Maybe Communal Living Isn’t So Strange

By May 20, 2016 culture No Comments

As the kitchen sink gurgled, I began praying. Begging and pleading—even panicking—were also involved as water began to back up from the disposal I had just stuffed with leftover Amish noodles.

It was definitely clogged, possibly broken. Even worse? It wasn’t my kitchen. We were staying with new friends who had graciously offered us their guest room so we could extend our visit in Colorado. The first few nights of our stay were together; they would be out of town the next five days, and then we would all be together for the final five days before Mike and I headed home to Illinois after two glorious months. The noodle incident happened day five of their vacation.

So I had to call the people we had known for only about four weeks, while they were on vacation, to tell them I had broken their sink.

Grace abounded from our friends, and all ended well (my husband fixed everything, as he often does). Noodles aside, we loved being with these friends. During our stay, we had time together and alone; we made dinners and popped popcorn; we had morning chats over coffee and a few late night laughs. Our short-lived experience with communal living was extremely positive.

Co-living has long been associated with hippy or religious types. Cults made it famous when I was younger, and the stereotype I adopted wasn’t completely positive. It didn’t seem like something I would ever do. Plus, I’m an introvert, so the idea of sharing space for the long term was unappealing.

In recent years, however, communal living has received a makeover. It’s been repackaged for hip, young urbanites through startups like Common, We Live, and Pure House that offer residents a private room with some sort of jointly shared space (living rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms). All boast of the community residents will find with those on their floor and within the rest of the building. Some complexes offer perks like social activities, housecleaning services, and high-end furnishings (from posh retailers like West Elm).

A recent article in The New Yorker by Lizzie Widdicombe titled “Happy Together” reviewed this new co-living trend. Widdicombe’s excellent reporting raised many thoughts and questions, so Hannah Anderson and I hashed out some of it on an episode of Persuasion, our Christ and Pop Culture podcast.

One aspect we addressed was the concern that co-living is merely an extension of college life—as it is rather reminiscent of a dorm—and, therefore, a way for young people to avoid adulting (i.e., responsibilities and commitments such as marriage and family). Much concern has been raised about this failure to launch phenomenon, especially within the Christian sub-culture. The question is whether the co-living trend is a cause or a result.

I suspect it is the latter, since communal living has only recently been repackaged and the concern over postponing adulthood has been a hot topic for years.

The way I see it, co-living provides beautiful and necessary community and belonging especially for those who find themselves unknown and in a big city. Rather than live alone, young people are choosing to be part of a residential community where they can know and be known by others. Living alone would be easier, in many ways. Co-living is a commitment to daily relationship and interaction with a few key people (similar to a family); it requires communication, cooperation, forgiveness, and grace. Practicing these relational skills is akin to demonstrating those One Another skills outlined in scripture.

When I clogged my friends’ sink, I had to practice God-honoring community with them in terms of those one-another truths. I had to confess my mistake, ask for forgiveness, refuse to let my fear of failure invade the relationship, and do what was needed to correct the situation. Living in community requires living in the light, even when it feels a bit bright.

While the complexes described in The New Yorker article are not Christian communities per se, the connectedness and community that’s provided is a beautiful thing, echoing the community we are to seek in the light. And it combats the loneliness and disconnection that is prevalent in today’s hyper-connected society. They provide a model for single Christians looking to bridge the community gap between college and marriage. And these residences remind us of the call toward community: with family and friends as well as in the local church and the universal Body.

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Read Happy Together, by Lizzie Widdicombe, The New Yorker

Listen to Communal Living for Hispters, Persuasion podcast

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