The Amazing Growth of Christian Communities

From monasteries to '60s communes to today's 'intentional communities,' banding together is a Christian tradition

BY: Deborah Caldwell

 
"And all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need."
--Acts 2

Like the early followers of Jesus described in the Book of Acts, more and more people are discovering the peace that often comes with simpler living. As a result, they are joining Christian communities in greater numbers than at any time in the past 30 years.

Though observers say they don't have firm figures, research indicates Christian communities are growing, helping to fuel what some believe is a resurgence of a movement usually associated with the 1960s.

"It has something to do with disillusionment with the self-centeredness of the 1980s," said David Janzen, a historian of American Christian communities, who contacted 148 groups in a study of their growth. "People are realizing that's really an empty way to live. So we've seen a resurgence of volunteerism and of people who want to live in communities."

Most people in Christian communities are seeking fellowship and a place to live their faith in the way of early Christians. Some are protesting society's values or hoping to spark a renewal in churches. Others follow a charismatic personality, waiting for the end of the world.

Researchers estimate that there are 3,000 Christian communities in North America, representing more than half of a growing movement of people living in all kinds of communities. This year, the Fellowship for Intentional Communities listed more than 700 communities in its directory, up from 540 in the 1995 edition.

Christian communities are as old as the faith itself. During the Middle Ages, Europeans started monastic groups like the Franciscans that continue today. In the early 1800s, Americans founded utopian groups such as the Oneida and Amana communities. Groups like the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Hutterites successfully made the move from a religiously restricted Europe to the New World.

The 1960s brought another wave of communities, many of them Christian groups protesting war and working for civil rights.

Today, at the dawn of the new millennium, Janzen said, the communities movement is finding new appeal as people are rejecting materialism and seeking relationships with others. Often, the focus is on fashioning a new kind of family life, where members support each other in parenting and educate children within the community.

But Jim Wallis isn't sure that living in community is the best way to provide families with security.

Wallis is the leader of Sojourners Community, based in Washington, D.C., an urban ministry that founded a magazine by the same name and is among the most famous American Christian communities.

Ten years ago, Sojourners split during a conflict that was partially about the question of whether to live in community at all. As a result, Wallis has become something of a critic of the movement he once helped to popularize.

He said he has come to believe that community life isn't always good for children because they don't get enough privacy. And he has noticed that poor people and minorities aren't usually interested in community living. That's because the movement is unintentionally narrow in its appeal to middle-class whites, he said.

Wallis now believes that the best way to achieve healthy Christian relationships is in churches, which have adopted many of the best aspects of Christian communities: small "care" groups; contemporary, intimate worship; lay leadership; and a social justice focus.

"Christian communities served an important purpose," Wallis said. "They started a renewal and had a real impact on churches. More people are listening to our message than ever before, but most people don't take from that message that they'd better join a Christian community."

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