Reporting | Discipleship

Cohousing: The New American Family

How alternative forms of living are changing communities, challenging the church, and keeping millennials in the fold.
Cohousing: The New American Family
Image: Giorgio Morara / Shutterstock

David Brooks recently wrote about a Washington, DC, couple who invited their son’s friend over for dinner. This small act snowballed into a weekly dinner where upwards of 15 teens—many of whom have endured homelessness, abuse, hunger, and sexual assault—stop in to eat, hug, read poems, get help on college applications, and perhaps crash in the house later.

These meals fill a deeper hunger, which Brooks describes as “a crisis of solidarity, a crisis of segmentation, spiritual degradation, and intimacy.” The reigning American ideal—of the self-sufficient nuclear family living in a detached single-family house—isn’t satiating this need. Like this DC family, growing numbers of people are finding creative ways to live together and forge new kinds of community.

Communes, monasteries, and intentional communities of all sorts have been around for ages in the margins of many societies. Today, however, a concept called “cohousing” is bringing group living more into the mainstream. Alice Alexander, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States, describes cohousing as a blend of private homes with shared common space. Cohousing groups don’t require the shared finances or surrender of privacy that is commonly associated with communes. Yet they bring people to live in close proximity while emphasizing the values of sharing, community, and sustainability.

The idea is gaining traction among different populations. Boomers who are looking to downsize and curb a growing sense of isolation provide much of the time, energy, and finances needed to start cohousing communities, Alexander said. Millennials, many of whom work full-time while also raising small children, are seeking supportive communities that can share in childcare, meal preparation, and home maintenance burdens. The Cohousing Association knows of over 160 cohousing communities in existence around the country, with more than 130 in formation.

These numbers represent only a small portion of experiments in community living. The Fellowship for Intentional Community—which supports “people who live together or share common facilities and who regularly associate with each other on the basis of explicit common values”—lists 1,556 such groups nationwide. Even this count doesn’t include the many less-structured living arrangements popping up, such as families who decide to buy a house together, or others who rent or sublet rooms with the intent of forming deeper bonds among housemates.

Entrepreneurs are also catching the swelling tide of interest in community-oriented living. Co-living start-ups such as WeLive and Common are expanding and targeting young urban professionals who seek “a furnished place to live, unlimited coffee and toilet paper, and a sense of belonging,” as The New Yorker puts it.

Beyond Economics

Much of the impetus behind sharing living space and resources is practical. As incomes remain stagnant and the cost of living rises, many people—millennials especially—realize they simply cannot afford to pursue the old American dream of buying a place of one’s own, especially in coastal cities where space is limited and housing prices soar. Cohousing, along with ride-sharing, grocery co-ops, and Airbnb, are a few manifestations of the new sharing economy, where people realize that access is more important—and oftentimes cheaper and more convenient—than ownership.

Beyond economics, however, the drive to live in closer and more frequent contact with others highlights a deeper malaise. Simply put, we are lonely. The percentage of Americans reporting chronic loneliness has increased over the past two decades. While our social media networks may be expanding, a recent study found that most people report having only two close confidants with whom they can discuss important matters regularly.

While some churches have adjusted well to changing generational needs, others remain stuck in unhelpful models. Over a quarter of Americans live alone, according to the Census Bureau, and childless adults are a growing group, yet many church ministries still revolve around the assumption that everyone is married with children, or at least wants to be. Society as a whole is beginning to recognize with growing alarm the dehumanizing and distancing effects of new technologies, and some churches, too, are beginning to realize that bells and whistles, screens and Facebook accounts, aren’t magic bullets for enabling community.

The Pew Research Center reports, “As older cohorts of adults (comprised mainly of self-identified Christians) pass away, they are being replaced by a new cohort of young adults who display far lower levels of attachment to organized religion than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations did when they were the same age.” Even as millennials drop out of organized religion, nonetheless they are searching for community through alternative forms of living such as cohousing.

This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the church.

As Jesus followers, we need to ask ourselves: Are we forming communities of hospitality, authenticity, and interdependence—the kind of communities that young people long for?

Radical Hospitality

When Courtney Martin first joined Temescal Commons, a cohousing community in Oakland, California, it was a simple explanation of group meal logistics that brought her to tears. “Bring guests to a common meal any time,” one of the founding members, Cheryl Garlick, told her. “All we ask is that if you bring more than like three people you let the chefs know so they can plan accordingly. Otherwise, you can show up with a friend any old time.”

