In the past fifteen years there has been a shift towards community that was not even part of most people’s vocabulary before. Fifteen years ago, I did not hear people talk about living in community and few people were talking about serving the poor. It was just around that time that I started meeting Jesus on the streets rather than just inside the four walls of a congregation. I am not anti-church at all, but I am excited to see a movement of people that are embracing Jesus both on the streets and on their knees. Part of this movement consists of folks seeking to live in intentional community. It seems every trip I take there are folks asking what they need to do to start living in an intentional community.
Over the past six years, I have worked with an organization called Mission Year. Mission Year provides an opportunity for folks to live and serve in intentional communities in urban settings throughout the United States. Typically six people between the ages of 18-29, share a house and spend their year working into the fabric of that neighborhood, learning, loving, and serving.
Mission Year is a training ground for people desiring to live in community. Having visited several intentional communities, it seems that not everyone is “ready for community.” What I mean by this is that some folks come to these established communities having never wrestled with some of the issues they will face living in community and often these same folks become overwhelmed and do not last long. I have seen success and failures of community along the way. Many folks seem to have a romantic view of community. I believe it was Bonhoeffer who said, “It is our ideas of community that destroy community, but it is our love of people that builds genuine community.” When I first started working with Mission Year six years ago the primary reasons people participated was to serve, to live in the city, and to learn about justice. However, it wouldn’t take long before they would realize that one of the greatest lessons learned throughout the year was living in community. Six years later, many folks now state “living in community” as one of their primary reasons for coming. Community is beautiful… community is hard… and community takes on many different forms.
Everybody brings two things to community… a gift and some crap! One thing I love about Mission Year is that we walk people through the reality of community. Community should be a place where one’s gift is nourished but it is also a place where one’s inadequacies (crap) are exposed. I guess you could say that living in community is like standing in the mirror naked… it all hangs out. Thus community becomes the context in which self-reflection and growth occur. Community is more than shared space. Take a college dorm for instance, though several folks share a common area it does not necessarily make them an intentional community. In this setting folks can masquerade what is really going on in the inside and they do not need to get to know others at a deeper level. Mission Year creates an environment for folks to embrace their weaknesses… to learn from them and to grow as a person.
Mission Year also likes to talk about “intentional” community. We say “intentional” because community doesn’t “just happen, ” rather it take’s intentional effort, work, and grace to truly be community. One of the strengths of Mission Year is our City Directors. In each city we have a seasoned staff to help walk the participants throughout the year. The City Director helps folks navigate the tough times and are there to celebrate the good times. Once the participants begin their year, the romance of community quickly dies, but for those who trust the process of Mission Year, a training ground for a living community is birthed.
The beauty is that we do not create cookie cutter Christians or communities. Rather, folks receive “tools” for living differently, and once they leave Mission Year they translate their experiences in vastly different ways and use those tools in many different contexts. Some participants stay in the city and it becomes their new home, for others they move back to their hometown. Some of our alum return to school, while others find jobs. There are also several others that either join existing intentional communities or start their own. The only real common thread with our alumni is that they are living differently. People implement the values of Mission Year in a wide variety of ways. Even the manner in which they are living community looks different….some will move into a house with several other people, some will begin to live intentional lives with others in their neighborhood, and some realize that their immediate family is their community and they begin to seek to live as loving neighbors with their families.
Mission Year may not be for everyone, but it is for some. If you would like more information on Mission Year feel free to contact us here or apply here. If you are an intentional community and would like to send some of your new folks this way for a year of training please let us know at the link above.
Chris Lahr is a Recruiter and the Academic Director for Mission Year. He is also a part of the Simple Way in Philadelphia. He is a writer and a speaker. For information about having Chris speak, contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.