At first blush, the whole "tiny home" movement looks extreme. Who would want to live in a closet?
I confess to an obsessive curiosity into stories of such frugal and cramped living. One of the reasons is seeing the ingenuity it takes to use space efficiently, without compromising livability. Even without the engineering and design ingenuity, these stories also reveal the resilience of humans.
As one extreme example, here's a video about an 82 square foot apartment in Japan:
There are also plenty of stories of whole families living in one-room apartments. Like this one:
But if you pierce through your own incredulity and outrage, you can learn from this very different way of living. In fact, I believe these examples could even convict you to find a way to live with greater purpose and peace, to live out a life impacted by the Gospel.
A large home is a desire, not a truth or right
Most people presume that they need a certain amount of space to live. They often have some preconceived notion of what the amount should be.
But that premise deserves examination. Often the amount of space is a desire, but not truly a hard requirement. Because the premise leads to many other choices which can run counter to spiritual growth and missional effectiveness, its worth really digging into.
Compared to other first world countries (the story further proves this point if we expand our scope to include non developed countries), the U.S. has a higher average square footage for residential floor space. This illustrates that, in part, the amount of living space is largely a cultural choice, not a universal truth:
People in Sweden, Japan, and London live in less than half the average size of residence. I would agree that some of the extremes, such as Hong Kong, could be pushing the bounds of what’s comfortable and humane. But this potential discomfort doesn't mean Christians should dismiss it out of hand. This means there is flexibility in the amount of space one really needs....and that flexibility may not entail the amount of sacrifice we image it requires.
That the size of one's home is not a fixed requirement, but an elastic desire, can be seen in the change in home sizes in the United States:
According to the above, not only did the amount of space increase, but the average household size decreased. If the average household size did, in fact, increase one could argue that growth caused the increase in squads footage. But it didn’t happen that way. Families grew smaller while homes grew bigger.
If the size of one’s home is, in fact, determined by one’s desires, expectations, and mindset, why should a family consider a smaller footprint? From a practical perspective, living in a smaller home reduces the costs of living.
The Higher Costs of Living Have a Higher Cost
A larger house will result in a higher cost of living. The larger mortgage, the greater number of things to fill the space, and the more time spent in maintenance all contribute to this higher cost. Supporting that higher cost of living results in working longer hours with less time for family and service.
That lifestyle of less time and less money runs counter to that of the early church:
Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44-47)
This picture of the early church that grew in the numbers of those saved had two major attributes: 1) the daily "breaking bread" and worship "in the temple" and 2) the meeting of the others’ basic needs.
The frenetic life that comes from keeping up with high costs of living interferes with both. When one has long hours, travel, and stress from working in demand jobs to pay for a high cost of living, one will likely not have much time to spend with others daily. When one has debt or high on-going expenses, one will not be able to help those in need.
Downsizing will not solve all problems of time and money, but it certainly is a contributing factor.
Consider the following distribution of costs for the average home:
Sometimes solving for one solves for the other.
For example, many jobs are in the urban centers. Yet because of the cost of real estate, many people seek a larger home that's further from their jobs.
A smaller home could cost the same or potentially less in the city than in an expensive suburb of the same city. It's not always true -- but for those for whom it is true, doing so reduces both the time and costs of commuting.
Commuting adds costs through car maintenance, gas, as well as time and stress.
When these pressures mount, what is most likely to be sacrificed is time spent in fellowship with others. That is a trade-off between the comforts of the world and the comforts of the spirit.
The tension is real.
But I believe that a willingness to truly downsize is a spiritual exercise which too many people overlook.
Missional Living Without Going Abroad
If you were to go on a missions trip, would you insist on living in a space more grandiose and palatial than those you are doing with life?
One of the many challenges missionaries overcome is living at a standard of living they aren't used to. I confess that's probably one of the big reasons I am not packing up my family to go to Asia or Latin America for missions: I like the space and convenience of living in the United States.
But we are all called to sacrifice some measure of comforts to reach the lost. We don't have to go abroad to do so.
It challenges ones need for possessions. Shrinking the square footage of your living space not only encourages fewer possession, but that extra room, or study, or giant-sized kitchen can all be considered possessions.
And he said to them, “Take care, be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.
When I looked at these photographs of different bedrooms children from around the world live in, I realized the depths to which I take things for granted.
I'm not equating living in smaller spaces with being a missionary. I'm not advocating we live in squalor if God has gifted us with means to live otherwise.
I'm advocating that we broaden our perspective and challenge assumptions of the amount of space we really need to live in. That living in a smaller space, in a very small way, makes us more self-aware and empathetic to the living conditions of others.
Living in a smaller space will potentially free up emotional and temporal space to experience Christian community as it was intended.
Living in a smaller space also has direct practical implications of lowering costs and reducing unnecessary possessions.
Doing so doesn't make one more or less "holy" or "spiritual" than the other.
But I think it's an important way to stretch ourselves and to not conform to the ways of the world.