A How-To for Intentional Christian Community: A Q&A with David Janzen

A How-To for Intentional Christian Community: A Q&A with David Janzen November 2, 2012

“This is a book we’ve needed for a long, long time…” begins the foreword by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in the new book The Intentional Christian Community Handbook by David Janzen. Indeed, for the thousands of communities, both old and new across the country, who are humbly and courageously attempting to live out their faith in community, this book offers a much-needed and longed for “how-to.” Tackling such issues as how to deal with conflict, decision-making and leadership, accountability, developing common work and ministries, common living and sharing resources, this practical handbook offers deep wisdom gleaned from the experience and stories of communities that have struggled, and continue to struggle, to live out God’s calling in intentional Christian community.

We spoke with author David Janzen this week about his book, which he says was really co-written by a community of friends with whom he’s lived and worked with over the past 40 years of his own communal-oriented life.

What inspired you to write a guidebook for intentional Christian community at this particular time?

For the last three years I’ve been visiting other Christian intentional communities about half-time.  These have been two types of visits — “getting to know you” visits with newer communities where we see each other for the first time, and more formal “visitations” where two or three of us take a weekend to listen to everyone in the community and to give a report to them about things that are going well and things that might need more attention.

From these visits, community members kept suggesting topics “you should write about if you ever do a handbook for communities.”  Soon it became obvious that we’d never get around to all the newer communities of which there are hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand that have made it for a couple of years, with many others forming and fizzling along the way.  We were only touching the surface of this larger movement and so, with encouragement from many sides, we wrote this book.  I say “we” because in it you will find the contribution of about fifty different voices, persons telling their experiences and lessons learned on the way to joining, forming or nurturing intentional Christian communities.

From your research and experience, how is the intentional Christian community movement doing in this country?  How many communities exist, and has it been growing?

There are many cultural and spiritual forces at work in these times urging young people to see church as community. Many young adults are disillusioned with church the way they have experienced it and drift away from participation as soon as they reach college age. However spiritual growth, engagement with the poor and broken people left behind by our society, and more intentional community are themes that call them to become more than self-seeking, career-pursuing, consumers of novel experiences. They see the rat race and find it empty of meaning, unworthy of a life’s devotion.

Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove are a couple of names that are widely recognized by this generation because of their speaking tours and books on the market. This movement has sometimes been labeled “a New Monasticism.” But many other college teachers, seminary professors, and youth pastors are inspiring young people to think of church not as a Sunday morning institution, but as a close-in seven-day-a-week community where people take seriously the radical teachings of Jesus and make experiments with their lives to love one another and their neighbors with generous abandon.

So communities are forming at many levels and with different degrees of seriousness. Student Christian co-housing arrangements that last a year or two are ubiquitious.  Many young people take a year or two of voluntary service with Mission Year or other mission programs, experiencing community in a life-transforming way. So the Holy Spirit is using the longing for community that is universal in human beings, along with the specific cultural forces in our time to call people to this more intentional way of community life as disciples of Jesus.

But we also find that a longing for community, or ideals of service are not enough to sustain community for folks who have been deeply formed by a mobile society of individualists each seeking their own advantage with a minimum of commitment. We have lost the skills and the attitudes of earlier generations that knew how to do community from shared life in extended families or rural villages or immigrant communities that counted on each other for survival. So many of these new communities are failing because the persons in them do not realize how much personal transformation is needed in order to sustain the kind of love that Jesus teaches and models in the Gospels.

For this reason the Nurturing Communities Project has been gathering younger and more mature communities together in an informal association to give support to fledgling communities and community leaders. A month ago about forty-five of us came together for our third annual gathering, from twenty-five communities around the U.S., hosted by St. Johns Abbey, a Benedictine community in Collegeville, Minnesota, to learn from this 1,500 year tradition of intentional Christian Community, and to encourage each other in our local settings. It seems clear that in this generation God is not bringing a lot of new recruits to traditional monastic communities, but these hundreds and thousands of shared-life experiments among lay people, often with families and single persons together, are the shape that church and community renewal is taking in our day.

