Intentional communities inspire, scare
Intentional, neo-monastic communities like Grace and Main in Danville, Va., may serve as future models for CBF church plants -- but only for those who feel called to such radical ministry.
By Jeff Brumley
Intentional, service-focused Christian communities are getting a lot of buzz in the emergent and missional movements these days, and they’re catching the eye of Baptist groups like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. But the movement – sometimes called “neo-monastic” because of its rejection of creature comforts to minister to society’s poorest – is not for the faint of heart.
Self-funded CBF missionary Joshua Hearne is reminded of that whenever he’s invited to speak to a church about Grace and Main, a non-traditional Christian community that provides meals, medicine, addiction recovery, Bible study and worship in the grittiest parts of Danville, Va. Some of its leaders, like Hearne and his wife, Jessica, also invite homeless people to live in spare rooms in their homes.
“I get questions like, ‘How can we be more missional?’” he said. “I ask: how much are you willing to give up?”
The question doesn't always go over well in big-steeple congregations concerned about paying mortgages and salaries and maintaining memberships, said Hearne, formerly an associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Danville, a CBF affiliate. Churches concerned with survival “are the least suited to make the journey,” he said.
‘Moving in that direction’
Even so, CBF wanted new church planters to hear from missionaries like Hearne during General Assembly 2013 last week in Greensboro, N.C. Hearne joined pastors from different missional groups on a panel discussion titled “Church Starts and Faith Sharing Ministries.”
David King, CBF assistant for new church starts, said the Fellowship is seeing a growing interest from young Baptists being called into ministries that reach populations often overlooked by the church.
They “are seeking to meet the needs of the most neglected and doing that in intentional community,” King said. “It’s a type of church start, a new religious community with an emphasis on worship and service.”
And it’s one that CBF believes can be replicated. “Many of our church starts are moving in that direction – and CBF is moving that way,” King said. He said ministries like Grace and Main increasingly “influence … a new generation of leaders within CBF.”
King acknowledged that many balk at the notion of inviting strangers to live with them, hanging out in and around homeless shelters and holding Bible studies in rehab centers.
Walking away from a full-time church staff position, like the Hearnes did, isn’t for everyone, King said. “I think it has to be a calling.”
From Bible study to intentional community
For the Hearnes and other leaders of Grace and Main, shedding much of their possessions and privacy didn’t happen overnight. Even their intentional community was never anyone’s intention.
It all began when Southern Baptist and registered nurse Matt Bailey sensed a call to begin a neighborhood Bible study in 2009. He started knocking on doors – one of which happened to be the Hearnes – and soon a small group was meeting regularly for prayer and Scripture reading. As a group they also read Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan.
Gradually Bible and book study grew into a weekly meal, which then added feeding the homeless downtown. In 2010, they felt led to establish a non-traditional, neo-monastic community focused on serving the poor, homeless and addiction communities of Danville. Grace and Maine currently has seven participants who have opened their homes as hospitality centers where homeless could stay in available rooms.
Bailey said he never saw any of this coming when he made those first Bible study invitations. Hearne said he only participated in those first meetings because he wanted to meet new friends in the community.
Revenue for the ministry comes from contributions to thirdchanceministries.com and the outside salaries earned by leaders like Bailey, who continues his work as a registered nurse. Grace and Main owns no property. Food and cash given to persons in need come from a variety of ecumenical church partners in Danville.
Grace and Main leaders, about half of whom are formerly homeless, just do what seems to be the next right thing in front of them. “There is no formula,” Hearne added. “This just happened to us.”
‘Beautiful but also ugly’
On Tuesdays, up to 60 downtown homeless people are fed in what the group calls “roving feasts,” in which Bailey and others distribute meals and eat along with those in need. They also hold a Thursday night meal, often at a partner church.
Then they tackle whatever needs arise, including helping residents with housing rights issues or helping people pay for drug or alcohol rebab.
Bailey said it’s common for them to get compliments for what they’re doing. But a lot of visitors don't see the day-to-day reality of working with addicts, battling slumlords and helping people cut through government red tape.
“Yeah, it’s beautiful, but it’s also ugly and dirty and messy because it’s life,” Bailey said.
Dealing with those kinds of issues and feelings was difficult at first – and so was turning his life upside down to serve those who are struggling most in life.
“When you are around poor and homeless constantly, there’s just something wrong coming home to a luxurious house,” Bailey said. “It’s a process of washing the world off you.”
‘An amazing outlet’
But that’s not going to fly with most Christians – even those dedicated to serving others, said John Carroll, pastor of First Baptist Church in Danville. “Some say, ‘I can never do that’ or ‘I can’t see myself there,’” Carroll said.
But they really don’t have to, he said. Partnering with Grace and Main has provided First Baptist members an outlet for living out their faith in parts of town and with people they normally would never see. “It’s an amazing outlet for some to live out a calling and sense of mission in the world,” he said.
Hearne said Grace and Main doesn’t have membership rolls, but does have about 15 core leaders and up to 40 “regulars” who attend worship and most service activities. Many of both of those groups are members at local churches, including First Baptist, Moffett Avenue Baptist and College Park Baptist, all CBF congregations. Other partners and volunteers are from other denominations.
Cathy Nash is a member of a nearby Missionary Baptist Church. She helps distribute free breakfasts through Grace and Main on Wednesday mornings. Nash said she loves her church, where she sings in the choir, but helps out at Grace and Main because of the difference they are making in the community.
“I like the friendship and the hospitality they give, and they accept you for what you are and not what you want to be,” Nash said.
© 2014 Associated Baptist Press, Inc.