Category Archives: monastic

The Other Man in Black


Pick up a copy from Amazon

Within Churches of Christ, Randy Harris is well known…even infamous in some circles – which makes him all the more likable in my book. 🙂 Quirky would be a fair, though insufficient descriptor. He chooses to dress simply in black pants and black shirts everyday in order to clear away one more materialistic anxiety from his life – what will I wear today? Strangely enough, though dressing in one color, he often still manages not to match – quirky.

He has also managed to order his life as a missional monk while remaining within the Church of Christ tradition – and he far surpasses me on both accounts.
Randy teaches undergraduate theology students at Abilene Christian University, travels around the country speaking to and working with churches, and has played an integral role in shaping Mission Alive’s theology lab for church planters.

We interviewed Randy for the podcast – check it out on the page or listen here.






In his latest book, Living Jesus, he addresses the Sermon on the Mount – a section of teaching which has captivated folks, and often left them scratching their heads, for the past two thousand years.

Over time there have been countless expositions and interpretations of the text and many of them seem to fall into one of two (mis)readings of the sermon. Some see Jesus as teaching us to “out Pharisee the Pharisees” – a harsh and legalistic reading which beats the life out of its adherents. Others have basically said that the sermon is intentional hyperbole or an impossible standard. This reading tends to come from the “all people suck” camp and sees the passage as a reminder of our total depravity and need to throw ourselves at the mercy of the court. We can’t live up to this message, and Jesus knew it.

The problem with both of these readings is that we have to basically ignore the text itself to get there. Jesus directly and fearlessly critiques the Pharisee’s tendency to dwell in harsh legalism to ensure their elite awesomitude. And yet Jesus also speaks very directly about how his disciples will actually live – a deeper, more significant righteousness which grows from our identity rather than one which forms the basis of it.

I’m pretty convinced that one reason the Sermon on the Mount is often seen as unattainable is that we continue to read it the same way the Pharisees read the Law. We see a set of external rules to be obeyed rather than the description of a transformed self and society…which have come about because God is at working reconciling and restoring creation.

The bulk of Living Jesus takes us through the sermon passage by passage, considering how each piece serves to show us how to live as citizens of a new kingdom – in ways which neither legalism nor “woe is me” are capable. This reading makes considerably more sense in the context of forming a people and describing a new community…beyond just heaping expectations on the isolated individual.

Within the publishing world there seems to be a growing expectation that when we read about church or faith, we’ll do so in conversation with others. To this end, it has become common practice to include a mini study-guide at the end of each chapter or section of a book. Though the questions are often overly elementary – less challenging than I would have used with a junior high discipleship group back in the youth ministry days – I very much love what they imply.

Their presence may be a marketing strategy, but it is a strategy that suggests we’re beginning to take communal practices more seriously…even in the case of something as private as reading a book. The reminder is constantly before us – this isn’t just for you, its for us.

One aspect of Randy’s study guide is particularly exciting. Beyond just discussion questions or very general application moments, there is a specific suggestion for practice associated with each chapter. It doesn’t just say, “look for ways to be forgiving.” Instead he calls us to make a list of people we have wronged and contact one person a day for the next week (or however long it takes). Specific practice in the reader’s actual context is a powerful and needed tool. In the closing section of the book we see why this is important for Randy as well.

If you listen to the podcast you’ll notice that one of the main reasons we wanted to talk with Randy was to hear more about his work in developing a “quasi-religious order” among college-age men at ACU. This monastic community is ordered around a shared Rule of Life and covenant to living out the Sermon on the Mount.

Randy suggests – and I whole-heartedly concur – that the lack of covenanting community is a significant part of what hinders the development of discipleship in our churches and makes living according to the teachings of Jesus infinitely more difficult. He encourages Christians to consider ordering their lives more intentionally regardless of where they live or in what stage of life they currently dwell.

He recommends several excellent books to help those who wish to pursue this idea. I’d add to that a short book by Elaine Heath: Longing for Spring. Though written for a Methodist audience, it is broadly applicable for any who are looking to form intentional communities of discipleship, prayer and service – and also describes ways in which established congregations can partner with (rather than compete with or fear) these communities.

And of course, helping people form these kinds of communities in their context is exactly what we do in the Academy for Missional Wisdom…so there’s that (shameless plug).

The Sermon on the Mount is a foundational passage and it has consistently held an integral role in monastic communities throughout history. I have no reservation recommending Living Jesus as an accessible resource for groups who are currently wrestling with what it might look like to pursue more intentional community in the way of Jesus.

