<-- back to A parable of a little church
Three great years,
Andrew Lorien's history of Plunge
and one of the three worst weeks
of my life
names removed because, well, if you were there, you know who you are
Plunge is dead, though a simulcrum continues to sit at table eating and moving its mouth
Once upon a time, i joined a church, which we will call LCC. It was one of those plastic seats in the local school hall kinds of churches, where they sang reasonably interesting songs and often included a bit of drama or a talk to your neighbour, but it still sailed pretty close to the denominational fleet. The same guy did the talking nearly every week, though he was an honest guy and well liked. The old people who had their church in the big stone job up the road had given LCC it's beginnings, and LCC carried their dream that people who had never been to any church would feel more comfortable in the school hall than the traditional church building.
After a few visits and a few conversations i ticked the box which said "I'd like to join a small group", and a group was formed which later became known as The Autonomous Collective, because we never quite decided who was to be our representative or leader. As we were forming, LCC began a discussion about the possibility of 'planting' another group. Part of their intent was that, since it had turned out that LCC attracted not the unchurched, but the exchurched (the "burnt"), a new group closer to the demographic heart of the inner city might succeed better. The Autonomous Collective, the most recently formed group and a reasonably homogenous young inner-city bunch, was a candidate for this new gathering.
There was a lot of talking and planning: months. A few people went somewhere for a weekend to have Ideas. Plunge was eventually inaugurated on another weekend by about 30 people, who formed four small groups and decided to meet every sunday evening, with R as our facilitator guy (for which he got free rent from LCC, and some money from a denominational grant). We all stopped going to whatever church type thing we had been at, and gave our energies and passions to the formation of this new thing. This turned out much later to have been a bit of a blow to LCC, who say they gave away far too many important people.
Anyway, not knowing really what we wanted to look like, we decided to split into a few groups and each plan and run one sunday night on a different theme, in a different style. After trying everything from chairs in rows to dinner sitting on the floor, we agreed unanimously that the cafe-style tables and chairs, with dinner once a month, would be the future. We finally opened our doors to the public, much later than some would have liked.
So, for the next couple of years, the four groups took turns programming four week blocks of overwhelmingly creative, interactive, themed, responsive explorations of ideas from the bible and from our lives.
Highlights for me:
 everything the Autonomous Collective ever did, from the first intense series ("don't cheapen the twist") to the series on money in which J and i were refused permission to burn a $100 note.
 the night in which we had to mould clay into a response to the passage about banning someone from your fellowship. i kept my little guy for years.
 the gallery night, with S's motorbike parked next to R's little postcard of Jesus.
 the many fine response/ meal nights, and J's little bit of woven cloth.
 the endless contributions of furnishings, ambience, food, and content from everyone as they were able.
 plungefest, and the plunge house band with N singing her soulful best and the cops coming to make us shut up.
 the night in a series on revelation, where we were asked to write the 'letter to the church at Rozelle' - my letter is now buried in my back yard.
 the cello of T, as close to a zen master as anyone i know
 nailing bread to a big wooden table, and throwing wine on it. Was it easter?
There was a lot going on in Plunge. An intense community formed, we consumed a lot of food, a lot of coffee, a lot of ideas. We dreamed and schemed on the sublime and the mundane. There was love among us. People came, and some stayed around. The community grew and morphed, we struggled with our ideals and the energy it took to realise them.
A question we began to spend a lot of time on was, "how many people is too many?" And then it's corollary, "what do you do when you've got too many people?" The first answer seemed to be that too many was when our little room was full all the time (around 50 people): this seemed also to be too many people for everyone to know each other reasonably well; it would mean too many small groups to live comfortably within the big group; it would mean you'd need amplification to talk to everyone all at once (R's criteria); and, well, lots of reasons. The solution to the second problem was an organic one: we break into two more or less equal groups, each of which would reinvent themselves as we in Plunge had invented ourselves. And so on, until many generations of little communities have been born.
