This is part of a series of posts raising questions about the impact and benefits of New Monasticism. Please refer back the Introduction for more background. Quotes in this essay are from the book being reviewed unless otherwise noted. You can contact me for a list of references cited.
The title of this series of essays is taken from the book New Monasticism, where Wilson-Hartgrove states, “Monasticism, I learned, isn’t about achieving some sort of individual or communal piety. Its about helping the church be the church.” This brief and very accessible book is, in many ways, a foundational text for the new monastic movement.
For New Monastic Communities: Perhaps one of the central issues for new monastic communities can be summed up by the title of chapter three, “A Vision So Old It Looks New.”
Recently, while reading/writing at Starbucks, a young man saw my copy of this book and asked excitedly, “Are you living in community?” He quickly identified himself with a group preparing to form a community drawn from the example of the Catholic Worker Movement. It was readily apparent that his vision is bold and prophetic…and I got the impression that it was also more than a little romanticized. I thoroughly applaud his zeal and passion; he strikes me as a very sincere guy and I pray that he and his friends will see miracles of transformation beyond their wildest imaginations. I believe New Monasticism will be a great book for him.
Wilson-Hartgrove recognizes that it isn’t in the big displays or bold public declarations that we find the essence of this movement. He says, “the real radicals aren’t quoting Che Guevara…[they] are learning to pray.” Success isn’t defined in a highly visible, popular ministry. It is 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 a real 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. But it doesn’t begin with a movement. It begins with a person. It began with God walking in the garden God created; with Jesus walking the dusty roads of Galilee and Jerusalem. It spreads to our own life and then to the lives of the very real people with whom we find ourselves experiencing community. Only then do others begin to take notice.
If this movement isn’t about doing something large and flashy, neither is it about doing something new. These fresh expressions of faith are anchored in a long history of the Spirit guiding communities in similar ways. We are not compelled to be novel nor are we to become enthralled with our own creativity. God is the author and instigator of this movement and history is filled with tremendous guides and teachers for those who would answer the call to live in such a way. Creativity is valued and freedom to experiment with fresh ideas is granted, but Peter Maurin reminds us, “we can be encouraged by signs of something new precisely because they’re signs of what God has been doing for centuries…there’s no reason to think that God is doing something in our midst that hasn’t been done before.”
For Missional Monastic Church Planting: I’ve been living this way of faith intentionally for the last several years, first as preacher attempting to connect with skeptical neighbors in the unique cultural matrix in the post-Katrina New Orleans area. Most recently I’ve been experimenting with cultivating community as a church planter among equally skeptical neighbors in the south Fort Worth area. One of the most important lessons I can point to has only become evident to me in the past couple months. Even if we model this way of life, if we don’t invite people directly into their own expression they’ll quickly find a comfortable seat in the bleachers.
“We’re living together as God’s people to see how the Bible works as a manual for how to live together as God’s people.” This statement carries incredible implications for each of the three groups we’re addressing in this essay. Yet for those who are seeking to cultivate new communities among non-Christians and new Christians it issues a special heads-up. Grassroots movements of this nature are true to the ethos of the monastics and it is exciting to serve as missionaries bearing messages of hope and revolution to the margins of society just as so many have in the past. But it is easy to inadvertently bogart the best parts of the revolution!
One of the most common questions we receive from established churches is, “where is the accountability? How do you ensure solid theology and doctrine?” As we move into abandoned places of empire, as we engage in life with marginalized people in the midst of their marginalization, as we give and receive hospitality we are faced with the very real experience of being out of control. This is precisely what the desert vision teaches us to embrace. Yet as we form new communities, new house churches and the like, our residual fears urge us to control teaching and leadership, and our new friends quickly find their niche as passive learners in a living room.
Certainly there will always be a need for educated leaders and teachers and hopefully other books will address this issue. However, New Monasticism provided great insight by reminding us that as we are sent to the margins we find that God is already there. Much to our surprise, the people we encounter have much to teach us. Our task is to come alongside, not call them to get in line behind us.
For the Established Church: One of my good friends, a priest in the Episcopal tribe, is constantly reminding me that the established church needs movements like ours and our movement needs the established church and that this is how it has always been. I believe that Wilson-Hartgrove would concur. In the final chapter he states clearly, “We’re not trying to leave the church behind and do something new on our own…We are finding our way with Jesus, and what we’re finding is that we need the church.”
The new community’s need for connection to the church – both local and historical – was briefly addressed in a previous section. My own tribe, the Churches of Christ, developed out of the Second Great Awakening on the American frontier with a strong commitment to congregational autonomy and a fiercely independent streak (true to the American ethos). Over time this devolved into generally ahistorical and isolationist tendencies which have threatened the long-term survival of the movement. A commitment to the small, organic and neighborhood life of faith cannot mean a dismissal of the larger community that has passed the faith on to us.
We will not help the church be the church by leaving the church or attacking the church. And yet, neither can we be faithful in our love for the church by remaining silent in the face of great need. The point the book makes is not that churches must sell their buildings and purchase homes for members to share, but “if the gospel is good news for everyone, we’ve 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.” One of the great contributions of this book to the established church is simply to raise the question, “what would it look like for your church, conference or denomination to engage one another and society in this way?” This book serves to spark imagination and conversation among established churches, not paint the full picture.