Like many American Christians I live in a quiet suburban subdivision. Many of us go to church, worship and work with other Christians, but rarely do we share our home life with other members of the congregation. For millions of Americans this is the expected norm of Christian life, but there is a growing sense emerging within the Christian community that something important is missing. We talk about being community and being the body of Christ, but our lives don’t seem to connect with this affirmation. We talk about community, but do we really live it? As Christians struggle with what it means to be a true community, we’ve discovered growing numbers of people are disaffected by institutional religion. They desire to find authentic community, but don’t seem to be finding it in traditional Christian congregations.
What we’re experiencing today isn’t new. From the earliest days of the church we’ve struggled with the question of community. We see signs of people living in close community (Acts 2, 4), but we don’t know to what extent this represented the totality of Christian life. By the fourth century, as Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, some Christians found traditional church life to be too individualistic and unfocused, and so they gathered together in what became monastic communities. Usually, these were gender specific communities, where participants committed themselves to a life of celibacy and shared resources. Some of that reality is reemerging today, especially among evangelical Christians. A movement called New Monasticism is a key representative of this new trend toward building intentional Christian communities. But in many of these communities, it’s not just single people who are gathering together, but families as well. Most aren’t gender-specific and life-long celibacy isn’t expected, though any sexual expression should be contained within the marriage relationship.
Although I’ve never lived in an intentional Christian community, I’ve been intrigued by the possibilities and benefits of sharing life in close proximity to other believers. It may be foreign to my upbringing, but I’ve come to respect those who pursued intentional community. It serves as a challenge to my own individualistic tendencies.
But what does it mean to live in intentional Christian community? That is the question taken up in this handbook authored by David Janzen, a participant of long standing in intentional Christian community life. With his wife, Janzen helped form the New Creation Fellowship of Newton, Kansas, and in 1984 moved to the Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois. In addition to a ministry focused on affordable housing issues, Janzen visits other communities as part of the Nurturing Communities Project.
This is truly a handbook on intentional Christian Community. But before one begins the journey of discovery of what benefits intentional Christian community might offer to Christians and to those searching for a relationship with God, we would be well served to define our terms. According to Janzen intentional Christian community “is a group of people deliberately sharing life in order to follow more closely the teachings and practices of Jesus with his disciples. The more essential dimensions of life that are shared -- such as daily prayer and worship, possessions, life decisions, living in proximity, friendships, common work of ministry, meals, care for children and elderly – the more intentional is the community” (p. 12).
Divided into six sections, Janzen takes us from the current desire for community, setting this yearning in context, to picturing what mature Christian community looks like. In between he helps readers discern whether intentional community is their calling, what they should know before moving in together, describes what the first year of community life looks like, and lays out the tasks that a young community might take up. The goal is renewal of the body of Christ. One key value of the book is that it disabuses potential participants of utopian ideas. Janzen is, I would say, a clear believer in this form of Christian life, but he seems to recognize that not everyone is suited for this kind of living. He also cautions patience. Maturity doesn’t come over night. It’s a “fruit of the Spirit” that emerges over time, “the result of a life of discipleship that builds new habits of character and instills virtues through faithful service, suffering, and endurance.” He warns us to not be surprised that “between wonderful times in community, there are also times of hard slogging when our faithfulness depends on desperately honest prayers and daily infusions of God’s grace in hidden service, times when there is nothing heroic to brag about” (p. 317).
Janzen combines narrative, biblical teaching, admonition, and storytelling. He shares his experiences and invites participants in community to share their own stories of both the blessings and the difficulties encountered. We hear stories of dysfunction and great success. Readers will encounter the stories of people and communities that they may have heard of – such as the Koinonia Community of Clarence Jordan -- that have gained some fame as well as less famous expressions – though one might have encountered the outreach of these communities in ways one doesn’t realize. For instance, if you’ve read books published by Wipf and Stock Publishers, you will have experienced the work of members of Church of the Servant King in Eugene. In fact, the very book I’m reviewing is published by a new monastic community.
If you’re interested in intentional Christian community, this is an essential book. If you’re wondering what this “thing” is, you might want to pick up the book and read some of the more descriptive sections. For many Christians the idea of people living in community is so far from their own realities that they don’t what to make of it, and may find it rather troubling – thinking that these communities are cults. And there is need for discernment. After all, Jim Jones and People’s Temple started out as a Disciples of Christ congregation! Of course, if you’re engaged in intentional Christian community life – I’d say that this is an essential bit of reading.
Yes, this is a good and useful book and Paraclete Press (who provided a review copy) is to be commended for making it available to the church. Even if we don’t participate in these kinds of communities, the conversation engendered by it might lead to renewal of our own congregational realities.