Extreme Community

By Chaplain Mike

“To have all things in common means to love our neighbor, to have with him, to want with him, to suffer with him and to endure the ups and downs with him.

“In Heaven (as it should be on earth) there is no ownership and hence there is found contentment, true peace, and blessedness.”

– The Hutterite Chronicles, 1525

* * *

Over the course of history, and church history, people have sought to establish ideal communities. We sometimes call these “utopian” — a word coined by Sir Thomas More in his 1516 book bearing that designation.

The word has a double meaning. In Greek, it can mean “the good place,” and thus it has been used to describe a community that fulfills ideals humans long for: peace, justice, economic equality. However, changing one letter in Greek results in a word with the same pronunciation but a different meaning. In this spelling, “utopia” means “no place.” The ideal community is, realistically, out of reach. “The good place” is nowhere to be found.

As so, as God’s community of Christ-followers, we continue to pray, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

One group of people seeking to establish true Christian community on earth is called “Hutterites”.

The Hutterite communities have existed for nearly five centuries. Heirs of an Anabaptist tradition through their founder, Jakob Hutter (c.1500-1536), Hutter’s followers have formed colonies throughout the U.S. and Canada. Like other Anabaptists such as Mennonites and the Amish, Hutterites have a long history of pacifism, which often led to their persecution during religious wars in Europe. The trials they faced forced them to migrate from Austria to Moravia to Transylvania, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Russia. In the 1870’s, they came to North America and settled in the Dakotas and Montana. During WWI, they were again persecuted for their pacifist stand, and many moved to Canada. They settled in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. Today, it is estimated that between 40-50 thousand Hutterites live in Canada and the northern U.S.

What distinguishes Hutterites from other Anabaptist groups is their commitment to communal living.

The religion of the Hutterites is unique in their belief in the community of goods in which all material things are held in common. This idea is gleaned from the teachings of Jesus, where he explained to the rich young ruler what he needed to do to receive eternal life (Matthew 19); from the fact that Jesus and his disciples shared everything (John 12); from the early church where the apostles and their followers held all things in common (Acts 2: 44-47). Hutterites believe community of goods is the highest command of love.

All members of the colony are provided for equally and nothing is kept for personal gain. Hutterites do not have personal bank account; rather all earnings are held communally and funding and necessities are distributed according to one’s needs. (Hutterites.org)

This obviously sets the Hutterites apart from their neighbors. They live in self-sustaining colonies and spend most of their time in daily life and work together. Each day is highly structured around communal work, school, meals, and corporate worship. Hutterites are not as opposed to change and technology as some of their Anabaptist brethren, particularly when it comes to farm machinery. However, they remain a plain people with a simple lifestyle. They avoid modern entertainments such as radio, television, and secular music. They have few photographs and do not decorate the walls in their houses. They dress in plain style, though the women’s dresses are often made with vivid colors and patterns. They wear no jewelry, not even wedding rings. One distinctive feature of Hutterite dress is the polka-dotted scarf worn by women. They do patronize and deal with local businesses.

The community is patriarchal, and major decisions are voted on by all male baptized members. In communal meetings such as meals and church services, men and women sit separately. Daily affairs are governed by a minister/chief executive who works with an advisory board that consists of the colony manager, the farm manager, and deacons who are elected for life. They deal not only with the business and religious affairs of the community, but also any personal conflicts and requests that need to come before the colony for determination.

In her bestselling book, I Am Hutterite: The Fascinating True Story of a Young Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Heritage, Mary-Ann Kirkby describes features of the Hutterite common life as she knew them.

