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    young people harvesting potatoes in a field

    Intentional Community: The Fantasy and the Reality

    I hoped to find meaning, purpose, and relationship in an intentional community. The strongest impediment, I discovered, was myself.

    By Ben Cribbin

    May 6, 2024
    • Michael Nacrelli

      Ben, I think Scripture clearly teaches that Christ's death and resurrection accomplished a decisive victory over death and the dominions of darkness as well as the canceling of our debt for sin that we could never repay (Col. 2:13-15). I see no logical reason to pit these gospel truths against each other.

    • James Worden

      Ben - Thank you for vulnerably exposing your journey with "intentional community." I resonate with a much of what you are saying (even though I'm Gen X and not Millennial). It reminds me of a word of caution I've often heard: "You take yourself with you." There is a YouTube video on the Bruderhof channel entitled "When Intentional Community is a Bad Idea" ( I find that to be a helpful conversation. Plough - Thank you for publishing this piece! I greatly respect that you allow space for various stories that illuminate different perspectives on a given topic.

    • Ben

      Hi Michael, thank you for responding. It seems then that I have moved on from the understanding of the gospel you describe here, and understanding where jesus' attoning death is central. (Though i must stress that I'm responding more to the penalty substitution version of it). Simply put, it is not good news, and doesn't make sense logically or morally. I heard a saying once that explained it quite well- does god therefore ask us to do what he cannot do himself, namely, forgive unconditionally? Scott McKnight has a book called the kingdom gospel, where he defines the gospel as the proclamation that Jesus is king and Caesar is not. I think we need to do some work thinking about what the gospel is, and why it is good news, when one of our main historical interpretations is, plaint, not good news.

    • Michael Nacrelli

      Ben, I was alluding to this quote: "When I was twenty-four, I decided I was done with church. Not with the faith but with some of Evangelical Christianity’s doctrines, like the belief that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God or that Jesus needed to die on the cross to take the punishment for sin." I think all historic Christian churches (along with the New Testament itself) have affirmed Jesus' atoning death for sin as central (and essential) to the gospel message. Otherwise, to paraphrase N.T. Wright, we're left only with good advice, rather than good news.

    • Dean Daniels

      A book I haven't written yet is tentatively titled, "Desert Isle Christian" the Robinson Crusoe believer who retreats into monkish isolation; the hermit, the lone ranger, the Essenic (individual holiness), the solitaire hiker, the wanderer who lives a quiet, secluded, drifting or wanderlust existence that values a sterile (unpolluted, unprovoked) righteousness that is uncontaminated by the disagreeable, negative and unwanted intrusions of unwanted others. The religious idea that one can achieve pure unadulterated Righteousness by living in close-to-nature seclusion is an idealistic, self-centering ‘myth of merit’ that flies in the face of, "iron sharpens iron; where two or three are gathered in My Name; from the greatest to the least of you; if you abide in the Vine; by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”. The task of my writing is to challenge fellow believers that we cannot be a Christian on a deserted island (disconnected, withdrawn, recluse existence); for our righteousness, values and faith can only be tested and brought to maturity in the arena of community (relational interaction). The Gifts, Fruits & Administrations of the Spirit are ALL relational. A true faith is brought about in the consuming fire that is our God, a life awakened daily to walk in labor, opposition, irritations, injustice, pain and suffering, seeking no consolation but God Himself; listening for His Voice as we seek to do His Will. The Path of Peace is sharing in His stigmata (dishonor, humiliation, scorn, ridicule, injustice, scars) gained from the relational community in which we walk, right in front of our face.

    • Rona Obert

      It is difficult to "empty" ourselves in one fell swoop. Perhaps it is in the small ways we do it in our everyday lives. We perhaps should realize that we may never complete the task in our lifetimes.

    • Ben Cribbin

      Hi Michael, I don't know how you define the gospel, so I can't respond to that.

    • Michael Nacrelli

      So, Cribbin kept "the faith" but jettisoned the gospel?

    “The important thing is that we are not alone,” said Emmanuel, a long-term community member, as we contemplated the prospect of yet another Covid lockdown. It was December 2021, and there were thirty of us in a circle at the weekly volunteer meeting at an intentional community at the end of a dirt road in a tiny hamlet in Lower Saxony, Germany. We had drifted here from around the world, wandering free spirits who believed we were looking for community. As Omicron swept across Europe and many in the world outside faced another winter of loneliness trapped in cramped apartments, we contemplated our blessings: fulfilling work feeding animals, wholesome organic food, and acres of silent pine forest where you didn’t meet another soul.

    Most importantly, we had each other.

    I lived in Michaelshof Sammatz for almost two years. For some time before I arrived, the idea of community had taken on an almost mystical quality, the answer to the problems of isolation and meaninglessness that seem endemic in the West. During my time in Michaelshof Sammatz, I met dozens of young people who felt the same. I arrived full of high-minded ideals about what living in an intentional community would be like: we would live, eat, and work together as we formed soul friendships, fell in love, and discovered our unique purpose and vocation. I assumed that once I arrived my life would begin and the path I should take would be laid out clearly before me.

    By the time I left in May 2023, I had tasted something of the complex, messy, unsatisfactory – yet enigmatic and sometimes beautiful – reality that is community.

    Michaelshof Sammatz was not the first closely-knit community I had experienced, nor the first I had abandoned. When I was twenty-four, I decided I was done with church. Not with the faith but with some of Evangelical Christianity’s doctrines, like the belief that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God or that Jesus needed to die on the cross to take the punishment for sin. The popular term for this experience is deconstruction, the gradual dismantling of many of the pillars of one’s belief. In my naivety and loneliness I assumed no one in my church would be able to share my experience, let alone understand me, and so I quit. I set out from what I considered the decaying mansion of Christianity into what I assumed would be the untamed wilderness of a more fulfilling spirituality.

    young people harvesting potatoes in a field

    Photograph by JackF / Adobe Stock.

