The Case for Communal Living

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : December 26, 2007

In the recent hullabaloo about the new monasticism “heresy,” there has been some attention given to the uselessness of communal living.  Communal living can be seen as a withdrawal from the world (and indeed it can be).  It also tends to be linked with cults or abusive Christian communities (and indeed it has).

Nevertheless, there are many benefits to living with a group of non-relatives. Here are some of the reasons why my wife and I (and our soon to emerge son, Jonas) live in community with others:

1) Almost every society has embraced multi-family or extended-family living as a norm. America did too until the 1900s. Living with more than just my wife and child can be a healthy corrective to the isolating nature of modern American society.

2) It makes it MUCH easier for real and authentic hospitality. When we take in people who have needs or are in transition, we can all share their burdens together. And hospitality (feeding and clothing and serving the stranger) is VERY biblical.

3) It keeps overall costs down, meaning that people can either work less (to give more time to ministry) or work the same amount and give more.

4) It makes it easier to pray together in community. When you live with members of your church, it can make community spiritual disciplines much easier.

5) It allows you to experiment in mutual-submission.  When you live with people, encouragement and exhortation increase.  It is harder to ignore your own personal problems or avoid issues that need to be dealt with.

Feel free to add to the list…

for further reading . . .

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13 Responses to “The Case for Communal Living”

  1. Ariah Fine on December 26th, 2007 5:19 pm

    That’s an excellent list.

    It’s hard to make a case when we start from the basis of our current culture, which assumes we should live as separate family units. If you can step away from that though, communal living is a no-brainer.

    You hit the major points, but there’s more:

    It’s just more fun.
    Saves time (shared cooking, cleaning, etc)
    Keep one another accountable
    Instant Babysitters
    Shared possessions curbs consumerism (how many blenders do you need?)
    Shared space and appliances cuts down on your carbon footprint
    Did I mention it’s a lot of fun?

    It can be a ‘withdrawal’ but it really doesn’t have to be.
    From experience I know that when you live in community random people are MUCH more like to ‘drop by.’ When it was just me and my wife none of our friends would ever stop by, in community it’s much more inviting.

    Go Community!

  2. Danny on December 26th, 2007 7:46 pm

    I agree, but I think the problem is that people see the word “monastic” and instantly are taken back to the middle ages. If they don’t take the time to understand you by asking serious questions, I don’t think they will ever be convinced. Of all the people I’ve talked to online and in person, most of these people either don’t care or just want us to be exactly like they are. But that is just my opinion.

  3. Jason Stauffacher on December 26th, 2007 9:43 pm


    I must also remind some of your not-so happy readers of this blog (the anti-Emergent readers) of the fact that many Asian, Eastern and Southern Hemisphere decent share a home with Grandma, Great-Grandma, and uncles and cousins. I think of the Hmong in Minneapolis, Chinese? Yes. Most Chinese girls stay at home until they marry, and their mom’s sisters always come over and talk to the girl living at home…. WHY THEY ARE NOT MARRIED YET. I must say I am very impressed with the take you have on life and way you write it out and some just don’t fancy it. It is very new, and ironically old. It’s not “monastic,” it is actually historical. The white experience is something to be questioned. (i.e. I am not into this white guilt thing, either. I am talking about world history was pretty much what you say until the cul-de-sac was invented post-WWII.)

    Sending your kid off to Wheaton, her not seeing her uncles or cousins NOT too often AT THE HOUSE BUT ONCE A YEAR is very much an Anglo experience, BUT not the rest of the world. The rest of the world has people around them all the time. Lots of people. South and Central Americans? I need not comment about that. It’s obvious. They dance in their houses! Much of the time, and full of life, not commuter lanes and PDA’s while driving into town. I’d rather be bothered by a few faces than no faces.

    -Jason Stauffacher

  4. Christian Community « Community of the Risen on December 27th, 2007 12:34 am

    [...] about community a lot lately.  Over at Jesus Manifesto, there has been more discussion about the new monasticism movement that they champion over there.  The idea really drives to a serious question: What does [...]

  5. JoshuaEllens on December 27th, 2007 12:44 am

    another advantage is that when a bunch of people are all living together with a very intentional mission, the common ethos is intensified quite a bit. there is something way more influential and effective about a handful of mixed people all living together with a common purpose and way of life, than just as isolated single families.

    also, (Christian) communal living is a working image of the Kingdom of God and of the trinity relationship. And where two or more are gathered there Christ is as well. So when we draw people into these communities we are drawing them into the Kingdom of God and embodying Christ’s presence to them.

  6. Jeremy Alder on December 27th, 2007 11:39 am

    These have both been touched on in earlier comments, but to reiterate, two fundamental reasons why communal living is a good idea, particularly for parents and for Christians, are the opportunities for sharing parental duties and to witness to the social dimension of the gospel of the kingdom.

    Concerning the first, as the father of three young boys, I’ve realized (along with my wife), that parenting is too big a demand and responsibility to try and tackle alone. To do it in close community with others isn’t radical, but simply good sense. Moreover, Christian community provides an environment in which children and their parents can learn what it means for church to be “first family” (Clapp).

    Regarding the second, intentional community provides a place where the social dimension of the gospel can be exhibited to the world in a way made much more difficult when believers don’t live in close proximity to one another. Lohfink makes this point well in his wonderful book, Does God Need the Church? It’s why he left his professorship at Tubingen to join the Catholic Integrated Community. Clarence Jordan also understood this, which is why he founded Koinonia Farms: to be “a demonstration plot for the kingdom of God.”

  7. fargo john on December 27th, 2007 4:02 pm

    so let’s say a person was considering finding a place and turning that into a community house… do you have any recommended readings for that person and those that would move into that house? any pieces of advice for those moving in? what are some resources for people that are considering taking this lifestyle on?

