There was a time when I was younger that I was interested in joining a Christian commune. There were so many things about it that resonated with me. I entertained the idea for a while and eventually decided not to make the jump (for both good and bad reasons, honestly). I am no longer in a position where that is a serious desire, but the fascination with communes has remained. There is something compelling about the intentional community that these environments produce, and there is much from such communities that I think all Christians can learn. David Janzen has written the handbook on intentional Christian communities, and within its pages there is much that non-communalists can learn too. The Intentional Christian Community Handbook can serve the broader church by clarifying both the reality of and hindrances to genuine Christian community.
Janzen has helped to found intentional Christian communities, and helped to establish, oversee, and guide other communities for years. He has been a reliable guide to many and a respected voice within the movement of intentional Christian communities. He wrote this book as part of a network of leaders who are seeking to provide guidance to the many new communities popping up all across America. The handbook he has written obviously has a very particular focus and bent. The book is written to those who are attempting to launch a commune of their own, or who have recently launched one. The chapters focus on things like “before moving in together,” and identifying novice members versus full-fledged members. It gives principles for thinking about things like decision-making, gender roles, and accountability. There is a lot that will not be overly relevant to many of my readers, but there are some things which are instructive and even convicting.
The handbook gives an important picture of the “disintegration of community” in America, even in the church. Both mobility and consumerism have conspired to create a context that is anti-communal. Janzen invites Brandon Rhodes to write a survey of our cultural landscape and Rhodes offers a stunning critique. We have made ourselves the center of our worlds and community, thus, is all about us and having our needs met. We were made for community, but we have allowed mobility and consumerism to corrupt even that need, turning into the pursuit of selfish desires.
Throughout the book readers will regularly be confronted with our own tendencies towards selfishness. That self-interest will be contrasted often with the picture of the early church, with Jesus himself. The language of a “family-system” found in the New Testament has been lost in much of Western Christianity. If we don’t all adopt a communal living arrangement we must, nonetheless, be challenged by this picture. We live in a culture that has little investment in the church and little investment in one another.
Further, the book gives us an honest look at the challenges to community. Chapter 3 presents eleven different challenges to intentional Christian community, ranging from different family situations to fear of legalism, to fear of exclusivity, to the cultural value of individualism. The critique and careful discussion of these challenges to community is insightful. It speaks volumes to the problems of investment across the board, not just at the communal level.
Overall I found The Intentional Christian Community Handbook to be insightful in a number of ways. If I would have wanted a more robust theological perspective at points, I still found lots of good challenge and insight in this book. I’ve perhaps lost my interest in starting or joining a commune, but I have not lost my interest in an intentional community of believers. This book gave me a lot to think bout with regard to my own life. The problems with community are not primarily issues with everybody else. They start with me, and this book asked some hard questions, exposed some selfish motivations in me, and forced me to wrestle afresh with some important characteristics of my lifestyle. If I wouldn’t recommend all that this book promotes, I think there is some value about reading a book that is a good bit out of our normal reading avenue. You may not be into communal living, but this book can teach you some important things about the nature of community, the hindrances to it, and the need for intentionality in communities.