(un)intentional community?

liscensed from 123RF
I’ve been mocking “intentional community” recently, now that some young people and church leaders are reading books about the new monasticism or using “intentional” as a way to criticize the church itself.

So I need to explain my concerns, partly because I think it can be an unhealthy emphasis. And partly because I should not needlessly offend earnest friends who are trying to make sense of it all.

Certainly this term doesn’t mean the same to everyone. It is used by extremely conservative Christians hiding out in some post Tribulation paranoia. And is used by young adults living in flop houses, where everybody gives everybody massages and they share the rent.

I’m not referring here to either extreme. Or even to the communal living arrangements of the 60’s, by both the Jesus people and the druggies. I’m referring here to “intentional community” as a buzz word, which in my view explains little and adds nothing.

In the first place, it seems redundant. From a human perspective, what other kind of community is there? I might live in Horton, but I’m not part of the community unless I help with the 4th of July BBQ down at the millpond or make some other effort to engage my neighbors in shared goals or purposeful interactions.

I haven’t added anything to the idea of community by calling it intentional, however. Instead I may have suggested that my community is better than your community. Mine is intentional or authentic and yours is, well, not. I’m doing something serious and you aren’t.

Pride is always a danger, and I’m willing to admit I might be getting close to it myself. But what I resist is the implication that some clever few have invented something new, when in fact they have just discovered something very old. For most of us there is an intentional community just down the street. It’s called a church, and for over 2,000 years this voluntary association of like-minded people has been caring for and serving others, practicing hospitality and trusting God.

Its greatest moments arise out of unexpected blessing and unplanned grief—the great mystery of God’s people as the body of Christ responding in way they never intended at all. Stirred and motivated by His Spirit they transcend the limitations of human capacity or intent. Such moments are the purest examples of community I know.

But from the most liberal, main-stream denominational congregation to the most conservative evangelical one, people have joined together around common values and organized themselves to feed the hungry and care for the sick. The church has been building hospitals and fighting injustice for centuries. It elevated women and freed slaves. Its message transformed cultures and changed lives.

Unfortunately people who talk about intentional, missional, or any number of other buzz words kinds of communities are often talking about starting over and starting outside the churches where people are already doing this with both purpose and passion.

I understand you can’t go to church and get a massage anytime you want. Or even a beer. At church you have to listen to a message, make a contribution, be accountable. It has authority. The church can take you in and it can put you out. It is, we are told, the ground and pillar of the truth.

That’s all pretty intentional, and it was long before we decided to draw attention to it. And at least some of what passes as intentional community today is an effort to avoid those very things, and to do so in a vacuum free of certitude or reasoned judgment. Authority is anathema to many “intentional” movements.

I make no claim here that the church does its work perfectly, only that Christ died for it and is in fact its true head. I make no suggestion that we should not be intentional, doing things on purpose to serve each other. But intentionality is not worthy of our worship. It is not in itself the glory of God or the strength of His people. And imperfect people working together in a local congregation ought not to be discounted by people who want to make their own way and do their own thing.

They will find, as have all the communes of the past, that “sin is crouching at the door.” It is not overcome by changing our living arrangements. It is not overcome by making more rules. Or fewer rules. It is certainly not overcome by trying harder, by being intentional.

It is only overcome by the grace of God, “not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7).”

That’s His intention.

Ours is merely a grateful response, and the privilege to do it with each other.


See also the church, as the hands and feet of Jesus

2 thoughts on “(un)intentional community?”

  1. I think you bring up a good point about all communities being intentional, and the possibility of portraying an intentional community as superior in some way.

    Unfortunately for many Americans, organized religion might not provide enough community. I live in a cohousing neighborhood where many residents attend a variety of churches, but in addition to the weekly drive to church, they also get to partake in meals with neighbors, social events, and all the informal interactions that can be so sadly lacking in most neighborhoods. So cohousing, while it is intentional, does not spring from a place of dogma or similar beliefs. At its core it is really just a return to village living within the fabric of a city. For more information, I’d recommend reading Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett. They’ve built over 50 cohousing communities, and they literally coined the word cohousing.

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