One of my favorite sociologists from college and in grad school days was Peter Berger. I believe it was Berger who first coined the phrase “plausibility structure.” What is a plausibility structure and what does it have to with the Household of God?
Sociologists have long talked about the importance of the “looking glass self.” As each of us goes through life, we look at others for clues about how we are being received. Each person becomes a mirror that reflects back an image. Those we are most closely in community with tend to become our primary reference points for assessing ourselves. We look to them for affirmation or rejection of our values, behaviors, experiences, and perceptions. We have shared narratives that interpret events around us. It is our interaction with these “mirrors” that sustains our ability to perceive the world the way we do. We reflect feedback to others as well. This collection of mutually shared perspectives and narratives are plausibility structures because they keep our perspective on the world plausible.
The Household of God and the notion of fictive family were metaphors used by Jesus and the apostles to form alternative plausibility structures for the people of God. These images redefined identities and the nature of interaction with others. The metaphors created a sense of unity, solidarity, and belonging. They focused the mission of the group and gave their work eschatological meaning. It also generated a support network as each pursued their own walk with God. As people were in community with each other, the reality of the coming Kingdom took on a tangible quality.
It seems to me that we have lost our plausibility structures. We offer no compelling narrative that can reshape individual narratives in our present context. Our identities are left largely untouched, we do not experience unity, we are clueless about the mission of God in the world, and we wonder if anything we do has eternal significance. Through it all, we frequently feel alone and without adequate support.
In this closing post, I will not be offering any simple solution to the need to recover plausibility structures. We see how crucial Jesus, Paul, and New Testament writers thought they were. The entire mission of the church is rooted in the idea of people living in plausibility structures as they give witness to the coming reign of Christ. We have seen how false images of “church as cocooning family” or “church as a corporation” are destructive plausibility structures. We have seen how ecclesiastical structures have created a destructive narrative that casts followers of Jesus as clients of a class of super Christians called clergy rather than seeing each person as a minister called and sent by God into their corner of creation.
The challenge before us is to discover what it means to be the Household of God in our present context. We need plausibility structures empowered by the Holy Spirit as missional agents of transformation. It seems to me that going back and seeing how Jesus and the early church used fictive family and the Household of God is a good place to start.