One of the questions I’m asking in this series is can ‘created’ communities thrive? This question is a little grandiose, but hear me out.
In my experience of roughly 10-15 very different and wide-ranging experiences of Christian community, only one of them which was intentionally-created and also flourished and ‘worked’ was the Schloss Mittersill Community.
The Schloss Mittersill Community
This was a group of people running what used to be a Christian conference centre stationed at the Schloss Mittersill Castle in Mittersill, Austria. In the Austrian Alps, actually. The community consisted of a set of people living in the castle itself and helping to run the conferences, but also a strong fringe of locals from Mittersill, Zell Am See and wider. I had spent quite a bit of time there over the last 6 years and became quite close to a lot of them. Additionally, there was an even wider fringe of community members who were simply attendees of the events on an annual basis. I don’t know whether their starting of the Schloss Mittersill (Christian) Community was ever intentional as a ‘community’ per-se, but it happened one way or another. One thing is certain – that there was an end-goal that the castle would be an international place of learning, rest and reflection, and this community was dedicated to making that happen. For a long time, they succeeded, until new EU foreign worker laws forced the community to disband and eventually the castle was sold.
As a punter who grew close to many of the community members, both core and fringe, I saw a love and understanding that i had never seen before, and it was inspirational to say the least. One thing worth noting about the Schloss Mittersill Community is that there was no real hierarchy. No one was in charge, everyone had different skills and employed them as needed. People met up because they wanted to be there, and until one of the core families started a regular bible study, I don’t believe there were any regularly scheduled meetings of the community. (But I think that bible study is still going, even after those living in the castle were forced to leave). It’s a long story, but most of us stay in touch still (it was comprised of such a wide range of nationalities that I can’t help but meet up with someone when I travel!)
What I learned from the Schloss
Communities are people
First and foremost, communities are made up of people. It sounds stupid, but you’d be surprised how many communities are focused on either the hierarchy or the ‘idea’ of community. A lot of ‘intentional’ communities I’ve seen spend a lot of time talking about the theologies of community, trying to figure out what they should be doing. Most of them end up doing a variation of modern church within their walls. Some of them get out a bit.
I’m not downing anyone or any model. Probably any community is good, but there are varying degrees of ‘good’.
Communities must have freedom
At The Schloss, I saw that the lack of a rigid structure or schedule left people the freedom to meet up. You know what it’s like – as soon as someone tells you to do something, you don’t want to do it. Loosely, I believe this same psychology is in play here. People need to be trusted, relied upon, valued and free. Communities that have a rigid structure and/or schedule are toying with disaster. People need to be trusted to act for themselves. Organisation is a good thing, but it must come from the ground up, not from the top, down. This is about trust, valuing the individual and releasing control.
Created communities can thrive
Based on my experience at The Schloss Mittersill, ‘created’ communities can thrive, as long as some key ingredients are in-place. I’ve highlighted a couple of the ones I’ve identified above.
- people must be at the core – Each individual is critical.
- community members must be trusted, valued and relied upon to make the community work, not the ‘leaders’.
Avoid the pitfalls of control
A lot of intentional communities start out with a big vision from one or a few people. Most of the time, this vision is so ‘fleshed-out’ before the community is even assembled that there’s really no chance for organic growth – the creators have a specific idea of what they want to see happen, and if it doesn’t, often it will be nudged in the ‘right’ direction. This type of control pulls the rug of trust from under the community’s feet. Each member is really there to serve someone else’s vision, not being valued for their own vision, and you simply cannot hide this reality from people.
I’ll continue this series shortly.