    I was living alone in Paris at the time, so leaving church didn’t work wonders for my social situation. In some ways I am a typical millennial. I left my hometown of Guildford, England, after I finished university, and with it the fertile soil of several long-standing communities: my extended family, circle of friends, and church. Lacking the commitments and friendships I’d had back home, I spent my evenings wandering the quieter streets of Paris and got to know those streets very well.

    I’d left church behind, but not the spiritual life or the vision of deepening my life and finding a calling. I even organized a few discussions on the subject of “spiritual community,” to which quite a few people came. I had some sense that this kind of community, where we helped each other to grow, was what I should pay attention to at that point of my life. It almost had the weight of a vocation.

    I logged on to and typed “community” and “Germany” into the search bar. Up popped a community in Lower Saxony called Michaelshof Sammatz. The profile page showed pictures of young volunteers beside a field of tilled earth, smiling and holding up a selection of vegetables as if they were trophies. I contacted the community and booked a two-week visit in August.

    Looking back, those two weeks were like being love-bombed. My psychological defenses weren’t prepared for that much attention, that much validation, that much laughter. I’d never had that many friends, and never felt so deeply part of a tribe. My fellow volunteers and I threw ourselves into the work – gathering raspberry leaves to be made into tea, milking the cows, building a youth hostel to host the ever-increasing number of volunteers. There was an energy in the community, a mad frenetic spirit as new projects were begun and sometimes abandoned, and it seemed as if everyone was willing to give themselves wholeheartedly to the work. It was as different from my isolated, aimless life in Paris as I could imagine.

    Four years later, in August 2021, I quit my job and moved to live there.

    I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was part of a significant migration of millennials to alternative communities during the last decade. In the United States, the number of communities registered with the Federation for Intentional Communities (FIC) doubled to 1,200 between 2010 and 2016. The FIC estimates that there are now between 10,000 and 30,000 across the world. In the United Kingdom, established communities like Findhorn and Bergholt Hall reported fielding hundreds of applications from prospective members every month during the pandemic. During my time at Michaelshof Sammatz, I got to know around a hundred such young people who had, for various reasons, decided to live in an intentional community.

    I believe that, at heart, my fellow community seekers and I were searching for connection. In 2017, the Norwegian institute of public health published a paper studying intentional communities in North America. It concluded that life in an intentional community “appears to offer a life less in discord with the nature of being human compared to mainstream society.” The report hypothesized why that might be: “One, social connections; two, sense of meaning; and three, closeness to nature.”

    Looking back, those two weeks were like being love-bombed. My psychological defenses weren’t prepared for that much attention, that much validation, that much laughter.

    Michaelshof Sammatz seemed to offer all this. As well as offering us the chance to spend time outside, and live closely with over one hundred and fifty other people, the community was, for many of its members, a model for how humans should live. The original members had been drawn together by a shared interest in the writings of Austrian esotericist Rudolf Steiner and his vision for organic farming communities that could offer an alternative to large-scale industrial farming and mass urban populations.

    After almost two years, I decided to move on from Michaelshof Sammatz. Quite naturally, the bloom of first love faded and I began to appreciate the mundane reality of committing to the same place, the same work, and the same people every day. The community members were incredibly generous, welcoming me and many volunteers into their home, but I sensed that at a certain point I needed to make a decision – to stay long-term and work for the good of the community, perhaps forsaking a career and financial stability. I wasn’t prepared to do that. The strongest impediment to community, at this stage of life, was myself.

    “Did you find what you were looking for?” a friend asked me after I’d returned home. That’s a question I’m still asking myself. Did I experience the enchantment of community I had set out looking for all those years ago?

    In flashes, perhaps. I learned that there is nothing necessarily magical about a living arrangement called “an intentional community.” It is simply a group of people who live together, perhaps sharing meals, work, lodging, and childcare. It might be authoritarian, rigid, and cultish, or it might descend into factions and infighting. If you’re seeking meaning, deeper relationships, and connection to nature, you won’t necessarily find them in an intentional community or in any living arrangement, conventional or otherwise. As my Christian upbringing reminds me, sin is not principally a problem of social organization but of the heart.

    In his book The Different Drum, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck describes what he calls “genuine community.” It’s characterized by spontaneity and laughter, its members seeming to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Every voice and every perspective is heard, and its members work through conflict, rather than pushing it underground or allowing an authoritarian leader to maintain a semblance of peace by exerting control. You’ll know this community, Peck writes, when you see it. Or, perhaps, when you experience it.

    I learned that there is nothing necessarily magical about a living arrangement called “an intentional community.” It is simply a group of people who live together, perhaps sharing meals, work, lodging, and childcare.

    But, he continues, this kind of community is only achieved through emptiness. Each member needs to be emptied of everything inside them that keeps them from forming community: their solutions, their cherished theories, their need to fix others, and their absolute thirst to stay in control. Once a community experiences this emptiness, Peck writes, “a soft quietness descends.” An “extraordinary amount of healing and converting begins to occur – now that no one is trying to heal or convert.” Based on what I have experienced so far of community and myself, I too am convinced that this is the path to genuine community.

    I still hope to discover that genuine community I set out to find years ago. All those young people forsaking the rat race in search of community are on to something: there is something terribly isolating about modern life. However, I’ve learned that if we find such community it won’t be “out there” with some imaginary group of people we might one day meet, but among the people we actually live with, and with whom we have made a real commitment.

    Contributed By BenCribbin Ben Cribbin

    Ben Cribbin is a teacher, freelance writer, and aspiring novelist. He divides his time between Finland and England.

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