What are some of the biggest gifts of intentional community?  And what are some of the biggest challenges?

The biggest gifts and biggest challenges are closely linked. We long for a life focused on giving and receiving love in the manner of Jesus, and we find in our culture and our human nature a resistance to this same love because it means that our life is no longer our own. This is what conversion is all about. In less theological terms, deep
Christian community is the most satisfying way to live through all of life’s stages; it is the way to do justice and seek peace on a human scale of committed relationships in a local neighborhood, and yet linked with others doing the same around the world.  In this way of life we discover what we were created to be. According to Jesus, it
takes everything we have and it gives us “brothers, sisters, mothers, and lands a hundred fold in this life, along with persecutions, and in the age to come, eternal life.”   (Matt. 19:29)

What are some of the most important things you’ve learned about how to nurture and grow intentional community?

I’ve learned that books (including this one) are useful to give us an over-view of the landscape we are passing through, but relationships with persons whose experience is deeper than our own, who can share their struggles and their wisdom in patient on-going relationships, are the key to nurturing and growing communities. We’d like to build community according to some blueprint, but nurturing community is more like tending a garden that God has planted with the unique people and neighborhoods around us.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that we learn almost nothing until we make commitments to stick together in marriage, friendship, and community — for better or for worse. Until then we are running away from our real learning tasks looking for better people, better opportunities, better neighborhoods that more nearly fit our likes and
dislikes. We are in love with our ideal community and miss the real people God has given us to love and be reconciled with who are always different from us. Of course, young people need a stage of life to explore different places and discover themselves in those contrasts, but that learning only becomes useful when we commit to love the
people God has given us to love in a particular place. Jesus is the model and our companion in community who knows all we go through, even when our community mates do not. Jesus is the glue that holds us and community together from the inside, with restoring love and forgiveness that never runs out.

One of your chapters is titled “Stop Going to Church and Become the Church.” Does being an intentional Christian community take the place of going to church?  Can you do both?  How are intentional Christian communities different from church?

The title is supposed to be somewhat provocative and borrowed from a manuscript by a former community leader at Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, John Alexander who died a decade ago. His thesis is that a church that you have to “go to” isn’t church enough. If church isn’t a daily reality of people with thickly overlapping lives, it doesn’t have the power to transform us into Christ-like character and courage the way we see lived out in the New Testament.  Some Christian intentional communities are their own house-church, some participate as committed members of a local congregation, and some in the same community attend different churches.  Intentional Christian communities usually recognize that the church functions on many levels from small groups to world-wide communions. But one unique gift of intentional communities to the church is that it fosters a more holistic and intensive experience of church that touches all of life rather than just a few hours a week. By its example it is both a critique of and a support to the church.

What are some signs that intentional community is right for you?

I believe that all humans are created by community and called to community in some form or fashion. Even when we’ve been wounded by our families or communities, another community will be involved in our healing. If we have been formed in the Christian life, then a key question to carry around is to ask, “Where can I learn to give and receive love in the manner of Jesus?” As we visit or immerse ourselves in various kinds of communities, a flame will be kindled.

Many young people have tasted community in camping experiences, on mission trips, in occasions where they gave themselves to care for others, when someone listened to them well and deeply, but they only hope to have more such isolated experiences. They don’t dare to ask if this could be a way of life. I think that is what God wants for
them. And they will know. They just need the courage and companions to pursue it.

If someone wanted to know more about how to join or start an intentional Christian community, what would you suggest they do?

Visit other Christian intentional communities, volunteer with such groups, become interns, check it out with real time and experiences. Ask someone whose life you respect to be a mentor in your search for the community where God might be calling you. A book like this one can be a road map for the search, but the map isn’t the road, and it isn’t the home.

For more on The Intentional Christian Community Handbook, including an excerpt, visit the Patheos Book Club here!

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