Thursday, July 12, 2012

New Monasticism: A Form of 21st Century Church

For the past several years I have been observing with great interest the emergence of the new monasticism movement within North American Christianity, and the movement’s experiments in new ways of being church.[1]  Although its roots are largely among young disaffected evangelicals unhappy with the culture wars dividing the churches and the nation, the new monastics have a deeply ecumenical outlook nurtured by a discerning attempt to retrieve ancient Christian practices and adapt them to the needs of contemporary society.  Their project is provocative, inspiring, and challenging. 

In 1997, Shane and Katie Claiborne helped to found The Simple Way, a prototypical new monastic community in an impoverished neighborhood of North Philadelphia.  Moved by the plight of homeless people in the area, they made a decision, along with other young Christians, to live and serve among their poor neighbors.   The Simple Way members meet together for daily Morning Prayer, as well as weekly Bible study and Evening Prayer.     

Together, they founded an after-school tutoring program, a garden project, a flag football league, and a food bank.  Members of The Simple Way also lead campaigns against home evictions, hold rallies for the rights of the homeless, and a Good Friday vigil at a gun store whose products have been traced back to neighborhood shootings.  Members even went to Iraq as part of a Christian peacemaking team to provide a prayerful witness in Baghdad when the US invasion began there in 2003.

Drawing on the teaching and practice of traditional Benedictine and Franciscan monasticism, as well as the modern Civil Rights and Catholic Worker movements, The Simple Way has inspired similar communities around the country.  The new monastics form intentional Christian communities with a disciplined life of shared prayer, service, and witness, but they do not necessarily live together and include married couples and families.

These new monastics are creating a new form of church that seeks to offer a credible witness to the Way of Jesus.  As Shane Claiborne admits,

Christians have often been the biggest obstacle to God. Forgive us -- for blessing bombs, for the crusades and "holy" wars, for creating an apologetic for torture, for holding signs that say "God hates fags", starting apocalyptic militias, and blowing up abortion clinics. These things are not the Christianity of Christ. If they are Christianity, it is a Christianity that has grown sick, sick beyond recognition. It does not look like Jesus. . . .
There is a growing movement of Christians who are convinced that our faith is not just a ticket into heaven and an excuse to ignore the hells of the world around us. There is a movement of Christians who know that our Christianity is not just about going up when we die, but bringing God's Kingdom down ... "on earth as it is in heaven", as Jesus said. We are not willing to settle for a Christianity that only promises folks life after death when people are asking, "but is there life before death?"[2] 
New monastic communities take a variety of forms adapted to their circumstances, but they do share a common set of precepts.  At a gathering of new monastic communities in 2004, these were identified as the “12 Marks of New Monasticism”:

1) Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.
2) Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.
3) Hospitality to the stranger.
4) Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.
5) Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.
6) Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.
7) Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.
8) Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.
9) Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.
10) Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.
11) Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.
12) Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.
What is interesting about these marks is that they identify a way of life, a practice, which embodies Christian faith.  Over the next year, I will offer monthly reflections on each of these marks in the St. James Journal, our Facebook page, and my blog.  I invite your comments and questions as we explore what Christian practice looks like in our context.

[1] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove provides an apologia for the movement in his New Monasticism: What It Has To Say To Today’s Church.
[2] Shane Claiborne,  “Death Be Not Proud:  The Easter Gospel of Nonviolence,” published at  

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