The Value of Intentional Communities in the Church/Practical Things to Think About Before You Move In (2004)

Both these articles first appeared in the Dialogue Quarterly, May 2004

The Value of Intentional Communities in the Church

Many years ago, now, when I was being interviewed to be the “youth pastor” of the First Baptist Church, I asked the board if it would be OK if, at some point, I asked them to write my paycheck out in several names — I was planning to live in what we called an “intentional community” before too long and that might be what we wanted to do. For some reason, the visible sign of sharing my money like that seemed like it might be important. Talking about the possibility was also a way to ask, “Are you going to accept my ‘radical’ ways?” They said, “Yes.” I’m not sure they had much of an idea about what they were saying yes to.

Eventually, we did have an unusual household in the church that included over 20 people at times. Some people were married, most people were not. Some people were unwed mothers, Cambodian refugees, wayward relatives and people between homes, most were just the same people who had inhabited the church before. We ended up being a good thing for the church, but many people thought we were a bad thing, too.

We were a good thing because we unleashed all sorts of energy for the mission of the church — living in community is cheaper, sharing the work of housekeeping and child rearing makes life easier! We were a good thing because skeptical young people thought we looked like we really meant it when we said we were Christians, and that rubbed off on the other people who attended the church — people who live with radicals get a spiritual “tan” from their sunshine and look healthier, too.

We were a “bad” thing, though, as far some people were concerned, because we were not normal — we looked like some kind of cult. We were a “bad” thing because people thought we were probably having sex with each other all the time — we actually had parties and invited the congregation (especially our detractors) to come see our houses and verify that we did not all sleep in one bed! We were a “bad” thing because it looked like we might inspire other people to take up an alternative lifestyle — even though we were paying for all sorts of people to go to school (unlike their parents!), we looked like a bunch of under-employed drop outs and likely communists.

If you ever try something out of step with the world, people notice. So the various intentional communities connected to the Circle of Hope Network, when they get noticed, get a reputation. Just like with each of us, they can have a very good influence and they can also be not so helpful. “Good” or “bad,” we are committed to risking such love and forming them. The main reason to take the risk will probably always be Acts 2 and 4 (edited for inclusion):

Acts 2:44-47 All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as they had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Acts 4:32-35 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions were their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as they had need.

These verses do not say, “Go form an intentional community.” But they do teach us that sharing life in radical ways that are not like the rest of the world is normative for people who are following Jesus and filled with his Spirit. We are happy to have so many people among us who are willing to follow Acts 2 in so many ways!

When you have people in the center of your church who intentionally live in the most radical, Acts 2 way they can, it brings a lot of life. They are very good. The Simple Way community, the Camden House, [now Shalom House, Crooked House, Cambria House, the Parsonage, etc.—2009] and various other households among us are a huge asset to Circle of Hope. Like the medieval monasteries that kept the flame of prophecy, integrity and mission alive in difficult times for the Church, these kinds of households can keep us centered and stimulated. I think they should be a part of every local expression of the church. They can be spiritual, relational, and missional greenhouses for growing faith. Quite often their radical nature keeps the rest of the church from falling into mediocrity. In our culture, they demonstrate, as the Bible teaches, that nuclear family is not the only way to live, and suggest that there may be a better gift from God. They often allow people to serve and share in extraordinary ways. They can be such generative places for deep things and hard things to come to fruit! We really need them.

These communities-within-community can also be damaging if they are not conscious of their part in the larger church. Any group of idealistic people and any group following a vision is going to form a strong identity — households often even give themselves a name, like a family shares a name. So the group can easily become less “another household in the church” and more a “little church.” If that happens, the household can become a strong presence in the church that does not connect. Members of households can get into the habit of using the church as a fishing pond for recruits to do their own thing. They might share all their money with each other and do all their fundraising for themselves and not share with the rest of the church. Strong leaders of households can feel a power struggle with the leaders and vision of the church. These things create tension.

I long for strong households to create healthy tension for holiness in our church, and to do the generative things they do so well. I want to work at ways to encourage more intentional community without encouraging more of the disconnection and self-centeredness of our age. I don’t think anyone particularly wants to be separate or individualistic, but it is easy to get absorbed in “us” and to enjoy being so different you can’t fit in. Faithful people long to do radical things and they don’t want to be held back by fearful “conservatives.” (I know. I’ve wrestled with these temptations as a member of such a household!). It is ironic how these intentional communities, devoted to togetherness and to demonstrating love, can also end up being divisive if they aren’t careful. This kind of tension has arisen just enough among us to cause the Coordinators to think about whether we should invent a way for a household to make a covenant with our church, as well as an individual. Then we might have a better idea of who wants to be at the generative center of us and who is just connecting like a distant friend. There will be much more talk about that.

We have problems in all the groups we inhabit and the groups have problems with one another, at times. That doesn’t make them less valuable. The turmoil shows they are alive! We know God is all about creating and restoring relationships and building his church. So we go at it in every way we can and let his Spirit bring all the ways together as the church of Jesus. Families, cells, 6 people in a house, 20 people in several houses, whatever, these are all forms of community we can celebrate. But we will always have a special place in our hearts for those people who can invent new ways to share in a big way and demonstrate in a deep way that the kingdom of Jesus is not an abstraction, it is something people sink their teeth into and live out in a love so rare it has to be from God.

Practical Things to Think About Before You Move In (previous version, 2000)

Many people among the Circle of Hope are interested in “living in community.” Basically, this means that people are living together in a common space. It could be a couple of couples, some single people, or a mix. The households among us in which unrelated people are sharing common space fit on a spectrum anywhere from “monastery” to “boarding house.” We are experimenting with many variations on a theme, with many motives: sharing expenses, sharing work, avoiding loneliness, staying safe, giving a helping hand, and working out a conviction or philosophy.

