One of the first things you learn when you become interested in intentional community is that there are a lot of crazies out there—especially within the category of self-identifying Christian communities. A quick browse through the Fellowship of Intentional Communities online database turns up all kinds of different community enthusiasts, from King-James-Onlyists searching for pious perfection to Revelation Literalists holed up in the mountains awaiting the end of the world. Small wonder that when Alyssa and I try to talk about our passion for intentional living with our families, we are often met with confusion or misinterpretation—So...you're saying you want to join a cult? or Wait...you mean you want to start a church?
David Janzen's book is brilliant precisely because it illustrates the thoughtfulness with which one might enter into the intentional Christian community discussion. According to Janzen, intentional Christian community offers an radically alternative third way—neither fundamentalist fanaticism nor comfortable complacency—for living out the Reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. Below are my thoughts, presented chapter by chapter, on Part One of The Intentional Christian Community Handbook—a book that I hope you will pick up and read, regardless of your interest level in intentional community.
What did I find most meaningful from the Preface?
On p.4, Janzen says “Unless we let go of our ideal community, we will end up hating the sisters and brothers who, inevitably, do not live up to our expectations, and so, Bonhoeffer warns, we become the destroyer of that very real community God is already growing up around us," and then on p.8, "I discovered that others experienced me as a judgmental, principle-driven idealist who had a lot to learn about listening and extending grace in relationships." As I read the preface, I quickly recognized many of these traits as my own. I spent years grumbling about the lack of genuine community in my college town while failing to recognize the community in which I spent much of my undergrad career as a "real" community. The same was true of later communities I became a part of, as well. Because each of these settings failed to match up to my rigid idea of what an intentional Christian community should be, I in turn failed to see the community for what it was—a genuine expression of togetherness for that particular moment in time. And when others failed to live up to my expectation of purposeful community, I judged them harshly. Today, as a person not living in community for the first time in about 6 years, I deeply regret my criticism of the friends and families I have had the pleasure of living and working alongside.
What did I find most meaningful from Chapter One?
The first chapter featured several stories from people who have experienced community firsthand. I enjoyed reading Luke Healy's account of helping to establish a community in the attic of a Missionary Baptist church in Kansas City, Missouri. I met Luke (who has recently left the community) and the other members of Oak Park back in May, right before Alyssa and I left for Israel, and became deeply impressed by how much they had accomplished in their neighborhood in such a short period of time. If you're ever in the Kansas City area, I recommend looking them up and spending some time (maybe a board game or two!) with this wonderful little expression of the Kingdom of God in one of the toughest parts of town.
What did I find most meaningful from Chapter Two?
Chapter Two (written by Brandon Rhodes) is largely a critique of 21st century capitalist Western culture and the concept of Christendom (which Rhodes refers to as "Constantine's captivity of the church," and defines as "the historical monolith that assumes church/Christianity and Western culture are basically one entity, that church membership and [national] citizenship constitute the same circle" (p.34). Intentional Christian community, says Rhodes, offers an alternative lifestyle for those fed up with the images of Christ and Christians most recognizable in today's society. In a culture that worships individualism and consumerism as idols, values the Constitution more than the Sermon on the Plain, living in mutual submission is extremely countercultural. I also appreciate that Rhodes fully recognizes our current context as "post-Christian" (p.35)—while institutional churches struggle to boost membership and woo potential seekers with glitzy offers in hopes of maintaining cultural relevance, Rhodes says that we should instead embrace the fact that the Church no longer rules the social and political roost. Rather than mourn the fall of Christendom, we should happily embrace a truth known in the Anabaptist tradition for generations, "that, like the early church, [Christian communities] are to be pockets of an alternative politics, an alternative society within a crumbling empire" (p.36).
Included in Chapter Two is a nifty table featuring various categories of intentional Christian communities (see below—sorry about the spelling/grammar-check lines in the image). This helped me to visualize for the first time the incredible diversity among Christian community charisms and purposes. When Alyssa and I attempted to form Anavah House, I think one of the biggest problems we ran into was trying to cover too much ground—we wanted to be like the Simple Way, Rutba House, Reba Place, and Koinonia all rolled into one. But this neat chart shows the vast array of community types, and treats them all (for the most part) as playing an equally important role.
What did I find most meaningful from Chapter Three?
Part One of the book concludes with a chapter featuring common cultural pitfalls that lead to difficulties within communal settings. The author refers to these as cultural contours, and following each critique offers a consideration for how each contour might be overcome. My favorite contour Janzen mentions is the general suspicion of anything "structured," "traditional," or "organized," and the favoring of the "authentic," "genuine," and "organic." Janzen argues that this is both problematic and unnecessary:
"We’re sick of religion, man, and just want spirituality. We push the biblical vision of church as 'people, not programs,' and 'relationship, not religion' into a needless contention between schedule, faithfulness, and shared practices on the one hand and spontaneity, relationship, and freedom on the other" (pg. 49).Instead, we should recognize that both structure and spontaneity have their place in the common life. An organic garden can only be cultivated after years of careful preparation of the soil.
Additionally, I appreciated Janzen's experience with varying community commitment levels. For many years I wanted to be a part of a high-commitment community, and was frequently disappointed when others didn't appear to be as dedicated to the community as me. However, Janzen offers the opportunity to look at the problem differently. Rather than categorizing communities as high-commitment or low-commitment, perhaps we should allow people living in community to categorize themselves as high or low-commitment. To this end, Janzen offers three categories of commitment levels from his own experience: 1) Novice—exploratory, 2) Practicing—called here for now, and 3) Vowed—no longer actively looking elsewhere (p.52).
Types of Communities chart from Chapter Two (pp.40-41)
The types of communities with which I most identify are New Monastic communities, New Radical churches, and farming communities, but I also have a special place in my heart for Catholic Workers.