My husband Tom and I live in a small intentional community in Seattle, Washington called the Mustard Seed House. We inhabit the middle floor of a triplex with a young family in the apartment above us and a young couple in the basement apartment below us. We get together at least once a week for dinner and sharing and once more for prayer, and we garden together once a month. We are keen on hospitality and have fun hosting people from around the world.
Recently we received a visit from Noemie, a young French woman researching sustainable community living in North America. She has already stayed with a cohousing community in Washington DC, an old order Amish community in Pennsylvania, and an income sharing commune in the woods of Virginia. She also met with Catholic workers and young Christians from the New Monasticism movement living in an intentional community.
Noemie did not grow up with a Christian background, but since her time in DC where she had opportunity to speak at length on how to live out the gospel, she has become intrigued by the linkage between community and Christian living. Her recent experiences have convinced her that the only way to live out Christian faith authentically is in community with others.
I agree with Noemie. The pressures of our individualistic, consumer driven culture make many of us who call ourselves followers of Christ, functionally live as atheists. We may pray for a few minutes before we head off to work each morning and go to church on Sunday, but our faith has little impact on how we live the rest of the time. Our daily routines are increasingly not just disconnected from God’s rhythms and purposes, but in competition with them.
For us, as for our secular neighbors, “Normal is getting dressed in clothes you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car you are still paying for, in order to get to the job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.”
Beyond Functional Atheism
Theologian N.T. Wright asserts that Christianity’s most distinctive idea is bodily resurrection. After His resurrection, Jesus was a flesh and blood person and Wright contends that we will be too. He further argues that if we truly believe this then it will impact the way we live our lives now. If God intends to renew all of creation and all of life—a process already begun in the resurrection of Jesus—then our responsibility as Christians is to anticipate this renewal by refocusing our lives to work for hope and healing in today’s world.
So how can we learn to live as wide awake people, as Easter people? If Calvary means putting to death things in your life that need killing off, if you are to flourish as a Christian and as a truly human being, then Easter should mean planting, watering, and training up things in your life (personal and corporate) that ought to be blossoming, filling the garden with color and perfume and in due course bearing fruit” Wright goes on to say that the point all the Gospels make is: “Jesus is risen, therefore God’s new world has begun. Jesus is risen, therefore Israel and the world have been redeemed. Jesus is risen, therefore his followers have a new job to do. And what is that new job? To bring the life of heaven to birth in actual, physical earthly reality.
At the core of our small Mustard Seed House community and of its parent organization Mustard Seed Associates, is our belief in this wild hope of the resurrection and our vision of God’s eternal world as a place in which all of creation is restored and made whole. Through the redemptive work of Christ, one day together with sisters and brothers of every culture, from every age we believe we will be made whole and live together in the love, joy, and mutual concern for God’s original creation.
People have a variety of notions of Christian community. Some picture it as 20 or 30 people living together in a large house or on a farm. Others think of common purse communities that pool finances. Others imagine monastic communities or religious orders that take vows of simplicity and chastity. We do not need, however, to live together in residential communities in order to orient our lives around God’s vision and purposes. However to move beyond functional atheism and become the people God intends us to be, we do need to foster a sense of shared spirituality and commitment. It is because of our conviction that we are called to reflect, albeit very inadequately, the image of our loving God and to model something of God’s shalom kingdom vision that we believe Christians need to become part of community.
The idea of living in community as an expression of our faith is not new. In fact it can be traced right back to the beginning of Christianity. Early Christians believed that God comes to us in community—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They reasoned that as the essential nature of God is love and because it is impossible to practice love in isolation, God the Trinity must be a model of perfect community. Augustine believed that living together with others is necessary for the cultivation of spiritual formation and maturity, especially for the discipline of love. “Perfection in the spiritual life is impossible to attain as long as a person lives alone, for how can that person learn how to love?” The purpose of monastic communities became not just to establish a regimen of discipline, but to nurture spiritual growth and to “help facilitate the restoration of the image of God in sinful humans.” As well as this, the Celtic monasteries were “colonies of heaven, planted on earth to point as a sign and harbinger of the Kingdom that was yet to come.” They offered hospitality and provided a sacred space in which visitors could develop a regular rhythm of prayer and worship in the midst of their everyday activities. They also became educational and resource centers and the centers out of which mission work was accomplished.
