Intentional Christian Community Handbook by David Janzen: a book review

My experience in intentional community is limited. About nine years ago my wife and I did  Mission Year in Atlanta. We lived in community with three other couples and invested in our neighborhood there. After a year,  we moved with one of the other couples to Miami  and continued  community living.  At the end of  that year, they went their way and we went ours.  Community living had its headaches and there are things we would do differently, but my wife and I grew from our experience (and still love the couple!).  Currently, my wife and I live in a house in a gated community. We do not know our neighbors beyond polite pleasantries. We commute to church. We often feel isolated from those who know and love us best.

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: for Idealists, Hypocrites and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus by David Janzen

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook was written as a guide for those in community, or those who are interested in intentional community living. The subtitle of the book  indicated it is “For Idealists, Hypocrites and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus.” I happen to be all three, so I read with interest.  David Janzen helped found the New Creation Community in  Newton, Kansas in 1971. In 1984 he moved to Evanston, Illinois to be part of Reba Place Fellowship and has been there ever since. He is someone with a wealth of experience living in a ‘thicker’ style community where community members pool possessions and resource and share life together. He is also in conversation with  a variety of other intentional communities.  In these pages, Janzen offers his wisdom for thos who  interested in community, and what practices will sustain communities for the long haul.

This handbook  is divided into six sections which address different aspects and stages of community life. In part one,  Janzen talks about the longing for community in our  individualistic, consumeristic culture.  Trends in society have contributed to the break down of families and communities. Those who long for intentional community are bucking those trends.

In part two Janzen helps those interested in community discern ift a particular community context is right for them. He asks probing questions about what the calling of that particular community is, and whether or not you as the individual can find a place in that context. However he  also cautions this is not an individual decision. He suggests interning with the community, finding mentors and discerning your personal call with the wider community.

Part three examines considerations which precede community formation.  What will community look like? What is the calling and purpose of this community?  Where will we put down roots?  How will your community commit to racial reconciliation and gender equity? Or will it?  This section is fairly practical, and Janzen shares examples of what various communities have done.

Part four talks about the first year of community living. He urges new communities to work-out  leadership structures,  to thoughtful navigate careers and schedules and  advises  new communities to connect with other more established communities.  he challenges communities to clarify how they share life together (be the church).

In part five he discusses some of the growth edges for young communities. A community rule of life or a covenant may seem unnecessary in the early years of community but as a community matures they clarify identity and purpose.  Likewise, there will be growth and change in some community practices. Justice around food and creation care may occupy a more significant place than in earlier years of community life.  Communities also faces challenges when people leave, or fail to live up to the community’s ideals. One major challenge for growing communities is the presence of children. It is easier for single people to commit their life and resources to a cause and live in a ‘risky neighborhood.’ As families grow, communities change and often members move to ‘safer’ outlying neighborhoods.

Finally part six addresses issues relevant to the mature community. The communities need avenues for healing  hurts, uniting for a common mission, sustaining prophetic vocations, accountability, nurturing new communities, and caring for and challenging the ‘execptionally gifted person.

Janzen has numerous examples from his own community life and from a variety of other intentional communities.  I was pleased to see one of my mentors (Leroy Barber) profiled in the book. Because each community is different, this book is by necessity non-comprehensive. However it gives good food for thought and sage advice to all who are on the road to intentional Christian community. People in their twenties and thirties who have read Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove or Shane Claiborne (who wrote the forward)  will find Janzen to be a wise guide as they seek to live in community.  Longstanding communities will also find places of challenge and growth. This is a very thoughtful resource!

I do not currently live in intentional community, but part of me still longs for it. Maybe this book will sow the seeds of something new for me and my family. Maybe it will for you too. I give it five stars ★★★★★

Thank you to Paraclete Press for Providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

Talking ’bout the Revolution: a book review

A friend suggested I review Red Letter Revolution, and I happily complied. Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo are two  authors who have impacted me in significant ways. I’ve heard both speak at various conferences and Tony Campolo was instrumental in my wife and I deciding to give a year of our life to serve the urban poor (which turned into two years and a life long change in priorities). I read Shane’s first book while working with homeless in Miami and  was challenged and inspired by his journey (and impressed by his graciousness to places like Willow Creek).

The Red Letter Revolution: What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said? by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo

This book records a dialogue between Claiborne and Campolo. These two men are in many ways kindred spirits. Campolo taught Claiborne at Eastern University. Both men challenge the evangelical church to take the gospel seriously and take radical stances. Campolo is considered a provocateur by older evangelicals because he is a democrat. Claiborne is some what of a ‘radical’ because he makes his own clothes and lives in intentional community.  Yet both men have a concern for justice, peace, care for the poor, and reconciliation. In twenty six chapters their conversation covers a number of topics under the broad headings of “Red Letter Theology,” “Red Letter Living,” and “Red Letter World.”