  8. Ben on December 28th, 2007 9:39 am

    I know that this post is entitled “The Case for..”, but I struggle with the embedded cultural context in which we must be gospel - one which does not seem to value communal living.

    It seems to me that hospitality is Biblical (as was stated in the original post), but communal living is not necessarily so. Rather, it seems to me that historical communal living is more of a cultural/economic/social by-product, and one which (I believe) most Americans no longer experience, nor have need to experience.

    All that being said, is the point here that communal living is biblical, or merely that it seems to be a corrective to some aspects of modern American consumerism/individualism?

    Going further, if “generica” is in need of a corrective (which I agree it is), what corrective is communal living in need of? I ask this because some of the people with which I rub elbows see communal living as a panacea without a downside. Somehow, this doesn’t seem right to me, because if the gospel is tied into a particular contextual reality (i.e., communal living), then we have no business “reimagining” the gospel for our (post)modern context.

    In any case, rest assured that I’m not a ‘hater’ like have appeared here lately. I’m a long-time reader, and truly interested in what this community has to say. I’m just trying to better understand the interplay of culture vis-a-vis Acts 17 over against communal living. Are the burbs really anti-gospel, or do we simply lack the cognitive framework to imagine the gospel in the suburban context?

  9. Mark Van Steenwyk on December 28th, 2007 10:09 am

    Community and hospitaity is definitely biblical. Communal living can be seen in the New Testament, but I would hardly argue that it is biblically normative. However, it is a helpful corrective. And it is a tool that may help Americans grasp biblical concepts that have become marginal (like church-as-family, hospitality, mutual submission).

    There are, most certainly, down-sides to communal living. There is a real danger of becoming introverted and extracted from society. This is because communal households intensify already existing components of community. So, if you get a bunch of intellectual introverts living in the same house, they will reinforce their introverted tendencies. That is why diversity is helpful in communal living.

    However, diversity is VERY hard in communal living because you can’t hide from conflict and discomfort.

    One big issue my wife and I constantly face in our experiments with communal living is burnout. Some people live in community with likeminded people of similar socio-economic backgrounds. As such, living in community is a supportive environment. At our house, however, we have quick turnarounds and tend to have more transitional and/or needy housemates. This can quickly lead to burnout.

  10. Some stuff to chew on… « Community of the Risen on December 30th, 2007 12:53 am

    [...] As always there is some good conversations going on at Jesus Manifesto. [...]

  11. forrest on December 31st, 2007 5:48 pm

    When nobody owns the cat… or rather, when “That’s Alice’s cat, not mine!” the cat learns very strange behavior–Mr Cat poops in inconvenient places (but nobody tells him how very inconvenient they were until somebody finally finds Alice to clean it up & she very belatedly applies severe wall-therapy…) If you imagine this sort of Highly-Common-Experience (from my hippydays) occuring with the raising of children, it suggests serious cautions! Is everyone in the place prepared to 1) be responsible for whatever happens on their watch and 2) trust each other to do the right amount of the right thing about it?

    So shared values & compatible religious experience seem to be needed for a group that wants to stay together. Not for the group to be a hive of clones, exactly, but to be agreed on some level. Shared mission should help overcome a lot of disagreements about whether or not sox REALLY belong in the kitchen sink. The community in Acts wasn’t just sharing housing because they thought communal living would be nice…

    Frequent house meetings probably are essential. A pain, but people do get on each other’s nerves, particularly over things they never thought they’d need to talk about! If there is a shared mission– that’s good, one more reason for people to meet regularly. Common meetings for worship of some sort… for me that would be a necessity, but I’m also a picky eater when it comes to spiritual ceremonial gatherings (While Anne just tunes into whatever a practice means to the people doing it, I get itchy if I feel included in something I’ve got reservations about. “Quakers can’t sing because they’re too busy reading ahead to see if they agree with the lyrics.”)

    For poor people, of course, the shared mission is something like “staying alive until the next check (if any.)” That can keep people together, sometimes living together with an unexpected degree of mutual charity–but the level of personal stress & misbehavior in such a group can really stretch a person. When Anne & I had a house, and would occasionally let some poor family hang out awhile, there was sometimes tension between their missions (”Could I have those nice Italian shoes in the closet? Don’t they look nice?!”) and ours (Anne got those when the street newspaper in Bologna paid her way to their convention, and she really liked them, but as she said, “They’re just shoes.”)

    Today I was hit afresh with something I’ve known a long time–That God loves people (particularly ME!) regardless of what we accomplish. We’re like kids bringing Him home a scrawly crayon card we did on construction paper in some Kindergarten of the Spirit; He just says “That’s nice, dear,” and hangs it on the refrigeration. God must appreciate us… roughly, I think, the way we appreciate our friends and children. Our friend M_ will feel better if she spends the morning painting and it turns out well–but it isn’t being a good painter (though she is!) that makes us fond of her.

    So. We really should find ways to live communally under God’s care… because the “Every-Critter-For-Itself System” is an ongoing world disaster. Meanwhile, I feel like I belong in the arbitrary, “accidental” social grouping where God has planted me, for now, even though it’s no more ideal than I am. For me to seek out something more “perfect” would be a mistake, almost leaving ‘my post’. Not that I’m personally doing all that much important, but that my life (despite frequent AWOL periods) is being lived ‘under orders.’

  12. Steve Hayes on January 3rd, 2008 5:02 am

    Do you have any links to this “hullabaloo”?

    I seem to have missed it.

    I keep a lookout for posts on “new monasticism” on Technorati, but I haven’t picked this up.

  13. Mark Van Steenwyk on January 4th, 2008 8:51 am

    Here are four links…there are a few others out there that I know of, but they all say the same thing:

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