Although most contemporary religious organizations are experiencing decline in adherence and institutional vitality, Christian Intentional Communities (CICs), a set of Christian organizations in which participants live in close proximity so as to achieve religious values, experience growth. Research using the Fellowship of Intentional Communities' Online Directory indicates a dramatic increase in the number of CICs that have either been formed or are in formation over the last ten years. Yet researchers have not examined why CICs are growing. Therefore, this research aimed to provide an in-depth exploration of the growth and vitality of CICs. To conduct this exploration I employed a mixed methods approach utilizing a national survey of CICs, as well as participant observation and community member interviews in Philadelphia and Berea, two CICs located in a Midwestern City.
Based on the National Survey of Contemporary Christian Intentional Communities, CICs generally align with one of two cultural ideologies: freewill individualism or expressive communalism. These cultural ideologies, and their accompanying behaviors, attract individuals who experience various types of alienation from American social institutions, such as the media, economic culture, political system, and, particular to CICs, religion. Once established, factors, including charismatic influence, worship service cultures, and inter-organizational cultures, strengthen CICs in terms of members' commitments. However, there are other factors that have a greater effect on members' commitments in some CICs as opposed to others. For example, in Philadelphia, a freewill individualistic community, I observed the use of ingroup-outgroup discursive repertoires, creating a cultural identity that appeared constantly under threat by outside influences. Thus, Philadelphians rallied around their subculture, strengthening adherence to the community. Furthermore, Philadelphia employed strict theological and behavioral expectations, which, as mediated through commitment mechanisms, demanded that members sacrifice desires, time, energy, and money in order to maintain their membership. Such sacrifices amounted to a substantial personal investment, which was unrecoverable if an individual was to leave Philadelphia. Additionally, although both communities benefited from resource configurations offered in the urban environment, Berea, an expressive communalist community, utilized the religio-cultural ecology of their neighborhood, creating, what I label, a "parish consciousness," in which members were completely enveloped by a place-based system of thought and action. As a result, Bereans deepened their commitment to the community by investing their time, energy, money, and desires, particularly through home purchases, to live a life predominately within their urban neighborhood (e.g. their parish).
The results of this research are significant for three reasons: (1) the National Survey of Contemporary CICs provides a much needed update to the body of knowledge surrounding intentional communities; (2) ethnographic findings confirm and/or challenge the ways in which sociologists explain the strength and vitality of religious organizations; and (3) the study's outcomes offer practical information for the growth of religious organizations.