By Will Scott
According to the Fellowship for Intentional Community, “Intentional Community is an inclusive term for ecovillages, cohousing, residential land trusts, communes, student co-ops, urban housing cooperatives, and other projects where people strive together with a common vision.” I’ve been wondering whether one helpful way to describe the church is as an intentional community striving together toward the vision of Jesus, the reign of God, the beloved community. Whether you work in corporate America, are a missionary in Brazil, or are a social worker on the streets of Philadelphia, being a Christian in today’s world requires intentionality and community. While I don’t currently live in a residential community, below you¹ll see I’ve been thinking about it for a while.
Early in my childhood, my extended family would spend a week in a rented cabin near my maternal grandmother’s hometown, a primarily Mennonite and Amish community in Pennsylvania. I was captivated by the unique dress and practices of the Anabaptists. Something inside me ached for the apparent simplicity, communalism, purpose, and salt-of-the-earthiness these people exuded. Everything about their lives seemed to have reason, faith and intentionality behind it. Ever since then, I have been fascinated by intentional community.
When I was about 10 years old my grandmother and aunt took me for a brief visit to an ashram in western Massachusetts. As in Pennsylvania, I was moved by this community’s distinctive ways and patterns of life that seemed so obviously hospitable to the holy. I remember how in the lobby of this large center two people ran from one end to the other in the middle embracing one another saying loudly “Let’s bond.” I yearned for what these people had.
It was not that my everyday life was completely devoid of community, but for some reason the distinctive patterns and practices were less noticeable in our parish church or neighborhood because they were so familiar. Later, after spending time away from the church and studying abroad in south Asia, I returned to the church of my youth and discovered communal intentional practices. After college I spent some time in a non-religious intentional community in the Midwest made up of artists, musicians, gardeners, and activists. In seminary, I explored the communities of the ecumenical Church of the Savior and found spiritual support in a weekly small group of diverse people that went a long way toward fulfilling this yearning for community. Now in the Bay Area I have discovered a variety of manifestations of communal living from co-housing, to “new monastic” and more traditional religious orders like the Episcopal/Anglican Franciscans.
But throughout my exploration of community I have struggled with the role of change. My grandmother and other women of her generation fled the Anabaptistism of their youth because they yearned for something they saw elsewhere: growing equality for women. My grandmother has since returned to the church of her youth and found that much of the church has evolved and now many Mennonite churches have female ministers. The ashram I visited in western Massachusetts, I later discovered, had been led by a guru who was accused of abusing power and engaging in sexual impropriety. The ashram, though once closely united, split up and became a non-profit yoga center. For me these particular changes reflect justice, progress and maturity — in a theological sense, the Holy Spirit moved these communities forward together into healthier, more just practices.
Yet not everyone in these communities was of like mind. People suffered and still ache about decisions some viewed as progress and others as heresy. For the changes to happen people had to risk something, others had to compromise, and those who bitterly disagreed had to move on. While some argue that those pushing for change in our contemporary church (blessing same-sex relationships and gay leadership especially) are advocating an “anything goes” approach, I would say we’re discerning together the call of the Holy Spirit toward justice, progress and maturity. The changes we are striving for are for the health, progress and maturing of the church, not its destruction as some suggest.
I still yearn for intentional community but I have lots of questions. My hunch is that communities that are flexible and open to change with the help of discernment are able to endure while those that are rigid on the surface may appear stronger yet in the end are more likely to break. As one person in my Bible study class said the other day, “the people in this book are just as screwed up as you and me.” The people in any community are screwed up but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something by opening up, having a conversation, struggling together for lives of simplicity, holiness, purpose, and salt-of-the-earthiness.
The Rev. Will Scott, is associate pastor at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. He blogs occasionally at Yearns and Groans.