In the first century, a man named Paul worked as a community organizer building bridges across incredibly disparate people groups: slaves and slaveholders, women and men, historically combatant racial groups like Jews and Gentiles. He called these bridges churches.
They were small, intimate, familial groups of people seeking to grow as disciples of a man from the back woods of Nazareth.
Today we talk a lot about the future of the church with both fear and hope. In my ministry, I’m wondering if our discipleship as an institutional church warrants a look backwards as we look forwards. I call myself a radical not because I find myself holding extreme viewpoints, but rather because I am interested in the roots of this tradition, and recovering those roots in the modern world.
When I graduated from college three years ago, I had a pretty good idea about the path that was supposed to be set before me: a good job with benefits, a mortgage on a house with my own garage, spending a majority of my waking hours working. Much like the parable of the rich young man who asks, “Teacher, how might I inherit eternal life?” my opportunity for success in this world was entirely one of inheritance based on my circumstances, a path not open to all. I have a right to all those things, don’t I?
The narrative that I was supposed to inherit had become increasingly dissonant with my desire for Christian discipleship. How was I supposed to build a life in solidarity with the poor and marginalized, or one which used interdependence rather than independence as a measure of success in a world so bent on making me a slave to consumption? A world that constantly seeks to dull my sense of compassion by telling me that my life is worth more than someone else’s?
Enter intentional community. It’s a word you’ve possibly heard being thrown around lately, with tags like “missional” or “emerging” or “new ministry” attached, and it’s a way of discipleship that I am increasingly witnessing people, especially young people, being called into. The motivations for seeking intentional community are many, so please, please know that I only speak for myself. But as I found myself flailing in my last year of college to find a Christian community that took seriously police brutality and ethical investment and the realtime movements of the Spirit in each and every day (to name a few!), God answered my prayers by drawing me into an intentional community. Since then, the touchstone phrase I keep coming back to is “following Jesus with my whole life” — with the language I use, and how and when I swipe my credit card, and my understanding of history, and my awareness of the macro and micro meddling of the Living God.
Two years ago I helped start an intentional community called the Charis Community at the vicarage of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Charlottesville in conjunction with the Diocese of Virginia and Grace Church Red Hill. I currently live there with four other people my age plus four chickens and a future beehive community. We grow food, are experimenting with fermentation and food preservation, micro-greens growth, and some ecological land restoration projects. We live under a Rule of Life that we wrote, we pray together, use a common purse practice for food and living necessities, share meals, host parties and events, and encourage one another in our discipleship. My roommates are wildly more interesting and diverse than I could have imagined, and God is meeting us in all our various motivations for seeking intentional community. I would say that the “purpose” of the community is different for all of us, much like the reasons people walk in the doors of a church each week are different for everyone.
We so often over-spiritualize many stories of the bible, taking them out of their very real sociopolitical roots. For me, intentional community is an attempt to take literally the call in Acts 4 and Jesus’ constant criticisms of the powers of Empire. For me, intentional community is a form of holy resistance: the hope of building a life that follows Jesus, an attempt to be serious about undercutting the powers of sin and darkness in this world. We so often domesticate Jesus, too. We dull the edge of his ministry by depicting him with Pantene commercial quality hair, well-behaved, passive. So, too, have I seen the church try to domesticate ministries like intentional communities — “Oh, look, how dear! Young people doing a thing!” What I am trying to do is not precious, it’s political. I’m trying to build a life that’s scrappy and agile, like Jesus was.
It strikes me as interesting that my community can’t be called a church, perhaps because it’s too far a departure from the brick and mortar and tablecloths and committee meetings we are so comfortable with. But this isn’t a new idea. It’s ancient, really. And in still moments, my life feels like God pressing Her forehead to mine whispering, Yes, yes.
[Photo credit: Charis Community Photo Journal, used with permission.]
How do you follow Jesus with your whole life?