It is encouraging that many people are joining this important conversation about how we as Christians can more faithfully follow Jesus. At the same time, it seems that the most frequent reaction to Rod Dreher’s ideas – a yowl of protest about “withdrawal” in favor of “engagement” – misses the main point he is making and is the reverse of my own experience about living out my faith.
So my first point is this: building a communal church along the lines Rod suggests allows Christians to engage more, and more meaningfully, with our fellow human beings. Assimilation to the ways of the world is as dangerous as Jesus warns us – Dreher is right in pointing to this. But the stronger the center, the more daring the outreach can be.
My own life is an illustration of this. For the past thirty years, my wife, Linda, and I have been members of the Bruderhof, a Christian communal church in the Anabaptist tradition that is almost one hundred years old, in which we share all things in common in the spirit of the first church in Jerusalem. I believe that we have been able to engage both more deeply and more broadly with society than if we had remained as a private family.
Linda and I are both farm kids from the Midwest who grew up in what would be called dysfunctional homes. Our families were nominally Christian: Lutheran in my case and Catholic in Linda’s. But faith in Jesus meant nothing to us – by our mid-twenties we were on the road to conventional middle-class life: we had a house, two kids, two cars, and two TVs. But we were unhappy. Something was missing.
Through a Bible study we came to faith in Jesus. Later, as we read in the Book of Acts, we were struck by the witness of the early church. The realization that they shared everything, sold their possessions, and ate and worshipped together came as a shock to us. The Book of Acts tells that this was the result of a movement of repentance and the coming of the Holy Spirit. This excited us and drove us to seek a life of community. So we started living in community with a few other families. This lasted for about five challenging and exciting years as we continued searching.
The stronger the church’s center, the more daring its outreach can be.
Then we ran across the writings of Eberhard Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof. His depth of understanding of living for Jesus and the kingdom answered many of our questions. In his book Why We Live in Community he writes: “Community life for us is an inescapable must.… We must live in community because we are compelled by the same Spirit that has led to community time and time again since the days of biblical prophecy and early Christianity.” Those words thrill me today as much as thirty years ago when I first read them. So we came to the Bruderhof in 1987.