Martin, who documents this story in her book The New Better Off, is not a Christian, but she happened to land in a community where the embodied Christian value of radical hospitality struck her square in the heart. In a world where people live in “a constant state of application”— applying to jobs and schools and for mortgages and insurance, etc.—being welcomed and deemed worthy simply for showing up was a complete reversal, she writes.

Martin grew up in Colorado Springs, where her personal experience of Christianity “was really negative and about condemning particular people's behavior.” Living among Christians in Temescal Commons, she told me, has been very healing.

Hospitality might be the most compelling form of evangelism the church can offer. “My sense of evangelism is that most people have heard all they want to hear about the faith. They frankly are more put off by the stories they know and the public image of Christianity than they are interested in the ideas,” said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a member of the Rutba House, an intentional Christian community in Durham, North Carolina. “Hospitality is one form of authentic Christian practice that can be attractive to people who are not part of the church—but who might very well care about refugees or undocumented immigrants or the homeless or people in prison. A community that welcomes those kinds of people because they know that Jesus is present in them—that’s another way to offer a public face of what Christianity is.”

Hospitality, and the relationships that result, cannot be programmed or strategized. It’s more likely to happen over a plate of spaghetti or cup of coffee than talking at hundreds of people from a stage through a microphone. “The most important and biblical pieces of technology in a church today,” Read Schuchardt writes, “may not be the projector and the amplifier, but the Crockpot and warming plate.”

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Millennials have grown up acutely aware of the ills that plague contemporary society—environmental degradation, economic inequality, and deep racial division, among others. At the same time, efforts to make a living, which often require moving across the country for less-than-ideal jobs, contribute to a sense of rootlessness and paralysis. We want to be a force for good among our neighbors but are not sure how.

This is where alternative forms of community touch a deep ache in the millennial soul. By creating bonds of sharing and interdependence beyond the nuclear family, these communities embody a concrete response to troubling aspects of modern existence. They show that it is possible to be a good neighbor (locally and globally), to rely on and be relied upon by others, and to make small but sure dents in overwhelming social problems.

At Reba Place Fellowship, an intentional Christian community in Evanston, Illinois, many young people have found hope for sustained social change through the intergenerational relationships nurtured there. Heather Ashcroft-Clark, a longtime member, says that newcomers have witnessed the big and small ways the community has been able to do more together than as individuals— from inviting a homeless person to stay with them, to starting preschools and providing safe passage for refugees. “To live together is to explore a different kind of freedom—the freedom to commit to loving yourself and others well. Long-term, there are resources freed up in living this way that make some things possible that are not possible for individuals on their own, however socially conscious they may be,” she said.

Churches seeking to engage millennials in Christian community can learn from the cohousing movement. In a study of over 250 congregations, researchers at Fuller Theological Seminary found that churches maintaining a vibrant youth presence share one inescapable trait: “They want to be the best possible neighbors within their city. The churches ‘growing young’ consistently showed high involvement and creativity in their commitment to be good neighbors and to involve young people in the process,” said the report.

A Seed for Renewal

Although cohousing and other alternative living situations offer high appeal, they also require hard work. Participants have to invest time and energy in creating a shared culture, resolving conflict, and being there for people when it would be much easier to curl up on the couch to eat takeout and watch Netflix.

Even when things go well, there are no easily documented results. For Garlick, living in community at Temescal Commons means loving without agenda. “I pray for [my neighbors]. I believe they pray for me,” she said. “But my internal stance is more about noticing who they are, blessing and being blessed by them, and appreciating what God might already be doing in their life [than about] having an agenda for anything particular. This requires me to trust that the Spirit is at work making all things new in ways I see and in ways I don't see.”

Garlick’s approach values efficacy, which Schuchardt defines as “the slow, difficult work of embodying God’s love, one embodied soul at a time.” If we seek to reach an alienated and skeptical generation, we must leave the altar of efficiency—where numbers and programs win out over hospitality and compassion—and surrender to the sometimes-inconvenient, painful processes of love.

The millennial generation may be less religious than ever before. But for those who have eyes to see, our search for true and life-giving community might be taken as a sign of hope and a seed for renewal within the church.

Liuan Huska is a freelance writer in the Chicago suburbs. Follow her on Twitter @LiuanHuska.

May
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