What You Should Know About Christian Communities
And all that believed were together, and had all things in common É
– Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, verse 44, New Testament, King James Version
Thus is described the first intentional Christian community, which existed around 2,000 years ago. It is perhaps the best known community quote for the many thousands who have lived in Christian communities over the centuries. The Book of Acts is about the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, known to the Christians as the Lord Jesus Christ, and certain activities, or “acts,” that occurred in that first-generation Christian community.
Most of the people described above had been living together in Jerusalem for several weeks as a rather unintentional community. A few had been together as a community for three years or so. In order to survive all that had happened to them as a result of the torture and execution of Jesus, their founder and leader, they were huddled together in Jerusalem, waiting. They were wanted by the Roman civil authorities as well as by the Jewish religious authorities, both of whom had hoped that this recent new messianic religious movement was over. But about 50 days after the execution and resurrection of Jesus, his followers were creating community. Intentional Christian communities have been with us ever since.
Three years prior to these startling events, at the outset of Jesus’ journey to initiate his movement, Jesus had gathered his earliest community members. At the River Jordan, just upstream from the Dead Sea, crowds had gathered to listen to the radical wilderness “social justice prophet” John the Baptist. He was proclaiming that something new and revolutionary was about to happen. Two of John the Baptist’s disciples saw Jesus coming through the crowd. John the Baptist said, “Behold the Lamb of God.” The two disciples took note and followed Jesus. Jesus turned and asked them, “What are you looking for?” Their surprising reply was “Show us where you live.” Jesus simply said, “Come and see.” So they went with Jesus, and the community grew. It’s interesting to note that those two were not searching for intellectual answers or even for good preaching and church services. Rather, they wanted to know about the community Jesus had. Little did they know where that would take them or how that community would change the world.
In the ensuing 2,000 years, many thousands would “come and see” what Christian communities have to offer. Christian communities have become numerous and diverse and can be found just about everywhere in one form or another. Many books and articles have appeared on the subject over the centuries. Communities magazine has featured a number of Christian community articles over the years (see “Christian Communities, Then and Now,” No. 92, Fall 1996). My effort here at describing Christian community is not intended to be exhaustive, nor is it an endorsement or a critique. Rather, this is a brief and simple general explanation of a very old and diverse social and religious movement with roots stretching back a long, long way.
People of Diversity: Divisions and Growth
Christian communities are not all the same and certainly do not participate in a unified network. Churches have always been a rich source for intentional community to spawn. It is not uncommon to find communities that have divided from more traditional or historic churches or even from other communities over differences about specific teachings or beliefs. Likewise, churches have had their origins within communities, splitting off and going their own ways to practice their beliefs, just as they did in the first millennium.
It is not uncommon to find a Christian community founded on a particular interpretation of the Bible. Many Christian communities have little contact with each other, even though from an outsider’s view they appear to be doing the same things. Only a handful of networks of intentional Christian communities exist—and most of those share the same theological roots, practices, and, sometimes, leaders. This competition of ideas, doctrines, lifestyles, leadership, and so on stimulates the growth of Christian communities. This is more true for the non-Catholic communities. The Catholics have long made room for the “fanatics,” keeping them in the fold by permitting religious orders, such as monasteries, for the enthusiasts and deep seekers to join, whereas the Protestant/reformers have usually kicked the “fanatics” out, in which case they usually form their own efforts: a new community or church.
The focus on “right belief” and doctrine especially affects the contact between non-Christian and Christian communities. Some intentional Christian communities are opposed to being listed in this directory, and may even harbor suspicion toward any other communities. Others are simply uninterested, seeing their own efforts and goals as different from secular communities. While these folks certainly live a community lifestyle, they identify far more strongly with the rightness of their beliefs and mission than with being an intentional community as such.
Christian communities are not only competitive with their ideas and teachings, but some compete for members as well. “Make disciples” is an instruction Jesus himself left with his followers, and it is often fervently obeyed. The rapid proliferation of intentional Christian communities during the late 1960s and 1970s was fostered by intense recruitment activities across the country. One community I became part of had started over 175 “houses,” or communal centers, in its first decade, 1968Ð78. The largest intentional Christian community network in the world today is in North America, with over 45,000 members, the Hutterites. In the case of the Hutterites’ large numbers, it has mostly happened through procreation, generation after generation!
Much of Christian teaching and thinking is an effort at discovering what is “true” and who is “real” and living “right,” and intentional communities are often the proving grounds of those discoveries. Consequently, it is not uncommon when visiting Christian communities to face some examination, to see if you are a Christian or even the right kind of Christian. Even Jesus was cross-examined by the “set-apart community of Bible believers” of his day, the Jewish Pharisees. Truth and faith are at stake, and are taken very seriously, usually more seriously than being a community. If you are drawn to intentional Christian community, you probably should be prepared to take Jesus and the Bible seriously. That’s what most are looking for: serious followers of Jesus and the Bible.
People of the Bible: Community by the Book
So, what is a Christian community? What’s the common denominator? Essentially, a Christian community is one that draws some or all of its emphasis for existing from Jesus Christ in the New Testament of the Holy Bible, be it historic, recent, Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, Mormon, or some other adjustment and interpretation. The Bible is the seed of faith from which these many communities spring. Not many ancient sacred documents are as potent as the Bible at impregnating people with the concept of community. It is the number one guide for a Christian community, regardless of how it’s interpreted. The seeking for and believing in something in the Bible is the fertilizer for the germination and growth of community.
