I have been doing a lot of studying over the last week, looking at groups that live in community. To clarify, I was looking at groups that go beyond a Western “community” of twice a week hour long meetings and instead looked at communities that have a more intentional gathering that often involves living in close proximity to one another and sharing large parts of their lives together. I found a surprising number of these communities. There is a lot of variation in the different groups. A lot! Some of the communities I looked at included the Amish and Hutterites:
The Amish live in communities and clearly help each other out a lot. If you have ever been in "Amish country", you know you are in a distinct community. The Amish are a very tight knit group, bordering on xenophobia. The Amish are famous for helping one another (think barn raisings) and equally famous for their suspicion of outsiders. Then there are the Hutterites, who live in "colonies" in the plains states/provinces. They are descended from an early Anabaptist pacifistic group that are living in the same way that they lived in Reformation times. They live in a far more communal way than the Amish in that they have “all things in common” to the point that there is no private property at all, not in housing, bank accounts, etc. There is one common purse and stewards are appointed over those funds so that all proceeds go in and are giving out as needed. There are several sizeable offshoots of the Hutterites, also mostly in the plains states/provinces (Minnesota, Saskatchewan, etc.). They live in a similar fashion as the Hutterites without some of the traditional baggage (like specific clothing requirements).
There is also an awful lot that is very good about them. They exhibit a closeness that is missing from many Christian lives. There is a sense in which the community of believers takes precedence over individualism. The materialism and consumerism that infects much of evangelicalism is more or less absent. The community works together, worships together, eats together, educates their children together.
Having said that, there are some negatives that really cause some concerns for me. In many of these groups, having all things in common goes a bit far. There is a strong tendency toward isolationism in some of the groups. A number of them have some very squirrely doctrinal stances. There are some groups that exhibit a concentrated leadership either in one man or in men from the past. Tradition is raised to a place of honor that is unwarranted. Issues that are at best secondary or even preferences (like agrarianism or particular styles of dress) get raised to matters of primary importance. Most problematic is an absence of missionary zeal (an issue that the Hutterites recognize and are trying to rectify this through mission work). So there are some problems in these groups as well as positives.
I came away kind of frustrated. It seems that there are two extremes. Either the individualistic, “me first” evangelicalism that is so ingrained in America or an extreme version of communalism that goes beyond even the radical vision we see in the New Testament.
I love the idea of intentional, simple community among believers that goes beyond occasionally meeting and reflects the beauty and counter-cultural nature of the church in Acts. I love the idea of a community that is in fellowship daily, eats together, prays together daily instead of a couple of times a week on a rigid schedule.
I am not so in love with some of the aberrant theology. I insist that you cannot have a true Christian community that is compromises the truth. You also cannot have a Christian community that doesn't have a missionary zeal. There need not and cannot be a division between community and mission.
So what does a community in service of Christ look like? Or at least what do I think it should look like? Or more specifically what would I like to see and be a part of? That is the next post.