  • Each colony can sustain meaningful work for about 125 members. Once that limit is reached, they “branch out” and a new colony is formed.
  • In the center of the colony property and life stand the school and church. They attend daily church services in addition to Sunday worship.
  • Hutterites have large families, with an average of over ten children per household.
  • The heart of the colony is the kitchen and dining rooms. This is where the community prepares and shares meals together. In Kirkby’s colony, the afternoon meal was eaten separately in family homes.
  • Hutterites place a high value on education. They originated the kindergarten 300 years ago, and their children begin schooling before age 3. School for the older children is taught by outside teachers for public school subjects, and by Hutterite teachers for religion. In addition, vocational education and apprenticeship is given to enable the older ones to become skilled tradesmen.
  • They don’t lack for recreation. Hutterite children enjoy such sports as hockey, volleyball, baseball, soccer, football, lacrosse and others. Members visit other colonies for shared events and projects, women enjoy crafts, and their choral singing is renowned.

I highly recommend Kirkby’s book if you want to get a good taste of the day to day life in a colony. She provides an insider’s view of Hutterite life from the warm and sentimental viewpoint of one looking back on her childhood. She writes with true affection about the rituals and routines of living in community, and you can hear the bells ring, smell the scent of freshly washed floors, salivate over the daily feasts at the communal tables, and sit with the children in wide-eyed wonder at the power of the stories told by gifted adults.

Her family left the Fairholme Hutterite community when she was ten years old. Kirkby’s book is the story about how she came of age caught in the conflict between the security of life in the colony and her parents’ risky abandonment of that life because of continuing conflict with the minister (her mother’s brother) and his policies. In the end, she learned that:

I understood for the first time that freedom is not found on a Hutterite colony any more than it is found off the colony. True freedom is an inside job… (p. 226)

Why Consider Extreme Community?
Christ-followers and churches today are longing for community. There is a lot we can learn from the Hutterites, as well as many warnings we can take from considering their way of life.

  • I respect their sincere convictions about communal living.
  • I see many advantages to living in a community that practices some form of communal living. Whether Anabaptist, monastic, or missional in character, sharing a “common life” can be a way of deep spiritual formation that testifies to Christ and life in the new creation.
  • They go too far in claiming that sharing all possessions is the only or even the best way of experiencing NT fellowship and community in Christ. Their view of salvation becomes dependent on a lifestyle rather than on Christ. They fail to recognize the diversity of the NT record when they demand this approach.
  • Where is the mission of the church that is to be lived out “in” the world even while we are to be “not of” the world? Separatism and biological growth will not fulfill the Great Commission.
  • Inherited and enforced conformity can never substitute for the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the full freedom of life in Christ under the New Covenant.

Perhaps some of our Canadian readers can speak firsthand about the Hutterites.

Theirs is no “utopia,” but perhaps this tradition of our Anabaptist brethren can say something to us about our longing for NT fellowship and community.

Note: The National Film Board of Canada produced a film on the Hutterites (1964) that is available for viewing on the web. It is well worth your time.

33 thoughts on “Extreme Community

  1. Not all Utopian Christian communities are good or even dedicated to Christ. The Koinonia Farm project is an example of how ideological and bigots merged together to ridicule others from their little farming outpost (mainly to ridicule white Southerners, most of whom were more devout Christian and more communal and agricultural than the Koinonia Farm stooges ever were).

    Over the years Koinonia Farms (now called partners .inc) has changed. Today, the community that existed there exist no longer. There was too much fraction between the ideologues and those just wanting live a Christian lifestyle. The ideologues focused too much energy and had too much hate against the surrounding 1950s society which they lived in – that Instead of living a wholesome Christian lifestyle the community focused most of it’s energy on other distractions. The most noticeable failure of the community was it’s leadership (a two man rule system), the leadership often couldn’t function because of the ideological and religious split, and the non-formality of the community being a muble-jumbo of different people from different backgrounds, and upbringings, that it fractured and made it hard for the community to maintain and sustain an agricultural Christian community.

    Today, Koinonia inc. is more like a corporate boarding house for the homeless, culture-less, and people clueless to Christian faith, than an actual real Christian community like the Hutterites.