That’s because the Bible is rich in the images and language of tribe and community. It is a history and description of tribes and communities, imagined and actual. Cover to cover, the Bible is about people pursuing a vision and the resulting rewards, conflicts, and disasters. And it is about the God of these people and that relationship and what the outcome of that is to be. Some Christian communities believe that outcome is living in community.
Some believe strongly that in order to be a real Christian, one absolutely must live in an intentional Christian community, as they do, and usually in their community. For some, “having all things in common” (Acts 2) is the primary evidence of the outcome of true faith. I have been to Christian communities that were amazed to learn there were other Christian communities besides their own. Sometimes they were apprehensive about those possibilities, if not outright suspicious! In addition, there are those communities that do use Jesus and the Bible to some extent but that do not call themselves “Christian.” Perhaps that’s in order to separate themselves from some of the more historic, traditional, theological, or enthusiastic Christian communities.
If it’s so biblical, why aren’t all Christians living in an intentional community like those in Acts 2? One reason is that it is easier to believe in Jesus than it is to believe Jesus. And, over the centuries, options have diversified and expanded. Not many Christians today see Acts 2 as a prescription for Christian living in the modern world, but rather read it as a description of something that occurred in early Christianity. Therefore, community references in the Bible become “history” and not “orthodoxy.” And then there are the dualities: If you want to be really “holy” or “spiritual,” go live in a community or monastery, but since not everyone can do that—somebody has to procreate the species, defend our freedoms, and collect those taxes—the rest can go to church on Sunday or engage in some “lesser” expectation. Finally, there are those Christians who see the Acts 2 community event as a mistake for which the early church later suffered. Not all intentional Christian communities see the Acts 2 events as significant for their own existence as a community. There is diversity in how one gets direction out of the Bible.
The “Church Versus Community” Debate
The first-century Greek word for community used by the writers of the New Testament is “koinonia,” and is translated in English as “fellowship,” “sharing,” or “community.” It means something like “participation in common.” Our English word “church” comes from “kirk,” the old middle English word that can mean something like a decision-making group or a “parliament” of sorts. “Church” is a very “community” word in spite of its present use to indicate a building for a religious service or the people who occasionally meet in such a building.
The “church versus community” debate is perpetual in Christianity and can stir consternation among the believers. Some intentional Christian communities face this debate and struggle as they grow. There is more than one community that began in a church, yet, after a generation or two as an intentional community, returned to being just a church with little resemblance to its days as a community. In spite of apparent longevity and history, some intentional Christian communities are very fluid, changing and reemerging in a variety of forms. Faithfulness to the call of community and right belief may be much stronger than longevity to a particular configuration of people in a geographical location.
The debate among Christians might be more about what “church” is rather than what being in an “intentional community” means, and this debate is embodied in Christianity’s most fundamental words. The world “church” is translated from the New Testament Greek word “e’kklhsi¢a,” loosely meaning “to be called out.” Not a religious term, as such, to the first-century people, but rather a term signifying “called to a community decision-making meeting” or a “town hall meeting.” Jesus only used the word when he referred to decision-making activities of the members of the “believers’ community” (e.g., Matthew 18:17).
People of Spirit: Charisma and Leadership
Possession of “The Book” is not always enough to create community. In the first few chapters of the book of Acts, there is recorded a particular phenomenon resulting in individuals possessing special spiritual gifts or charisma to make things happen, inspire others, heal the sick, or receive crucial guidance. Charisma is the New Testament Greek word for spiritual gifts given by God. The Book and this special spirit together make things happen.
People with these spiritual gifts or charisma call others to “be intentional,” and they usually lead the group. Sometimes this is self-evident—the individual just has it direct from God with no other human intervention or permission. Sometimes it is bestowed by other humans equally gifted to recognize the calling to leadership. This all usually works when it is recognized, welcomed, and tolerated.
Some Christian communities are apprehensive about this leadership and charisma issue, and others are exuberant about it and about their leaders. Some are constantly at issue with the subject and with the charismatic personalities involved. And the issue often troubles outsiders, too. However, it is intrinsic to the history of Christianity because it is a major element in The Book: the question of who has legitimate authorized power and the right to control.
People of Vision: Being Mission-Oriented
“For lack of vision the people perish.” So says the sage in the Proverbs of the Old Testament. Leaders are often good at articulating the visions others believe and pursue. No charisma, no leaders. No leaders, no vision. No vision, no followers. No followers, no community.
And what do believers follow? More often than not, they follow the teachings and deeds of Jesus Christ and other significant founders and leaders, either historic or contemporary. Be it healing the sick, fighting oppression, converting lost souls, feeding the hungry, making disciples, being closer to Jesus, waiting for the second coming—the return of Jesus—or getting “church” or “community” down right, they are on a mission for God.
Thus, when you have the combination of:
Bible – Jesus – Spirit – Leaders – Vision – Followers – Mission
all in the same place with the same people responding, you have the makings for an intentional Christian community. Hallelujah!
Joe V. Peterson has been involved in both secular and religious intentional communities since 1964, and has served on the boards of the Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC) and the Communal Studies Association (CSA), and as an advisor to the World Council of Churches. Presently he teaches college courses in Sociology and Human Behavior and is the director of “Making Sense of Existence,” an educational, counseling, and consulting service at PO Box 44981, Tacoma WA 98444, USA. Tel: 253-536-9080.