Religious Communities

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Religious Communities

Religious communities are both gatherings of individuals who have common religious beliefs, habits, and practices and ideologies about the negotiated order of these gatherings. The term is multifaceted and, indeed, slippery. To employ "community" as a description of any group of people is to characterize the quality of their togetherness and not simply to provide a description of their gathering. Though frequently the term is used as a synonym for orders, residential religious groups, congregations, churches, synagogues, orders, or missions, religious communities are not simply spaces where religious ritual happens or organizational entities of religious life. The use of this term often implies an account of the type of religious culture that is valued and sometimes a kind of romanticism about the quality of relationships among members of the gathering.

The romanticism has both historical and contemporary faces. Historically, the concern about the effects of modern social structure, including the eclipsing of agrarian ways of life and the ascendancy of liberal states, animated many social theorists who wrote about religion. Ferdinand Tönnies, whose famous work Community and Society was published in 1887, was particularly concerned about the decline of community (gemeinschaft) and the expansion of society (gesellschaft). Tönnies believed that communities, including religious, familial, and neighborhood ones, were primary groups that socialized members not because of individual choice but rather because individuals were thrown together naturally. Societies—such as business associations, political parties, or other special interest groups—were secondary and socialized their members for rational, instrumental action for special purposes or goals. The values and habits that undergird communities were based on consensus and common moral norms firmly established in custom. However, modernity with its liberal state was undermining this sense of community, according to Tönnies. This transformation of the social structure from close-knit community to diverse society would result in individualism, fragmentation, and the relentless pursuit of material objectives overtaking communalism, convention, and common moral and religious norms. While Tönnies did not believe that a return to community was possible, he despaired about the heartless, self-serving character of modern society.

The contemporary resurgence of concern about community, and about the quality of religious communities in particular, also highlights deeply felt anxiety about the vitality of home, family, religious groups, and neighborhoods and a romanticist belief that a return to "traditional" values would reinvigorate community. The diagnosis of and solutions to the tensions about community have been the subject of considerable discussion within political philosophy, social theory, and sociology of religion in recent decades. Elizabeth M. Bounds's Coming Together/Coming Apart (1997) nicely chronicles the variety of current meanings of community, the role of religion in sustaining or establishing it, and judgments about sources of its decline in the United States. Bounds notes that discussions of community, especially within communitarian thought, are often typified by nostalgia and a tenor of despair. Since forms of religious life that were based primarily on the mutual reinforcement of home, family, and neighborhood ties no longer characterize U.S. religious life, religious communities are assumed to be weakened, perhaps so enfeebled as to be unable to support a tenable civil society. Questions are raised about how communities are created and maintained, given the corrosive effects of liberalism, capitalism, and individualism (see Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart). Often this anxiety about the future of civil society is also related to recognition of the significant religious, cultural, class, racial, and ethnic diversity that characterizes the cultures of the United States.

The movements of alternative religions, intentional community, and women and minority group empowerment in the 1960s were often aimed at creating communal environments for raising families, pursuing self-fulfillment, or working for social change, in which an ethos of familiarity and trust could counter the alienating or oppressive forces of society at large. These movements sought to establish common purposes, core values, and a common lifestyle within local residential groups. Their internal order is established by strong leadership, consensus, and/or the exclusion of dissenters. However, these alternative religious communities emphasized expressive ideals even as they recombined them with moralities of authority, rules, and expedience—cf. Steven Tipton, Getting Saved from the Sixties (1982). Subcultural norms, based on racial, ethnic, or gender commonality, and voluntarism promoted participatory movement communities and also created tensions about the degree to which homogeneity and the suppression of conflict have to be incorporated into this contemporary view of religious community. Thus the rhetoric of community was sometimes employed to construct consensus and to erect boundaries among religious groups within a milieu increasingly characterized by fluid (i.e., constantly changing) membership.

Thus to consider the meaning of religious communities, we must consider their history, the meaning of membership, and the means by which the communal life is negotiated. Therefore, three primary meanings of the term "religious communities" should be considered: religious communities as religious orders, intentional religious communities, and organizations as religious communities.

Religious Communities as Religious Orders

Religious communities can refer to religious orders or societies that are usually based on a long history of monastic life. These religious communities share a common life based on public vows, generally close physical proximity, an anticipated lifelong commitment by members, an accepted status order within the community, and the recognized power to exclude individuals from the group. Religious orders have been especially common within Roman Catholicism but are also represented within Episcopalianism and Anglicanism. Increasingly within the United States, Buddhist monasteries are also represented.

These religious communities order their lives according to tradition-based rules governing prayer, meditation, internal governance, and work in order to pursue a common religious goal, such as the care of the needy or the life of prayer. These rules also often specify the type of food, clothing, and possessions permissible for individuals in the religious community. For example, St. Benedict (ca. 480–547 c.e.), who is commonly accepted as the father of Western monasticism, wrote a guidebook, The Rule of St. Benedict, which indicated the times when monks prayed together throughout the day, provided guidelines for the responsibilities of superiors, and outlined precepts for doing the good work mandated of members of the community. The Rule of St. Benedict continues to provide a model for communal life for diverse religious communities, such as the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (a monastic community in St. Louis, Missouri) and the White Robed Monks of St. Benedict (a San Francisco–based, nonresidential, mixed-religious group of individuals who blend the Benedictine Rule with Zen Buddhism).

These two examples highlight both a traditional type of religious community based on traditional rules and established authority and a newer type of religious community, which though also based on rules—in this case The Rule of St. Benedict —also incorporates increased voluntarism and the explicit merger of religious traditions. This latter type of religious community has more in common with the movement of "intentional religious communities" particularly evident in the contemporary United States since the 1960s.