    We must respect what God has given this world, different cultures and different people. To try to build a Utopian multi-cultured one is doomed to failure, because God did not create societies based on pluralities, he created it based on distinctions and faith. God brought forth the different Jewish tribes and separated them, and snakes from fish, and water from wood.

    The greatest success of and practiced by “more open” Utopians is that of Jones Town. So, I say to those who think the Hutterites aren’t open enough to “don’t drink the kool-aid”. The idea that their not open enough is totally false, because how open should they have to be? Open enough that they go genetically/culturally/religiously extinct through mixing or disintegration?)


  2. Having grown up in a plain and conservative Mennonite culture, I understand the reluctance to engage people when in public. When in our local town, no one bothered us too much but when traveling, people projected their ideals onto us, objectified us and treated us as an exhibit for their entertainment and curiosity.

    It’s not just “people met while travelling”. It’s also the readers of Christian Romance novels. “Projecting their ideals onto [Mennonites/Amish]” as some sort of More Godly Life is also the dynamic behind the appeal of all those “Amish Bonnet Romance” potboilers filling the “Christian Fiction” sections of bookstores.


  3. Mike, you are correct. Hutterites may not want to use your blunt words, but it is clear to me that a wegelufene (run-away) is a rebel who is in jeopardy of the flames of hell. On the other hand, a rebel-turn-around is warmly welcomed back. The period of church discipline is relatively short for ethnic Hutterites.

    I think it fair to suggest that from one colony to another there may be a difference is teaching v. practice. Clearly, Mary-Ann’s uncle, Minister Jake, made it difficult for her father to live with his conscience. I too found myself needing to leave the communal life of my “first love” over matters of conscience.


  4. “as a woman I wondered if healthy intentional ‘community’ could exist without the patriarchal-ness part….?”

    Excellent question! If the bible had been written by women my sense is that communal living today would be much more inclusive and less relationally harmful.


  5. Homage To a Broken Man is, unfortunately, a slanted view of the life of a Bruderhof Elder. A friend of mine calls in an hagiography. An honest, open, even critical examination of an influential person’s life is called for. History is written by victors: name me one American History book that takes the views of Native Americans into account!

    Please notice that Homage is (conveniently) silent about Hutterite/Bruderhof interactions in which the Elder Heinrich Arnold had a part.

    As one who was raised on the Bhof, I can agree that things can go very wrong even, perhaps especially, in a so-called Christian community, where the individual’s conscience MUST submit to the Communal Conscience. What a person does in a group, he/she might not think of doing alone! Sociologists refer to this as the herd instinct.

    Be forewarned: *Relational violence* is found both in the old and the new testaments.


  6. In response to the comment of approachability.

    Having grown up in a plain and conservative Mennonite culture, I understand the reluctance to engage people when in public. When in our local town, no one bothered us too much but when traveling, people projected their ideals onto us, objectified us and treated us as an exhibit for their entertainment and curiosity. It is especially futile to answer the questions of people who assign their own ideals to you, such as believing that vegetables grown by plain people are organic.

    The lifestyle of the plain people of all types is an outward expression of an inside faith. It is a codified response. To adapt the response to the questioning public requires the reinterpretation of the code to a person who has no such frame of reference. A sort of paraphrase of a paraphrase.

    Yes, some people do look away from the folks in town, and that may be considered rude. Think about that fact the next time you see a homeless person on the street heading your way. The way you feel at that moment is the way they feel when they see you heading toward them.


  7. Possibly this one:

    Reba Place Fellowship


    It’s near, but not IN, Chicago! 🙂

    Dave and Neta Jackson wrote a book in 1974 called Living Together in a World Falling Apart chronicling their visits to, and observations of, many Christian communities across America. At the end of their journey, they chose to join Reba Place Fellowship.

    They wrote a sequel in 1978 called Coming Together: All Those Communities and What They’re Up To.

    Reba was/is an interesting place. Their community included people who lived on-site in shared housing as well as people who didn’t, and that may still be true. They’ve had their ups and downs, but they may be one of the longest-lasting healthy (I think) Christian communities in the country (since 1957). Mennonite-affiliated.