A related problem we had been grappling with for a long time was, "what about the children?" We didn't actually have many children, though a few people were trying to make some, and from time to time someone would come with a kid that could walk, and there was a whole family considering joining. We wanted to be a community for everyone, and we wanted everyone to like coming. The solution most often proposed solution was to meet in the morning, when the kids would be in a better frame of mind, and bedtime wouldn't be looming.
So. The day came when we found that we were filling the room more often than not, and it was getting difficult to keep track of all the people. We started talking about the split (though a lot of people didn't like the word). After a few big meetings, and a few false starts when we decided that we wouldn't be ready to press the issue for six months or so, i began to feel that we were getting somewhere - plunge would split into two groups, one meeting in the morning and one in the evening. The morning one would have the people who wanted a bit less chaos (and a bit less work), and who had children. We had a few babies by this time, and a regular few walking talking children. They would be more likely to have paid staff, to bear the burdons of organisation and control. The evening would include the people who were keen to experiment, who wanted less rather than more formal input, and those who couldn't get out of bed by 11am.
That's what i thought was going to happen anyway. There was a lot of emotion, a lot of investment in the process and the decision. And, by this time, a lot had changed. The Autonomous Collective was no more; R had decided not to continue his theology or his leader/facilitator role; C (with his family) had been chosen as the new leader type guy; the management group was getting very worn down by the pressure to 'do something', and people were becoming dissatisfied with the inertia. Still, i felt we were on the verge of a decision which would let all the steam off, and give everyone a much cleaner slate (two slates, actually) to work with.
But a bad thing happened, one of the two sledgehammer blows which destroyed Plunge as it was.
The management group got a letter from E, the preacher-man at LCC, which said that we couldn't split into two groups. That would be Planting A Church, and only the parent congregation could do that. We had already cost them too much in money and people, and they already had plans for growth which didn't include us.
Those who read this letter got pretty angry. There were emergency discussions and unhappy meetings. Noone wanted to cause trouble. i have since discovered that R had for two years been smoothing the flow of information between Plunge and LCC, and that without him E was becoming worried. And we were still making the delicate transition from the facilitating, collaborative R to C, who wanted (and was told) to play a more traditional leadership role.
That was in November 1998, i think. The following February Cathy and i went to New Zealand for a month, to hang out and start writing the Prodigal Project, and to get married. A great month it was. Though in the last week i got a short cryptic email from A, saying that Plunge would be meeting in the morning the Sunday i got home, for reasons best saved for a face-to-face discussion.
The second sledgehammer.
i walked downstairs and said that something had happened back home, and it seemed bad. We talked. i made up an imaginary (optimistic) scenario in which Plunge had decided that the split would go ahead, and to keep everyone happy (there had been issues about who would feel cast off, or left behind, or like the losers in the coolness race), we were all going to meet in the morning for a month or two, beginning to evolve a new format, then half would return to the evening. It was a great plan. A stupid dream.
We got home.
Plunge was meeting in the morning because, at a management group meeting, the pressure was turned up by people with children. "You promised us a family-friendly environment." "If we can't meet in the morning, I don't think I can come any more." That night at Plunge, it was announced that from the start of the next series (four weeks later), we would meet in the morning. After a couple of months we would review the situation and see how we all felt. Discussion was not allowed. Shock set in. Noone, it seemed, had much to say, except "that's what's going to happen".
After a month of the new morning meeting time, quite a few people had just stopped coming. Including, to my eternal dismay, one of the most committed and most needy people in the community, who had three kids. They didn't like coming in the morning, and it was difficult for her. The children of the 'leader' who had precipitated the decision went away to a Sunday school somewhere else, and were missed. They didn't like it, so their mother sometimes stayed there with them. Most of the management group still wouldn't talk about the decision, and noone who was still turning up had the energy to think about any sort of improvement in the situation. The only problem which was solved was the problem of size, because only a handful of people (in two small groups) stayed on. Two years later the group is still a shadow of its former size and energy.