Intentional Religious Communities

Intentional religious communities, which are sometimes also called religious communes, homesteading groups, or religious cohousing, are groups of individuals of similar or like attitudes, goals, outlook, and worldview that are comprehensive in their functions, including residential or housing provision and work opportunities actually utilized by members for subsistence production of at least some of their necessities. Though they share much of the form of religious orders, their origins are in the 1960s. Early in that decade, Al Anderson founded and served as president of the Fellowship of Intentional Communities, a North American organization founded to promote shared living, which continues to exist today. This group highlighted a cooperative community movement emerging from the social experimentation of the 1960s and based in ideals of social change. Approximately 50 percent of the 540 intentional communities listed in the Communities Directory are religious in nature.

Unlike religious communities such as orders, intentional religious communities are often more voluntaristic, with members joining and departing with greater ease. The negotiated order of daily life is often also based more on the consensus of current members, rather than on the accepted orthodoxy of inherited tradition. Intentional religious communities attract and sustain members through their emphasis on ritual experience, affective communal ties, and often prophetic leadership.

The range of beliefs, rituals, and missions of these religious communities is extremely diverse. For example, the Ananda Communities, such as the one near Nevada City, California, are based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, the first well-known yoga teacher from India to teach in the West. Ananda Communities focus on Kriya Yoga, a technique of energy control through meditation that accelerates the individual's progress toward God. Community life is based on the discipline of thought and practice toward the goal of self-transformation and global enlightenment. Another intentional religious community is L'Arche, a Roman Catholic–based residential community movement founded in 1964 by Jean Vanier to create physical and spiritual fellowships that welcome people with mental disabilities. In general, intentional religious communities currently in existence tend to have their origins in the 1960s and to provide their members with common housing, religious expression, regimens for organizing daily life, and a countercultural social life.

Organizations as Religious Communities

Frequently denominations, congregations, churches, parishes, synagogues, or missions are identified as religious communities. This usage of "religious communities" is often an effort to speak or write about the diversity of religious organizations without privileging any one organizational form—for example, denomination or parish—or without naming all possible organizational types. For example, often in telephone directories or in newspaper listings of religious services, the term employed to designate the range of religious organizational types, from house churches to pilgrimages, is "religious communities." While perhaps a useful catchall term, this designation tells the reader nothing about the range of religious participation expected from groups' members, the norms of group and individual behavior, or common ritual lives. Rather it highlights the overwhelming acceptance within the United States that religious gatherings have as their primary characteristic the communal fellowship of like-minded people. Thus what they have in common is more important than their significant diversity.

Additionally, local and national interfaith or ecumenical groups have adopted the term "religious communities" to refer to their diverse constituencies. For instance, a National Council of Churches letter to President Bill Clinton in 1998, which urged humanitarian rather than military response to Iraqi defiance of United Nations mandates, began with the following introduction: "As religious leaders, we write respectfully to offer you counsel rooted in the experience and the deeply held commitments of numerous religious communities both within and beyond our membership." Religious communities, understood within this framework, are both specific organizations, whether denominations or congregations, and religious traditions, such as Orthodoxy, Judaism, or Pentecostalism. The term demonstrates the effort of such groups as the National Council of Churches or the Interfaith Alliance to take public stances based on shared moral norms even within a multidenominational, multireligious milieu.

The effort to speak with a communal voice for contemporary voluntaristic religious gatherings is always difficult. The rhetoric of community as often used by religious groups is an effort to model modern-day participation after forms of religious life that were based primarily on the mutual reinforcement of family, religious, and neighborhood ties that no longer characterizes most religious groups in the United States. It is, however, the case that these connections among familial, religious, and neighborhood ties may still characterize some groups, especially relatively newly arrived immigrants (cf. Warner and Wittner, Gatherings in Diaspora) or subcultural groups, such as gays and lesbians, racial, or ethnic congregations.

Even a quick search of local religious websites will yield a plethora of congregations that name themselves as authentic communities of caring where physical, emotional, and spiritual needs are met. That observation is not to call into question the many religious groups that do, indeed, meet those needs for their members. However, it is also to suggest that these congregations are composed of individuals whose choices to participate and to share their possessions, time, and spiritual energy are based on personal and/or familial autonomy, rather than on traditional rules, societal expectation, or intentionally formed group norms. Modern social order has resulted in an increased mobility that has strained the ties that bound generations to the places of their ancestors and has heightened personal autonomy. These and other factors have made religious belonging increasingly portable and optional. Membership means participation for the present time. The authority of religious groups is lodged more in their ability to create strong affective ties, to provide personal and public meaningmaking, and offer ritual that promotes the experience of togetherness.

Thus religious communities are both the gatherings of like-minded faithful and the rhetorics that these groups and others employ to create and strengthen their common ties.

See alsoAttendance; Church; Communes; Congregation; Cult; Denomination; Sect.


Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton. Habits of the Heart:Individualism and Commitment in American Life. 1985.

Bounds, Elizabeth M. Coming Together/Coming Apart:Religion, Community, and Modernity. 1997.

Fellowship of Intentional Communities. CommunitiesDirectory: A Guide to Cooperative Living. 1996.

Hammonds, Phillip E. Religion and Personal Autonomy:The Third Disestablishment. 1992.

Homepage of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (

Homepage of the White Robed Monks (

Tipton, Stephen. Getting Saved From the Sixties. 1982.

Tönnies, Ferdinand. Community and Society, edited and translated by Charles E. Loomis. 1957. (Original German edition published in 1887.)

Warner, R. Stephen, and Judith Wittner. Gatherings inDiaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration. 1998.

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Nancy L. Eiesland

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Religious Communities

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