  8. “I think it is legitimate to say that the general view of the Hutterites is that salvation is bound up with communal living.”

    It is much more legitimate for me to think that the general view of others is that the general view of hutterites, etc…as a hutterite myself, the people I live with and know do not feel that way. But, you might know many more than I do…

    Cheers, guys, we are normal people with normal issues…come visit us any time.


  9. Koinonia – founded by Clarence Jordan in the 50’s before the civil rights movement. It is a great community if your into The South, Racial healing, Jesus, Peace, & farming.


  10. Thank you so much for sharing this. Fascinating. I have been pondering over the ideas of communal living, and this is a great eye opener. You analysis is a great reminder that works aren’t the key to being a “good” Christian. I have been grappling with this as I view myself, the people I know ,and the churches we have attended. Being led by the Spirit and living true to the values and direction of Christ mean so much more than following the rituals.


  11. I knew one mennonite girl in university. She was a really nice, humble person. That was my only connection to them before I moved to Canada.

    I lived in northern Manitoba for two years, and had quite a few less than positive experiences with people from communal societies, aka Mennonites and Hutterites.

    Most of the people in the two churches that I was associated with had grown up in Mennonite communities (one of the churches was a Mennonite Brethren, which is a modern Mennonite church, we actually lived in an apartment in this church).

    One of the things that I learned early on was that the Old Order Mennonite idea that “luxuries are only acceptable if they are used for work” very easily translates into “luxuries are only acceptable for ME to have, if YOU have something I consider a luxury, its probably because you are less Godly than me.”

    An example of this was when a leader in the mennonite church protested us buying a new couch instead of sitting on the old, beat up furniture in the apartment we lived in. And then he drove home in his Lexus.

    Comments that implied that my wife and I were worldly were common occurrence.

    A girl I know who worked at the walmart in Swift Current, SK said that the most common thefts were done by old order mennonites and hutterites. Once, a Mennonite woman tried to steal a vacuum cleaner by walking out with it underneath her dress.

    There was a man who grew up hutterite, who left the community as a young man to move north to work in the mines. He was probably fifty or sixty years old now, a godly man involved at one of the churches in town. Once, a few years ago, he broke down in southern Manitoba close to a Hutterite community, far from the one that he came from. A man came along to help him, but once he found out his name, the man refused to help him. Everyone near by was hutterite, so he was left to fend for himself, because no one would help him. And if you’ve never been to Manitoba, unless you are in Winnipeg or Brandon, you are at least 100 miles from any sort of civilization.

    Now I live in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and I’m no longer connected to a Mennonite church, which is great.

    I guess I was just aiding in pointing out that as much as they do community extremely well, they do poorly at a lot of other important things.


  12. Living outside of Saskaoon, I not only see Huterrites almost on a daily basis, but also conservative / old order Mennonites etc. My wife read the book, and shared large parts of it with me. As a child in southern Africa, my parents were affiliated with a sect who have their centre as a Mission Station come kibbutz. Both my parents and my brother and his family (6 children) live on the place now. Of course, i renegaded and became Lutheran ( 😉 ). Anyway, here’s my comments:

    In the public domain the Hutterites are very much turned into themselves – they don’t look you in the eye in the street, they rarely have a conversation with anybody. In this, their lifestyle has reached the point where they have no impact, positve or negative, on the world around them. Thus, I think they stop being the salt of the world etc.

    I find more variability within the Mennonites – I have close contact with a young, farming (old Order?)Mennonite family (6 kids, olderst about 11 / 12 ?), and they are much more open, friendly and will converse with you.

    But religious communities can be a blessing, but very often, an extreme curse too – that I know from personal, traumatic experience. In each community, the danger of a gradual evolution towards central control persists. At that stage, they devolve into sects and even cults. No, I’m not saying the Hutterites are a cult at all. But they have a strong tradition that they do not depart from – although Kirby’s book lists many of the internal problems that can occur. Having had some of that in my background, the book (at least as narrated to me by my wife) has some very chilling edges to the warm and fuzziness mentioned here.


