Helping the Church Be the Church: The Contribution of the New Monasticism

Bret Wells

“Monasticism, I learned, is not about achieving some sort of individual or communal piety. It is about helping the church be the church” (Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove).

A respected teacher and theologian, invested in issues of justice for the oppressed once asked me, “What does the ‘new monastic’ movement really have to offer the church that is substantially different?”

There are plenty of cultural adaptions to faith that rise and fall on the whims of society. Programs abound, models are prepackaged and practically sold at Wal-Mart. Many are exciting and even show short-term promise. Yet repeatedly we discover that they fail to reach down into the deeper issues plaguing our body.

Is new monasticism any different? Is anything of substance being added to the larger Christian conversation by new monastics and those dedicated to the cultivation of whole-life discipleship through participation in missional community? Are we simply dealing with another round of cosmetic treatments without addressing the disease affecting the health of the church in North America and beyond? Should those preparing for ministry in our contemporary landscape care about new monasticism?

We may disagree about the cause or even the specific symptoms, but many of us have a sense that something is not quite right with the church in America. In my life and work as a church planter I meet people almost daily — Christians and non-Christians alike — who echo this sentiment. Maybe you feel it or maybe you do not, but I am confident that you know others who do.

Often our experience of faith seems lonely, isolated, disconnected — a far cry from the stories of vibrant communities described in Acts. It is precisely in times such as these that monastic communities arise. And these communities are a blessing from God for the church, giving evidence that the promise of new life is truly available here, now, with these people.

Often, when I speak about monasticism, people immediately conjure images of cloistered monks living in the desert, chanting while they march around in robes. There is no doubt that robes make an excellent vintage fashion statement, but making a statement is not really the point.

The new monasticism (much like the old) is about a life of prayer and service in community. Neo-monastics may in fact inhabit a communal house. They may share life in the midst of a block, a neighborhood, or simply the same town. They may relocate to “the abandoned places of the empire” or they may strive to model rhythms of sanity and faith in the suburban milieu.

With that in mind, I encourage you to explore the following resources as both an introduction and an invitation to a life less (and more) ordinary.

New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Brazos, 2008)

This brief and accessible book is a foundational text for the new monastic movement. In less than 150 pages we are introduced to new monasticism, given twelve marks to grasp what it looks like, and reminded that the likelihood of failure is immense if we are disconnected from either the larger church or our local context.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove claims that it is not in the big displays or bold public declarations that we find the essence of the new monastic movement. He says that “the real radicals are not quoting Che Guevara…[they] are learning to pray” (42). Success is not defined in a highly visible, popular ministry. It is often contained in the small and seemingly insignificant.

And yet within these “insignificant” encounters, enormous things are taking place. The seed of a new empire is planted and hope for an actual Lord other than Caesar begins to spread. It spreads life-to-life and house-to-house until whole neighborhoods, communities, and cultures are infected.

In the final chapter he states, “We are not trying to leave the church behind and do something new on our own…. We are finding our way with Jesus, and what we are finding is that we need the church” (141). The point is not that churches must sell their buildings and purchase homes for members to share. Instead, New Monasticism communicates that, “if the gospel is good news for everyone, we have got to find ways to make that real for the whole church…. My point is not that churches ought to imitate new monastic communities but that another way is possible” (69-70).

School(s) for Conversion: Twelve Marks of a New Monasticism (Cascade, 2005)

School(s) serves as a textbook for the Schools for Conversion, an approach to education through immersion in new monasticism. After a fantastic introduction by J.R. Wilson, itself worth the price of the book, the twelve marks described in New Monasticism are each expounded in turn. Each mark is addressed by a different author, thus, emphasizing the value of a community of harmonious voices together.

Part of what makes these essays so powerful is that their content stems from the synergy of deep theological reflection and actual engagement in monastic rhythms. The reader is given a glimpse, as Wilson communicates in the introduction, into a lived eschatology that refuses to restrict or “line up our living with ‘the way things are’ in this age” (5). It is unlikely that any one community will fully embody all twelve of these marks, but their presence has been widely modeled across cultural contexts.

Inhabiting the Church: Biblical Wisdom for a New Monasticism (Cascade, 2007)

I have not been asked to take many vows in my life as a Christian in the US. I have signed conduct agreements with universities and accountability contracts with small groups, but outside of my baptism and marriage I cannot recall many commitments that have adequately carried the weight of the word “vow.”

Inhabiting the Church addresses this somewhat common lack of experience by examining the value and implications of the Benedictine vows (conversion, obedience and stability), particularly as they have been implemented within new monastic communities comprised primarily of Free Church Protestants.

For some, the very idea of taking vows seems restrictive and oppressive. However, the authors suggest that such a notion could not be further from the truth. Vows provide positive landmarks for the path forward. These vows cultivate an expectation that to be the people of God in a certain place is not merely about abstaining; it is about embracing—embracing community, rhythm, a new economy, the presence of Christ. Dreaming and vision casting for the future of the church does not have to be novel and flashy; perhaps, this ancient well of wisdom contains fresh water for thirsty travelers.

The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (Paraclete, 2010)

Having co-written Inhabiting the Church, J. Wilson-Hartgrove elaborates on the vow of stability in this challenging book. Indeed, choosing to commit to a place and a people is very difficult in our hyper-mobile culture. It may include declining a promotion, choosing not to move into the larger house you always wanted, or sticking it out with someone you simply do not like.

