Smith explores intentional Christian communities

If Christians gave more time and resources to their faith, could they change the world? Most would say it's impossible to know, but according to Luther Smith, professor at the School of Theology, we can find at least part of the answer by looking more closely at what he calls intentional Christian communities.

In his latest book, Intimacy and Mission: Intentional Community as Crucible for Radical Discipleship, Smith studied intentional Christian communities such as Sojourners and Koinonia Partners to discover not only the unique dynamics of these communities, but also to see how their kind of intensity and its benefits could be brought to mainline churches.

Christians who live in intentional communities believe that the forms and spirit of early churches should be recaptured. So they form religious fellowships that are analogous to those of the first century, sometimes living communally, sometimes sharing financial resources but not housing. "The primary focus in these communities is on intentionality, which sometimes gets lost with the institutional church because its energy is focused on sustaining itself as an institution," Smith said.

Smith found that intentional Christian communities inspired several coveted qualities in their members including:

* an intense and focused commitment;

* committed giving of one's resources and time; and

* willingness to sacrifice for a radical vision even when it involves personal or family sacrifice and even when the vision doesn't seem to get any closer to becoming reality.

Although Smith admits that it's easy to dismiss religious communalism today because of widespread fear and distrust of cults--which these communities clearly are not--he pointed out that "the church would be enriched by an understanding of the stories of communities that are a viable expression of religious fellowship."

In transferring the benefits of intentional communities to mainline churches, Smith said congregations should take a more critical look at themselves and ask: "To what extent is the institutional church a vehicle to carry out one's faith? Does it have viability?"

People who have lost confidence in the institutional church should consider revising the structure of their church, Smith said. "People see what happens in an institutional church and ask how the bureaucracy is an expression of their faith," he said. "The laity get tied up in business and meetings--it's difficult to understand. There are some real gifts in intentional communities: the focus on intentionality, a sense of covenant and the involvement of the congregaton in the decision-making process. The failure of the institutional church is its decreasing ability to inspire its members."

Smith said that churches seeking renewal of their faith should focus on:

* Covenant, or the ability to define members' relationships to one another and to God. "Many churches function without this sense of covenant, which is very important," Smith said. Covenant serves to spell out the goal and mission of the church itself, which is often forgotten or unexplained to its members. It provides church members with a common goal, a sense of community and a means to an end.

* Outreach, or finding a way to draw on the church community to be a good neighbor with its community. "Looking outside the church community provides resources for human need," Smith said. "Outside the church community, there are resources available in order to solve problems such as homelessness or hunger."

* Intimacy, which makes people feel cared for within the church structure. Intimacy is developed when "meaning has belonging, so belonging has meaning," Smith said. When a level of intimacy is developed within the congregation, said Smith, people have more faith in the church as an institution and as a vehicle to complement their outer lives.

Smith writes in his book that intentional communities "magnify their members' passion" and therefore "give testimony to the reality and power of passion." Since "members of congregations hunger to know if their fellowship is a place where their passion will be embraced, nourished and released," Christians seek from the institutional church "the very heart of all passion" as they formulate and carry out their religious beliefs. "Every church has the choice to be such a place," he writes. "Every church can be the crucible where radical discipleship is forged. This is the challenge and the promise for the church today."

-- Elaine Justice

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