I was particularly angry about the people who were excluded without thought - N and her ilk, whose lifestyles made 10am unreasonable; C who with her children had no other place to go; people who came irregularly, and may not have even found out about the change until the night they were greeted by a locked gate. People who had no executive power, and were given no recourse. Meetings were promised but the dates slipped, and by the time anyone was ready to listen, there was hardly anyone left to talk.
i raged. i had missed the initial month in which most of the angry people were worn down. i had not been in a small group for about six months, so i didn't have the normalising factor of a regular group which wasn't changing. i spoke mostly one on one, mostly to angry or disappointed people, who had given up. i felt my community and my dream fracturing, and i couldn't find two people who wanted to stay and had the energy to affect any change. There were email discussions, and big plunge meetings. i said what i thought.
For nearly a year i came when i could (i worked more often in the mornings than the evenings, and if i went away for the weekend i was unlikely to be home by 10am). i enjoyed seeing the friends i had who were still there. i was often sad about the predictability and relatively traditional content of the meetings, but there were still sparks of creativity and insight. i spent time outside with babies and their mums. It was alright. i had hope, more often than not.
One of the things which bugged me was the ongoing angst about the energy it takes to keep programming. With the shrinking numbers, and exhaustion of those who had had to cope with the sudden changes in direction, the week to week work of setting up and packing down and thinking of things to do in between was wearing people out. What bugged me about that was that i, and a few assorted others, had energy and ideas, but were rarely given a chance to use them. i felt that the management group (which around this time quietly changed it's name to the Leadership Team) were taking themselves on a spiral of exhaustion, trying to do everything and solve every problem themselves, trying to conform to ideals we had set when we were a much bigger and more energetic group.
i joined a new small group, an extra-plunge group, though most of us had some connection. We read books, and talked, and it was and still is good. Late in 1999 we were asked if we would be prepared to run a series at plunge based on one of the books we had read. Not all of us wanted to, and in the end it was decided that i would run a Sunday morning meeting, more or less on my own, on Storytelling, followed by three weeks on the book we had been reading (The Return Of The Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen). That seemed good, and all four weeks were great.
On the Friday before the last week in our series (the last Sunday in November 1999), i got an email at work from C, now the official leader of Plunge. It was Very Bad. Thoughtlessly written, accusatory, and badly timed. The sort of emotional dispute which should not have been done by email. That Sunday was very hard for me. Our group had called it "becoming the father [or primary carer]", and we asked some parents to talk about the journey towards godlikeness, towards maturity and grace. Everyone who spoke cried. i sat quietly, and cried about the email, and my commitment to Plunge.
C accused me of having a massive radical saviour complex, of having radical cliches and platitudes but no courage, of asking for money and resources but abusing those who freely gave them. By the time i got to talk about it on Tuesday, i had cried for four days straight. C and i talked for hours, and came to some understanding about where we each stood, where we each felt trapped by the system, our different understandings and misconceptions about each other, and about the history of Plunge. i felt a lot better. But it was pretty clear that nothing was going to change, that none of my friends would come back, that my dying dreams would be have to be buried.
One year later, this is still a very painful to revisit, and ranks just below my marriage breakdown as the most painful experience of my life. Which may only go to show how lucky and painless my life has been. But i still cry.
Over the next six months, i went to Plunge when i could, to see my friends. It was difficult. Sometimes, after a late night or when there were better things to do, i didn't bother. One day i realised that i had chosen not to go on the last three occasions that i could have, which meant that it had been three months. i decided that i would go no more.
Plunge is dead; it's memory is scattered in unmarked graves across the world.
edited 08/2001 (i'd like to remove the name 'Plunge' because it's a long time ago now and it's time for everyone to move on, but it's hard to tell the story without a noun. Should i just call it "P"?
--> see also the grief
or move on to the light at the end of the tunnel