So what is this “red letter revolution?” Campolo and Claiborne are part of a movement which seek to pay close attention to the ‘red letters’ of the bible–that is, the words of Christ. The accusation may be leveled at them that they are promoting a limited canon (or a canon within a canon), but they are careful to say early on in this book that they take all of scripture as God breathed. They just regard Christ and his words with central importance. Other Evangelicals share this Christological focus and I think it is appropriate.

I happen to agree with many of the convictions which the authors present, such as as suspicion about ’empire, the need to be counter-cultural, and a commitment to a consistant pro-life ethic which encompasses from the womb to the tomb. However the limitations of this book is its breadth. Campolo and Claiborne discuss world politics, racism, sexism, several hot-button issues, hell, other religions, the global church, the middle East,  Missions, Reconcilation and more. The problem with this book is not that the authors do not have great things to say (they do). The problem is that their desire to cover so many topics means that they do not give adequate space to any one topic. What is said here, is said thoughtfully, but I was hungry for more.

On the other hand the graciousness of their dialogue is commendable. Of course they  share mutual respect for one another (this book is a dialogue not a debate), but they are also gracious in their discussion of other Christians and church movements.  Given their convictions you would expect to hear points of critique and you do, but in this book they more often shine a light on what they see is good.

That being said, Campolo and Claiborne both address all of these issues more fully in other publications. Also the authors spend more time discussing their convictions on a range of topics than engaging the gospel. The title and subtitle suggest a little more biblical engagement to me than I read here. Still I think it is a worthwhile read.   These are thoughtful Christian thinkers/activists who are serious about living the kind of life they see Jesus calling us to. I give it 3 stars ★★★☆☆

I received this book from Thomas Nelson in exchange for this honest review.

Common Practice: a book review

I continue to be challenged and inspired by the New Monastic movement.  I live in a sleepy suburb  isolated from my Christian community, but the challenge of  Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Shane Claiborne  stirs me to delve deeper into intentional community and invest in a particular place.  In The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common FaithJohnathan Wilson-Hartgrove explores the habits which shape convictions and sustain God’s people. The accompanying six-session DVD and discussion guide explores each of the themes in the book from a different angle. In the review below I will discuss the book first, then the DVD and the discussion guide.

Wilson-Hartgrove  has culled together a set of Christian practices into a type of catechism intended to inspire hope, conversation and action.  He shares inspirational stories and also delves into the reason behind each practice.  He focuses on the convictions that ‘undergird a way of life that makes witness possible (15).’  This book discusses these practices:

  • Why We Eat Together
  • Why We Fast
  • Why We Make Promises
  • Why it Matters Where We Live
  • Why We Live Together
  • Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill
  • Why We Share the Good News

Wilson-Hartgrove shares personal examples (and those of friends) which illustrate the meaning of each practice. In his reflections he challenges us to greater community, radical hospitality and identification with Christ’s suffering, a consistent Pro-Life ethic, and integrity in Christian witness. The chapters are short, easy reads, but they offer some significant challenges.

I really appreciate Wislon-Hartgrove’s writing. I like how he thoughtfully draws together theological and biblical reflection, church history and lived experience.   He is a thoughtful writer and has thought and lived deeply each of these practices.  But he manages to share his deep insights into the Christian life and his experience without sounding arrogant or self aggrandizing. There is humility in his prose and while I am awed by his theological insights, street smarts and wholehearted commitment, I never feel like reading his books is like ‘going to one of the experts.’  He is a smart man, but there is humility and grace here too.

In the accompanying DVD Wilson-Hartgrove and his co-conspirator Shane Claiborne bring together material which complements (but does not reproduce the book). The six sessions discuss each of the practices in Wilson-Hartgrove’s book (Eating together and Fasting, are discussed together).   Each of the sessions has an example of what people are doing. There are several inspiring interviews. On the Eating/Fasting session, much of the video portion focuses on an interview of Chris Haw of Camden, NJ and what his community is doing with urban farming. In subsequent sessions there is an interview with Jean Vanier (Why We Make Promises), Civil Rights leader Ann Atwater (Why it Matters Where We Live), Ethan’s Mom Dayna (Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill–this is a story worth hearing in its entirety) and Reverd William Barber (Why We Share Good News).  In the section on ‘Why We Live Together, Shane and Jonathan both share about their lives in their respective communities. Each of these voices adds color and depth to the topic.

In the discussion guide for the DVD (located at the back of the book) there are questions on the DVD presentation and chances to delve deeper into Scripture and tradition by examining Bible passages and quotations from church history. And of course, there are challenges you to live out the practice.  Intentional communities and small groups will be able to use this book profitably to spur one another on in faithful living.

So get this book and accompanying DVD and find a group to discuss it with. Yes, you could just get the book and read it yourself, but you will have done it all wrong. This is the sort of book that is meant to spark deeper conversation. It gets five stars from me. ★★★★★

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.