  13. Darrel, the comment about salvation is in response to several statements by Hutterites that I have read, in Kirkby’s book and elsewhere, that affirm, “Salvation is found in communal living.” Furthermore, when one considers the way they view those who are outside the colonies or those who leave the colonies, considering them on the road to hell, not because of their lack of faith in Christ, but because they do not practice the lifestyle, I think it is legitimate to say that the general view of the Hutterites is that salvation is bound up with communal living.


  14. I enjoyed reading “Nightwatch: An Inquiry Into Solitude : Alone on the Prairie with the Hutterites.” The author Robert Rhodes tells of the journey that led him and his family to join a Hutterite Colony in SW Minnesota. So for those interested yet another title to add to your “must reads.”

    I would beg to differ slightly on a number of the points Chaplain Mike made, he wrote:

    • They go too far in claiming that sharing all possessions is the only or even the best way of experiencing NT fellowship and community in Christ. Their view of salvation becomes dependent on a lifestyle rather than on Christ. They fail to recognize the diversity of the NT record when they demand this approach.

    The above statement is painted with a wide brush. I might feel more comfortable if Chaplian Mike had said “their view of salvation CAN become dependent on lifestyle rather than on Christ.”

    Chaplain Mike Says: “• Where is the mission of the church that is to be lived out “in” the world even while we are to be “not of” the world? Separatism and biological growth will not fulfill the Great Commission.”

    My only comment to that is: I pray “thy kingdom come they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I beleive the kingdom has begun and is being lived out in many ways by many people as they seek to follow Christ in the way that he has called them. I don’t know God’s plans or purposes but hesitate to judge that this way is not fullfulling the Great Commission. Imperfect as the Hutterites may be, are they not everyday “witnessing” to their neighbors and business associates of a committment to God and Christ that demands their all.


  15. That’s definitely my favorite part of the Epistle to Diagnetus.


  16. Maybe I missed a something – but as a woman I wondered if healthy intentional ‘community’ could exist without the patriarchal-ness part….?


  17. Interesting juxtaposition of posts between this on community and right next to it one on individuality. It is interesting that God created Eve because it was not good for man to be alone. In contrast or maybe contradistinction from that, it was Cain who created the first city, east of Eden in the land of Nod.

    I believe there is a godly bent toward togetherness, family, fellowship, etc. However, there is also a fallen bent to script or manage or proscribe these godly impulses in ways that aren’t part of God’s original design. Every community requires a sacrifice of autonomy. At the same time, community needs to recognize the place of the individual.

    My fundamentalist background consisted largely of forming our own community in the world and circumscribing it through social controls (we didn’t attend movies, dances, bars, restaurants that served alcohol, etc.). Part of what we wanted to accomplish was to recruit others to be part of our group and then conform to our particular style. What I found over time is that this in/out distinction forced our group and others like us to define ourselves so narrowly that it was nothing but an unending series of splits and divisions and dis-fellowships that the groups became effectively irrelevant in both the lives of the individuals in them and to the world around them.

    I think the appeal of para-church ministries is a renewal of that sense of shared purpose that forms the core of a community while at the same time not being so strict as to who can and who cannot join. Many who experienced interdenominational youth rallies look to the halcyon days of the 70’s and 80’s as the ideal of community and fellowship with a longing to get some of that back. We wish for the fellowship of the youth rally while resisting the “commitment” and the “demands” placed on us by our faith communities. Reminds me of young people today who want the delights of marriage without the demands of commitment.