Everything Must Change
Thinking of God as a community that embraces not just the Godhead, but also the international community of God’s people, forces us to rethink everything. To become a disciple today does not necessarily mean that we all need to live together in a residential community but it does mean reorienting our thinking to more of a community world view. In this world view, discipleship is not about giving assent to a set of spiritual laws, but rather means we are drawn into this community of mutual love and relationship. We become part of God’s international community with sisters and brothers from every tribe and nation, with the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the sick, the lonely, the disabled, the homeless, the marginalized, and the abandoned.
If God does indeed come to us in community then it is impossible to reflect the image of God unless we too are willing to share life with others in God’s community. “The people of God are privileged to belong to this community through the redemptive work of Christ and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Such an experience of love inspired early Christians to share it with others. . . . they believed that Jesus Christ came to redeem and reclaim the fallen world, which involved even the most ordinary and routine matters of life, such as marriage and family, stewardship of money, treatment of friends and enemies, and daily conduct.”
To do mission work is no longer seen as wanting to provide for the spiritual and physical needs of others. Rather, it is about learning to “love our neighbors as we do ourselves.” It is a recognition of the fact that we cannot share life with other members of God’s international family as God intended unless we are in loving relationships willing to enter into the life journeys of others—to share their pain and their sorrows, to celebrate their joys and their triumphs.
Our understanding of spiritual disciplines must change too. These become those shared practices that renew our faith in God and God’s kingdom vision for an eternal shalom world in which there will no longer be any pain or suffering or oppression or disease—as well as reconnecting us to others that hold the same beliefs. They embrace those disciplines we perform regularly that strengthen our relationship to God, to each other, and to God’s world.
Towards a Rule of Life
One way to establish new kingdom disciplines is by developing a rule of life. Currently Mustard Seed Associates is working in this direction. Why a rule of life you might ask? We sense that God’s spirit is currently speaking through many voices about the need for a more embodied, incarnational faith and we want to join in what God is doing. Developing a rule of life seems to be an important step in that process. According to the Northumbria Community, “a Rule of life expresses ‘who we are, this is our story’ and reminds us of those things God has put on our heart, and calls us back to the story that God has written as foundational.” It becomes the vehicle through which we can develop a rhythm of prayer and worship in the midst of our everyday activities. It also enables us to develop practices that connect the important basics of our faith to God, to God’s world wide community and to God’s world. At the same time it helps us to stand against the pressures of our consumer culture which is constantly bombarding us with messages that are counter to God’s values.
In a 24/7 world with no space for God or spirituality, we buy our freedom from work and business with some hard choices. How could you more intentionally commit yourself to the community that God has made you to be a part of? Start with some small steps. One friend of ours who was impacted by the story of Jesus preparing breakfast on the beach for his friends, decided to start providing coffee and rolls one morning a week to staff at the local public school, which he saw as an essential element of the community he related to. This has become an extremely important way of affirming the life and work of dedicated teachers who often feel unappreciated. What choices could you make that would enable you to move beyond functional atheism to face in a different direction—towards God and the values of God’s eternal world?
 John De Graaf, David Wann, Thomas H Naylor, Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic, (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2001) 36.
 N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008) 255 – 257.
 Ibid., 293.
 Gerald L Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2007) 105.
 Ibid., 103.
 Ian Bradley, Colonies of Heaven: Celtic Christian Communities Live the Tradition, (Kelowna, BC: Northstone Publishing, 2000) 18.
 Sittser, 60.