Community throughout Christian History
Jesus’s first action after he began his public ministry was to call men and women to follow him as a discipleship community. Some of the these disciples hosted him in their homes, others traveled with him; all learning from him the “way of life” and participating in his ministry. After Jesus’s resurrection, a number of these followers relocated to Jerusalem, where they established a community of “brothers and sisters” dedicated to continuing his ministry by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. According to Acts, those first believers “were together and had all things in common...and day by day, as they spent much time together, they broke bread from house to house and and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”
The experience of the early disciples in Jerusalem has been a model for Christian life ever since. Though the Jerusalem community dispersed within a generation, pressed into other territories by persecution, other communities called ekklesia, sprang up across the Roman empire, as Paul’s New Testament letters testify. As Christianity spread and diversified, the model of small, countercultural discipleship communities gave way to a culturally-integrated church.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, groups of Christians in Egypt, modern Turkey, and Italy began reforming communities modeled on Jerusalem. Some, like Anthony of Desert, left society and went into the desert; these became known as monks, from the Greek word monachos, which means “alone.” These desert solitaries soon banded together to form monasteries, communities of Christians devoted to radical discipleship, prayer, and scripture study. Monasticism became the dominant form of Christianity in places like Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and later Russia, and has remained remarkably stable over the centuries. In western European countries it also played a major role through the middle ages, though it continued to evolve with the culture. The form of monasticism developed by Benedict of Nursia was the most formative.
In the twelfth century, Christians in France and Italy began to think about how “ordinary” Christians, including married people with families, could practice the radical discipleship of the “apostolic life” outside of the monastery. In a time of increasing wealth, these groups focused on simplicity, voluntary poverty, and ministry to the poor. Peter Waldes helped form intentional discipleship communities in southern Europe, later known as “Waldensians.” The movement of the vita apostolica, or “apostolic life,” refocused the church on its early communal form. Francis and Claire initiated the Franciscan Order. A little later, in northern Europe, single women calling themselves Beguines formed inner-city communes to minister to the poor; groups of men across Europe followed suit, including the Beghards and the Brethren of the Common Life.
The Protestant reformers strongly opposed the two-tiered spirituality implied by the monasteries, and many were closed in the 16th century. Magisterial reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin advised Christians to make their families into “little monasteries” through daily prayers and devotions. Radical reformers, also known as Anabaptists, advocated a return to the Jerusalem model in which believers not only shared devotional life, but also shared their material goods. Persecuted for their communitarianism and their pacificism, Anabaptists communities spread throughout Europe and eventually into the New World.
The last five hundred years have witnessed waves of Christian community movements in western lands. The elder communities of Nurturing Communities Network all have their roots in 20th century movements. The oldest is the Bruderhof, founded by Eberhard Arnold in Germany in the years before World War I. Reba Place Fellowship and Jesus People USA formed out of the midcentury charismatic movement. Many of the younger communities in the Network began in the early 2000s, inspired to some degree by the “New Monastic” movement pioneered by Shane Claiborne of the Simple Way and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of Rutba House, one of the founders of the Nurturing Communities Network.
Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community
Greg Peters, The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for a Contemporary Spirituality (Baker Academic, 2015)
Thomas Rausch, Radical Christian Communities (Wipf & Stock, 1990)
Ivan Kauffman, Follow Me: A History of Christian Intentionality (Lutterworth Press, 2014)