  18. I love the idea of community but the reality of community living, be it in an enclosed community or just in my local church/town/village, can be immensely painful. I have longed to be in community all my life but walked away from the church on several occasions because it hurt too much to stay. There are too many expectations about conformity in actions and attitudes and an effectual ‘shunning’ of those who don’t conform and yet – we are called to be the Body of Christ. The only way we can truly learn how to love someone is when we know them well – you can only do that when you spend ‘ordinary time’ with them however painful that might be. So I yearn for community but, if I am honest, I am also repelled by the reality of it.


  19. I love the idea of community.

    I read “Homage to a Broken man” a while ago, which really got me thinking. It is an example of how bad things can get if you consider that community is the ultimate priority (before justice, for example).

    Definitely worth a read.


  20. I might just have to pick up Kirby’s book. As I get older — and my hopes of finding a wife and starting a family of my own grow dimmer — the possibility of joining some kind of Christian community has begun to present itself in my mind as a very real option. I just wish there was a greater variety of options out there — communities that aren’t so darned legalistic and doctrinally narrow. A couple of years ago, I came real close to signing up for the entry program to the Jesus People U.S.A. community in Chicago — but, to be honest, living in the middle of a really big city doesn’t appeal to me all that much. I guess I’m too much of a country boy. Jeff Dunn’s vision for a community of Christian artists sounds like something I would truly be interested in. I’m just wondering if any of you fellow imonkers know of any really good, solid, unoppressive Christian communities here in the states.


  21. Great Post! As a “Modern” Mennonite I enjoy learning about these fellow Anabaptist. I have to admit the idea of living in community is very close to me, (i lived in a small community of 8 people or so for 2 years & greatly enjoyed it), but it is never as easy as it first sounds. Though the Hutterites pratice a beautful version of “family Monasticism” it has it’s draw backs. I have met many people who have been shunned by the colonies if they decided to go on there own. The Shunning idea has been a very grave mistake in many Anabaptist Churches. They have taken an extremely literal view of Matt. 18 & turned Church disipline into Church abandonment. —–but not just to pick a the piece of dust in their eyes, (Lord knows every church has planks in theirs!) they do live a beautiful testament to Jesus, They try to live out the sermon on the mount in there lives & words (Tolstoy would be proud!).
    another note: often their work is a service to the broader world around them. There have been colonies who build good solid wood toys for children with handicaps —-their toys & furniture have quite a following. —-they also have been an example of how living self-sufficent lives as a community is a very sustainable & “green” way of life w/o even trying to. peace


  22. I live in Ontario Canada in an area with many Old Order Mennonites. While they are not a communal sect in the same way the Hutterites live, they do have a wonderful sense of community which is admired. Last weekend I watched a barn raising after a devastating fire. In less than two weeks the large structure was rebuilt by volunteers. They do not opt into our public health system and the community contributes when hospitalization is needed. Yet their salvation is based on works and there is much division over acceptance of modern conveniences. Technology is changing so fast that the church groups cannot keep up with the rules. I see drivers of horse and buggies talking on cell phones when they are not allowed to have a land line in their homes. I agree that we all need and desire commmunity and a sense of belonging which is not found in many churches.


  23. The paradox of ‘in the world’ but not ‘of the world speaks of an earlier time in Christianity, yes.
    This is a portion of a 2nd century A.D. letter from Mathetes to Diognetus, and tells about this strange paradox in the lives of the early Christians:

    t shows up in the fifth chapter of the Epistle (letter) of Mathetes to Diognetus. The chapter is entitled: The Manners of the Christians

    “They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. 2 Corinthians 10:3 They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Philippians 3:20 They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. 2 Corinthians 6:9 They are poor, yet make many rich; 2 Corinthians 6:10 they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; 2 Corinthians 4:12 they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. “


  24. Thank you for sharing this. We live in an area surrounded by Hutterites (north central Montana) and have visited several colonies. When I worked for the NRCS (natural resource conservation service-part of the USDA) we did so many projects on colonies we joked about it being the natural resource “colony” service. I will look for that book. People have a lot of mixed feelings and mixed experiences with the Hutterites.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: