that was only the first eight pages of the book — I’ll keep going in another post to follow.

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