This personal reflection narrates the author’s experiences in Christian intentional community in multiple contexts. Brief book reviews are woven into the narrative. The article ends with a word of caution about experimenting with intentional community.
The First Experiment
As a sophomore in college, one of my best friends told me about a crazy idea he and a few others were hatching. I knew immediately I wanted in. Thankfully, this idea had much better intentions than many of those invented by college students in their spare time. Still, it benefitted from being conceived in the minds of college-aged males, not because we had unique knowledge or special character traits but because we lacked the inhibition of more rational humans and could, therefore, put our plan to action with little getting in the way.
“What if,” the idea went, “we tried to live like Jesus would if he were living today in Abilene, Texas?” As we dreamed and prayed, our imaginations lit up. Jesus would live among the poor! He would live simply and pray often. He would welcome others to his house! No, wait—he’d invite himself to others’ houses!
As I heard and helped to shape this idea, I had a feeling that I was made for this. The challenge to choose a poor community as my neighborhood played to my memories of my dad Kenny’s Lubbock Christian University Encounter classes, in which participants in an elaborate simulation were tempted to quit playing their “successful” game characters and join the “loser” in the corner of the room. The exploration of God’s kingdom outside of church walls reminded me of when, as a teenager, I sat at the feet of youth ministers like Tim Henderson, who impressed on me that the Christian life is not so much about getting to Heaven but that “eternal life starts now.” For one raised in Churches of Christ culture, what could be more “Restorationist” than adopting the practice of the early church in Acts 4, sharing our possessions in common? With my background, all I needed was a little of Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution, and I was ready to dive headfirst into this thing called intentional community.
In the fall of 2009, we moved “down the hill” from our Christian university bubble, surrounding ourselves with neighbors who were different than us in just about every way. I feel a need to remind readers that “intentional” means “conscious” or “deliberate,” and not “knows what one is getting into.” For us, intentionality meant we were willing to experiment, and God turned that into something beautiful. In the years that followed, we had seasons with long-term houseguests and seasons with frequent kids’ club nights (in which we and a few volunteers ate, played, painted and sang with the neighborhood kids who were curious about why we lived there). For several Decembers, we also helped bring to life the dream of a long-time neighborhood pastor who wanted to see a Christmas party give children the simple pleasure of opening a gift.
In every season, we ate. Wow, did we eat! My favorite memories of those years are the cross-sections of people gathered around a common table. Neighbors, college students, some with rough pasts, some with advanced degrees, some with years of life’s wisdom, others still learning how to be adults. All had something to offer; all had something to gain.
One thing we did very little of was evangelizing—at least in the traditional sense. Now there were spontaneous worship sessions and readings through a book of Common Prayer, but when it came to beliefs, hardly any of our neighbors needed an introduction to faith. In fact, many neighbors had a faith that I craved, one shaped by decades of hardship and utter dependence on God. Before long I realized we were not there to “be” Jesus but to find him. Our willingness to experiment, to ask “What if we tried this?” did not lead us to bring Jesus into a neighborhood but to position ourselves so we could better see where God was already at work.
A Book suggestion
One of the most formative books during this season of life was School(s) for Conversion: Twelve Marks of a New Monasticism.1 This collection of essays edited by a community called the Rutba House describes some common characteristics between intentional communities across North America and the monastic traditions that helped shape them. Among these “marks” are some you might expect to be associated with monks: commitment to spiritual disciplines, a shared rule of life, and hospitality to the stranger. The book also outlines other aspects of “old” monasticism that Christian communities are finding relevant and timely for following Jesus in America: racial reconciliation, care for creation, and relocation into abandoned places.
Living down the hill in Abilene was the first iteration of intentional community in my life. We were spirited and idealistic. We witnessed miracles. Groceries came to our door as we talked about how we could host a neighborhood meal. People took steps toward sobriety while staying in our home. Privileged do-gooders shut up and listened to others’ vastly different stories. Those were miracles. What started as four young guys expanded into a collection of men, women and married couples living in three neighborhood houses, plus many friends living elsewhere who were just as much a part of the action.
In the long term, however, our young group lacked stability. We took jobs or spouses and moved across town or across the country. Since then, others have come and gone with similar vision, willing to experiment, listen, and learn. And, as we found out, others had lived out the experiment in the same neighborhood decades before us. We knew God had been there long before we arrived, and we trusted that God would be at work on those streets long after we were around to see it.
In the years after I left the neighborhood, my family and I continued to live as intentional neighbors, but we never could shake the desire to live in closer community with other Christians. You could say that communal living ruined us for nuclear family life. This fall, another set of what-ifs led us to make another move. What if we shared a house with people who inspire us to be the best versions of ourselves? What if we shared both a spiritual rhythm and the necessary tasks of life? What logistical and spiritual benefits might come from a “village” lifestyle? A desire to ask those questions is why we moved our family across the country to share a house with friends who are interested in the same questions. Our families’ rhythms are not strict and our sense of mission is still largely underdeveloped. In fact, I’m not even sure if I would call what we have now an intentional community in the truest sense. Instead, we are simply two families who have given each other permission to share in the daily mundanity of meals and dishes, and the permission to encourage each other to become better people of faith who strive to be the best parents, neighbors, and citizens we can be.
The benefits of shared life are felt in many ways. We pay less rent than we would as single families with our own places. Each of us cooks less while enjoying more home-cooked meals. Our best babysitters live down the hall. I pray and study Scripture more now than I have in years (not because I want to, but because I made a commitment to my housemates—kind of like having a gym buddy). However, in my opinion, the best thing that intentional community has to offer the church is the permission to experiment. Many Christians, especially young Christians raised going to church, want to know what ramifications following Jesus has for their daily lives beyond a rulebook of dos and don’ts. There is power in a group of people who are willing to dream and ask the what-ifs.
Another Book Suggestion
Author Mark Scandrette has several practical suggestions for communities looking for ways to be more intentional in his book Practicing the Way of Jesus. His approach is couched in experimentation and practice, rather than signing up for lifelong commitments. What if we downsized our closets? What if we ate less meat so we could afford to support local farmers with our grocery budget? What if we committed to playing in the front yard instead of the back to be more visible to our neighbors? Now, sure, you could do any of these experiments by yourself. But if you’re like me, you need the extra motivation of co-followers alongside you and—if at all possible—the encouragement and example of folks who have been doing this a little longer. Scandrette offers a metaphor he sees in a popular extracurricular location: the karate studio. A community of Christians can serve as an arena of practice sort of like martial arts has the dojo. Meaning “place of the way,” a dojo is a hall or room meant for common practice and active learning. “So a Jesus dojo,” Scandrette writes, “is a space where a group of people wrestles with how to apply the teachings of Jesus to everyday life through shared actions and practices.”2
A Word of Caution
It should not come as any surprise, but the two necessary ingredients for intentional community are community and intentionality—a willingness to experiment and folks to experiment with. You need a group of co-followers who are willing to think through the implications of Jesus’s teachings and creatively experiment with ways to apply those teachings. A word of caution is needed though! These what-ifs and experiments have a way of changing one’s outlook on life and faith permanently. You might give away half of everything in your closet. You might lose a sense of comfort in compartmentalized religion. You might find yourself in messy relationships with people who look, believe, or smell different than anyone you’ve known before. You might join a protest. You might share. You might move. Best of all, you might find Jesus.
Aaron Shaver graduated from Abilene Christian University and has been experimenting with intentional community for about ten years. He currently lives in Lawrence, New Jersey, with his wife and two children, plus two close friends and their child. The seven of them share a house, meals, childcare, a church, and a desire to encourage each other to follow Jesus more closely.