Kyle was the youth pastor of the church at which I was interning. He was passionate about serving Jesus, especially among the poor. I was passionate about community, living out Jesus’ teachings together with like-minded believers. Along with several others, we decided to move together to Denver’s Capitol Hill district – the area with the most homeless – and start living in community. It was our way of trying to demonstrate the breaking in of God’s kingdom.
Kyle and his wife Katie already had a child. Then another came along. Our downtown community was growing. A steady stream of twenty-somethings, some single and some newly married, started joining us. Our one duplex eventually extended to several houses along the same street. We shared housing, vehicles, food. During this vibrant beginning, we faced many unknowns that stretched our faith and our hearts. We were learning how to live together and how to bring the transforming love of Christ to those who had been discarded by society.
What is good for children is good for the community.
A couple of years later, Kyle and Katie left the community. Among other reasons, they were now expecting a third child. As the only family with children, they felt out of place. Then Rick and Heather, expecting their first child, also wanted out, to be closer to Rick’s family. We were saddened, but understood – it was kind of natural, we thought. In the meantime, more singles joined us. Then Jay got married and moved to a suburban neighborhood better suited for raising a family. Before long, our community dissipated. Somehow community and family didn’t mix. We eventually disbanded.
I’ve now lived in community for over thirty years. What I experienced in Denver is not unique. Since that time, I’ve encountered others who tried living in community but, when children came along, became frustrated and left. Community and family life simply didn’t mesh. Schedules conflicted, childcare was in short supply, priorities shifted, and the radical Christian life was somehow no longer possible.
Many years later, my wife and I found ourselves living in Albany, New York, in a setting similar to the one in Denver. Our big Victorian house was right along one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city, in one of the seediest neighborhoods. But this time our community was a mix of elderly, middle-aged, and young; married and single; and children of all ages. The household was bustling with life and chaos but also committed to a life of complete discipleship. Some of us worked in our community sign business while others worked at the nearby hospital, went to school, or volunteered at nearby Christian missions.
Life was intense. Even so, this time our life in community didn’t conflict with family. I had learned something I didn’t know back in Denver: what is good for children is good for the community.
Looking back, I think one reason our community in Denver fell apart was that we were just too “top heavy” with adult sophistication. We suffered from an unfreedom born of pride, over-analyzing our problems, and trying to be avant-garde and hip in the name of being relevant. Being childlike was not cool. Being “radical” was.
Had there been more children in our midst, and had we been committed to learning from them, our complex scruples might have evaporated. I experienced the truth of this firsthand in Albany. Instead of holding long, arduous meetings to process one another’s junk and consider every possible angle on a decision, we adults did lots of singing, dancing, playing games, doing pranks, reading stories, and going on hikes that everyone could manage. By keeping it simple, the children in our household pointed us to Jesus. Our encounters with neighbors and strangers took on a different feeling as well: they were simpler and gentler, more mutual and participatory. Often, the children managed to draw out of even the most despondent the childlike gem buried within them.
The more we involved the children in our community, the more joy we had. They wanted to play run-around-the- house, or play kickball in the park across the street, or chase the Easter Bunny. It didn’t matter if their play was in full view of commuters, or of the drunks and the mentally ill who regularly passed along the sidewalk outside our house. After all, weren’t they all just people whom God loved?
A community centered on the kingdom will not just include but also nurture families. When we fail to find space and time for children we risk losing sight of how God reigns on earth.
This doesn’t mean life was stress-free. There were safety issues, and childcare was a huge commitment. Couples needed time alone. College students sometimes didn’t get home until late. There were also heavy needs in the neighborhood that demanded our attention. But if one thing kept us centered, and kept our faith simple and focused, it was the children. And, at least in my experience, a community in which children and families come first more readily and freely serves others.
“It is the child who leads us to the gospel,” writes Eberhard Arnold. In children’s generosity and helpfulness, in their natural happiness, and even in their naughtiness, we can experience a freedom to be ourselves. And children often possess an unshakable faith. Jesus is quite forthright about the role children play in his kingdom: “Unless you become like a child, you cannot enter the kingdom” (Matt. 18:3). We too easily forget this, or worse, resist it. The disciples got upset that so many children were being brought to Jesus. If we’re honest, we too, under the guise of serving Christ’s cause, often make ourselves too busy to pay attention to children.
A community centered on the kingdom will not just include but also nurture families. Again, this takes work. Sometimes a lot of work! The community I live in now is located in a former Catholic seminary. The building is huge, and the hallways are long and loud. Accommodations are such that living quarters are right off the main hallway, except for the corner apartments. Recently, we decided to do a big move-around. Quite honestly, it was a hassle. Families with small children, however, were able to move to the larger corner apartments, where the children were not so easily disturbed. That simple change has helped our children to be more peaceful and, oddly enough, more outgoing. The space they and their parents now have enables them to flourish.
When children are properly tended to, they give joy to those around them. When children are welcomed, when they are given opportunities to bring their natural wonder to the community – sharing about a special experience, for example, or singing a song they’ve learned – their happiness is infectious. This is something many intentional communities lack. Their members work hard, minister to others, live by lofty principles, take great risks, and make great sacrifices but still never experience fully the joy of sharing life together.
When we fail to find space and time for children, when we forget to consider the needs of families, we risk losing sight of how God reigns on earth. In God’s kingdom, the “least of these” are the greatest. Jesus’ warning about anyone who causes one of these little ones to stumble (Matt. 18:6–9) is a serious one. He goes on to say that the angels sent to protect children “always see the face of my Father in heaven.” That’s how much God cares about each child and whether they are truly welcomed and loved. A community must do everything in its power to protect and nurture an atmosphere in which children can grow in faith. Otherwise, God’s kingdom is thwarted.
A Christ-centered community depends on a childlike spirit. What is good for children is indeed good for the community. Anything that threatens a childlike spirit – be it our conversation, the music we listen to, the films we watch, the rituals we observe – is corruption. If we want to demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth, we will not only welcome children, we will cherish and learn from them. For in them the pure love of God is revealed.