This book addresses practical ways we can begin to cultivate the wisdom of stability. It also considers the temptations of the “midday demons” such as boredom, ambition, and self-importance.

The Wisdom of Stability is far from simplistic idealism. The book deals with the fact that committing to a place almost guarantees that it will change all around you. “Commit yourself to a church or neighborhood and its people will move on…. Stability can begin to sound like wishful thinking…. Maybe we have to be realistic…. But I suspect that we lose something of stability’s power when we reduce it to something realistic” (22-23).

The place and the people may be located in an urban center, a “bad” neighborhood, a sprawling suburb, or a college town. The point is not where, for as the author states, “If real life with God can happen anywhere at all, then it can happen here among the people whose troubles are already evident to us” (24). Make no mistake. Monasticism (new or old) is about an intentional commitment to life with God and others.

The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World’s Poor (InterVarsity, 2006)

A friar is, in essence, a monk on the move. As one might suspect, The New Friars differs somewhat from the previous works discussed in this series of vignettes. One of the twelve marks of new monasticism is relocation to the “abandoned places of the empire.” In this book, S. Bessenecker sets out to describe the prophetic call to relocate, not only to abandoned places of the Western Empire, but also to the abandoned corners of the globe. Friars, new and old, often take a vow to live in non-destitute poverty among the poorest of the poor. Solidarity with the world’s poor involves binding themselves to the poor and experiencing their fate.

This book provides an inspiring depiction of how an increasing number of Jesus’ disciples are living out their calling to love others in places where hope is dangerously close to extinction. It should be noted, before the reader’s blood pressure spikes, that Bessenecker acknowledges, “The call of the friars to bind themselves to the poor in a vocational way is a particular call, not a universal one. The universal call to any who profess to follow Jesus is to believe that he is the Son of God and to act like it, no matter what we do for a living” (172).

God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel (Zondervan, 2009)

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove believes in a theology of abundance, and invites us to approach God with a desire to be blessed with a rich and full life; that is, we ask the Father for our inheritance of great wealth. Meanwhile, he seeks to show that in the new (or very old) economy of the kingdom, wealth and success are defined in much greater terms than in the present society, and even in a way that many of our fellow Christians fail to fully grasp.

God’s Economy provides a clear framework for positively embracing the economy of abundance in God’s kingdom. The five tactics of Jesus described in this book provide us ample evidence that another way of living is not only possible, but is modeled by Christ. These tactics highlight the biblical precedent for a commitment to invest in a new economy and lay out practical suggestions for beginning. Those who are considering or have decided to covenant with others to live in such a way will find this book exceedingly beneficial in processing the theological foundations and practical realities.

In the context of God’s economy, it is difficult to imagine single mothers still struggling to decide whether to pay the electric bill or to buy groceries. Would there be any way an elderly widower would die alone because she could not get out of her house and did not want to burden her children who live in another state?

The kingdom of God will not support such travesties; they are unsustainable in God’s economy. You do not have to move into a large house with several other people to see this kind of community develop. It may take more work if you do not automatically see each other everyday, but it is far from impossible. Imagine the possibilities!

Longing For Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community (Cascade, 2010)

Although specifically addressed to a Wesleyan audience, E.A. Heath and S.T. Kisker have issued a call to the church at large with this short book. Perhaps what is most striking is the clear conviction that something new is possible, even within reach, for established churches. The formation of new monastic communities does not have to be seen as competition or rebellion, but can be embraced as a faithful and powerful ministry of the church with deep roots in our various traditions.

The desire for authentic community and the call to live out whole-life discipleship beyond membership in an organization is in no way a new impulse in Christianity. As others have done before, Longing for Spring explores some of the different expressions that have arisen throughout our history, from the Benedictines and Beguines to Pietists, and most notably, the early Methodists.

As professors and leaders within the established, seminary context of United Methodism, Heath and Kisker provide a much-needed balance to the conversation of new monasticism. Both their presence and their words make it more difficult to dismiss the monastic impulse as mere youthful naiveté or idealism. Leaders in the established church seeking to discern if there is something of value and substance in the new monastic conversation need look no further than their peers to find an affirmative response.

The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community (Jossey-Bass, 2008)

Although The Tangible Kingdom is not technically a book on monasticism, its focus on the creation of incarnational community provides an inspiring glimpse into precisely the type of life the new monasticism seeks to cultivate.

Whereas some offer a concise vision of inhabiting the church, H. Halter and M. Smay convey the equally powerful invitation to inhabit the neighborhood. The authors focus on those habits that provide a lens rather than a program to create space for community development. They encourage us to be willing to leave the place of comfortable and easy in order to connect with people (ch. 15), to listen carefully to the spoken and unspoken needs in those we encounter (ch. 16), to authentically engage and live among the culture around us (ch. 17), and to love others with no strings attached (ch. 18). These rhythms encourage us to embrace community in the way of Christ.

Whether your context is (or will be) the formation of a new monastic community, ministry with established churches, church planting, or simply living wholeheartedly on mission with God and others, this book addresses both the challenges and possibilities of incarnational community.

These eight books are just a sample of the resources available describing the value and contribution of new monasticism. The stories are as diverse as the contexts from which they arise and yet the message is consistent: We were created to experience community with God and others. The acceptance of anything less is a tragedy. With respect to the question of whether the new monasticism has anything substantial to offer the church, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” The best and most consistent response to what that offering includes might simply be, “Come and see.”

Posted Feb 01, 2012