As a church, we promote this kind of living. A long-term goal of ours looks at us in the future and says: We have given birth to more intentional communities. We support a variety of intentional communities that express the gospel in radical ways. We assume that most of us living in common households have some consciousness about trying to follow God in the process. We want to love and serve each other, we want to be in community; we may even want to live out Acts 2 for today. Much love has been built, already. For some of us, these days of “living in community” will be days we always remember fondly.

However, living in community does not always create fond memories. People who join in an experiment that puts together a variety of personalities crammed into a common space, may feel like they are experiencing a bit more of The Real World than they’d hoped. So here are a few practical suggestions for ways to save yourself some grief and perhaps get closer to what the Bible epitomizes as the way Christians are called to live together. Reader beware! The unsolicited advice-giving now begins. I don’t know your specific situation, so you’ll have to sort out how much of this applies!

Answer these questions before you move in (or now that you are there):

1) Why are we doing this? If you think your household is all about being a radical community of faith and your friend thinks it is a short-term way-station on the way to grad school in another state, there will be problems. It may be worth waiting to find a person who shares your assumptions rather than grabbing the first person who can pay the rent. This means you need to have a talk about “what this is all about.” It may be your first lesson in the radical loving you purpose to do. WRITE DOWN your agreement about what you are doing together. I know writing things down seems awfully formal. But having an agreement to which you can refer, which can be changed, is usually better than living in Survivor mode, where the strongest wills dominate according to their whim. In community, people often act out of their old family instincts and don’t even know it. Unless you want to replay those scenes endlessly, spontaneously, you will want to agree on some common patterns that everyone can shoot for, mutually. So write down the kind of life you want to live together. Begin with an honest statement of why you live together. Here are some examples:

  • our house is for people who want to help each other realize the fullness of their faith and gifts
  • our house is for people to share the expense of rent
  • our house is about serving the poor
  • our house is one way we preserve the radical nature of the church within Circle of Hope’s various means of creating community

Some households make rather elaborate covenants [rules] with one another. Yours may not be so intentional. However elaborate, it helps to have a good understanding of “what this house is all about” if you don’t want to create distance and experience unnecessary hurt feelings.

2) What are the financial agreements? Again, I say that anything about money, especially, needs to be written down (if it isn’t already in your lease). It is very hard to talk about money, and people often react out of their “default” mode. For instance, some people assume that everyone will chip in because that is “how it ought to be.” Some people might assume that if a person breaks their stuff they will pay for it. Don’t trust your assumptions. People need to know what their share of the expenses will be up front. Everyone needs to know what is going to happen if people don’t pay. Who is in charge of collecting the money and paying bills should be agreed upon.

3) How is our space to be used? After several experiments in community living, I personally don’t think Americans should be crammed together too tightly. They often explode. It probably shouldn’t be this way, but we need our space. To enjoy a long-term common household, consider how to get enough room. Ask a lot of questions about how the common spaces will be used. For instance: Does my TV belong in the living room? Is that where I hang up my mom’s picture? For instance: When my friends come over every night do they hang out in the living room, or is that where you get to curl up with a book? Do I have to include you in everything that happens in public space? Likewise, talk about what is private. For instance: Are bedrooms off limits? How about my bathroom? Should I have my bath clean in case your cousins visit? Another reason I like things written down is that someone will move out and the next person will not have been in on the discussions and then they will have to bump into a lot of unspoken “rules” and get offended.

4) How do others relate to the household? A household soon arrives at an identity of its own. It is a “thing.” People are either in it or out of it. This creates yet another set of boundary issues. For instance: Can people come and spend the night, eat our food? Can they stay for weeks in your bedroom without sharing our agreements (like paying)? What do I do when I don’t like what one of your friends is doing? It makes sense to have some kind of regular meeting of the household to keep talking about new things that come up. Since communication is so key to harmony, perhaps it should be stated up front that when you stop communicating you may soon be “out.”

5) How do we do community work? Since no one usually likes to do any housecleaning or yard keeping, whole friendships have gone down the drain with undone dishes. I’ve known of idealistic groups who just let the work get done out of the goodness of hearts. But those groups often build in a lot of resentment. There is always someone who is “too busy” or “too unskilled” to do any of the upkeep. And there is always a person who can’t stand to have the place a mess. There will be someone who feels that doing housework means love and one that feels doing housework means bondage. Set out some kind of approach that works for you. Make an agreement for a set period of time and then check to see if it works and remake it for another period of time.

6) How does it end? How do I leave? Have you had the roommate, yet, who got more distant and less involved as each day got closer to the end of the lease period? Have you had a partner who just took off because another opportunity came and now you’ve got an empty room or worse, an empty heart? It often seems sort of cold-blooded to talk about this “great, new household” arrangement changing or ending. But I think we guard our hearts when we talk about what “could” happen. Unless you are on the “monastery” end of the spectrum, things will probably be changing at some point. Should a person give a month’s notice? If an intentional community has common assets, how will they be distributed? If you own property together, can the person leaving demand a buy-out or do they have to wait until the community dissolves?

7) Is Jesus at the center? I think you have to hear housemates say this, and often: “Jesus is Lord, here.” It is sort of like husbands, wives and children reaffirming that they do, indeed, love one another. If you haven’t heard it lately, it may be inappropriate to assume.

As for my life, I would not make any household agreement with a person who could not be glad that “Jesus is the Lord of our household.” Even if they don’t know what they are talking about, or they haven’t even made a relationship with Jesus, I can at least hope for some respect for what is central to my life in my own house. Community living can be very hard. At the same time it is irresistibly wonderful and life-transforming, as well as downright practical and just. Without Jesus at the center it is even more likely to be only hard. So at the very least, make sure Jesus is welcome in the house before you move into it.  

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