When is a flat more than a flat?

An adventure in intentional community

Howard Webb

3 December 2018


A few days ago I caught up with a soon-to-be-married couple who are already setting in motion a plan for a very different kind of life together. They don’t dream of merely living with each other – they want to live life with others in an intentionally missional community! Even before their wedding they are putting in place a plan that may be years in the making and unfolding.

Kimberley Eccles and Christopher Barry (the two on the far left of the picture) are getting married in January – but they have already bought a house in Mt Roskill together and are in the process of turning it into a 6-bedroom flat where like-minded singles and couples can share community together.

Although they now worship at St Margaret’s Anglican Church, a 5-minute drive from their new future home, they met through a homegroup for university students under the umbrella of St Paul’s in the city when they were both at law school. It was here that they experienced the kind of community that has shaped their vision of the future.

“It was a collection of homegroups aimed at university students that we ended up calling ‘Chomp Cluster’”, explains Kim. “I think ‘chomp’ was a reflection of how much eating we did, but also how we enjoyed chewing on God’s Word. It was an open and honest space for young adults at all stages of their faith journey to enjoy community and speak about their beliefs and values in life and encounter friendship and openness. It was inclusive and focused on growth.”

Chris is equally enthusiastic. “There was a lot of diversity in that group and I really thrived on that. My heart really comes alive when I get opportunities to just include people and to see people who might not otherwise have a place where they could feel at home, find one!”

Kim believes the group found its feet when it unexpectedly lost its leader, who after forming the group had to drop out 6 months later due to serious illness. It became an internally self-driven group that did community particularly well – serving each other and watching out for each other. “These are still the people that we are journeying with and doing life with in really significant ways almost 9 years on.”

As folk left university and moved away, the group started to move apart. “When this was happening we started joking that we were going to buy a ‘Chomp house’ to live in”, laughs Kim. “It was a joke at first but the more I thought about it the more I wondered ‘why not?’. What if we had a community that was as committed to each other as to family, willing to make choices and sacrifices for the sake of the community?”

Chris believes that intentional communities such as they are describing can provide an important way of belonging and experiencing family in a society that is increasingly fractured and lonely. “There are lots of people out there talking about this idea,” says Chris. “I see this as new family spaces that God is carving out in our society where people can experience manaakitanga - hospitality, kindness, generosity and support.”

On a recent trip to Waitangi for Waitangi Day they were discussing their future home together and were wrestling with the question of home ownership. Christopher was not keen to make the commitment if it did not line up with their life values, but as they discussed the matter they began to see that home ownership and living in and building community could be mutually supportive.

At the celebration a woman came up to them and had a word for them, which they interpreted as: “don’t buy property for the equity, buy so that you can move closer to your community”. A few hours later, Kim got a text message from her mother who had just seen a house that she wondered might be right for the community Kim had been imagining. Things all lined up in quick succession and now they own their future ‘Chomp house’!

Chris has moved in and has three flatmates, two of whom they know from St Paul’s days. Everyone understands the growing ethos of the flat but Chris admits that the practicalities of life mean that establishing rhythms of sharing some meals and looking outwards together is not easy. “It requires being conscious of each other’s needs and choosing to live in orientation towards each other,” says Chris. “We need to all want it and be willing to sacrifice for one another. We are still learning, and we frequently get it wrong!”

I ask the question: does this look like church? Chris tells me that sharing worship and prayer together has been a wonderful and joyful experience for the present flatmates on occasion, but they do not see this as a church replacement. “Some might say that this is what healthy Church looks like - but we don’t want to be a replacement. We want to support local church. We also don’t want the flat to become a rule-based ‘you must do’ or ‘you must come’ place. Where people are at with God changes from time to time and we want this community to be for people wherever they are at,” explains Kim.

Are they dreaming of changing the world? They tell me of how inspired they have been by the work of the so-called ‘Clapham Sect’ in 19th century London, a missional community that did indeed change the world (a great article can be found here). 

“We have a real belief in the power of community,” says Chris. “We have no idea how it’s going to go. We believe if we look after the community the ideas will come, provided we share a common passion for the kingdom of God and the world we live in.”

Love Your Neighbour looks forward to updating this story in due course!