There is also an accompanying dvd series available from Leafwood Publishers. I haven’t seen this series, but you can check out this intro video:


Helping The Church Be The Church: Reflections on New Monasticism Part II

This book is a compilation of essays on the “12 marks” which serve as guiding principles for many new monastic communities. The introduction, written by Jonathan R. Wilson addresses issues which I believe are essential for each of our three groups to consider.
Wilson claims that, in light of the failure of the enlightenment project to fulfill its lofty promises to bring about greater peace and prosperity through scientific, technological and logical development, New Monasticism is faced with the great temptation to focus on self-preservation. This temptation must be faced head on by NM communities, missional monastic church plantings and the established church. We must balance the temptation to be driven by the bottom line and the other extreme of understanding our existence merely for the sake of the world. But how?
Wilson urges the church to remember its eschatological identity; we live in anticipation of the reign of God, practicing the Kingdom ethos now and praying for its arrival in fullness. Regardless of the expression or form the church takes, if it forgets its mission to join with God in the ministry of reconciliation; if it functions and makes decisions solely out of internal self-interest or external activism; if it is driven by the bottom line, perhaps it has forgotten what it means to be church in the first place. This is not condemnation, it is exhortation. Church, remember your first love!
For New Monastic Communities: I spoke recently to students in a graduate church planting class. At one point someone asked me what difficult and painful lessons we’ve learned. I replied, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a Christian to reimagine the life of faith as something beyond attendance.” This realization has been costly, saddening and thoroughly exhausting. And yet, a wise friend encouraged me to remember how Jesus concluded his similar statement: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
For disciples forming a new monastic community, it is vital to pray for just such a transformation. Like Peter’s conversion when he visited the household of Cornelius in Acts 10, we must recognize that it is not only the uninitiated who need to be evangelized. We are all in need of the good news breaking in more fully.
Mark #6 discusses the value of being intentionally formed in the way of Christ and the Rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate. Author David Janzen notes that we often read Jesus telling people that in order to follow him they will have to leave some things behind. He points out that this “renunciation itself is not holiness, but it creates a necessary space where the holiness of God can dwell and can reorder the disciples’ lives.” We’re like the wealthy city dweller preparing to hike up a mountain with 6 suitcases, 2 backpacks and a computer bag. We just can’t carry it all where we’re going. Even if we could, we soon we realize that most of it doesn’t make sense in the new landscape anyway.
Like the rich young ruler, we will be called to give up things which seem precious to us so that we can take hold of that which has value beyond our ability to imagine. There is absolutely no substitute for considering this cost. Having a mature guide(s) capable of listening with novices is extremely valuable.
Let new monastic communities be warned, skipping or cheapening the process of discernment will result in pain and frustration for novice and community alike. More than a mere conversation, there needs to be a season where an individual is dedicated to prayer and service alongside the community; a chance to practice the community’s Rule as a context for discerning call and commitment.
Janzen is clear to point out that this call to a novitiate process with the assistance of a spiritual director must not become a cultic community isolated from the larger church – to do so is idolatrous and will lead to disaster. A proper connection to the historic church, the present church and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the local community can lead to a vibrant life of discipleship.
For Missional Monastic Church Planting: Leah (not her real name) is a single mom raising her 4 year-old daughter and 10 year old nephew. She is attempting to do so on the meager earnings available in food service and it is increasingly difficult. Leah is distrustful of the church, but as she spends time with our family, extending and receiving hospitality has begun to reveal the goodness of the gospel in her life.
Showing hospitality to our friends is not good enough. When it comes to the cultivation of missional monastic churches among non-Christians, we are finding great wisdom in this mark of showing hospitality to the stranger. It is inconvenient and sometimes a bit terrifying to invite people we hardly know into our homes and our lives and to also enter willingly into theirs, but this is essential.
Maria Russell Kenney is right, this hospitality is not a gifting, it is a discipline “in which we are called – and invited – to grow.” It is more than an occasional gifting because it is rooted in the very nature of God and the experience of our own lives. God is the one who has come near, the one who has chosen to tabernacle with creation. God is the one who calls strangers out of obscurity into a life of being known and then sends us out to see and know others.
The call to show hospitality to the stranger is one that we can immediately invite our new friends to live into also. Michelle (not her real name) lives across the street from our co-laborers, the Chappotins. Recently several close Christian friends essentially abandoned the Chappotins after they confessed that they were struggling financially. However, when Michelle, their very skeptical-of-Christianity neighbor, heard about their situation she barged into their living room and began making plans for their two families to share meals and other expenses. The stranger offering hospitality in return is indescribably beautiful.
For the Established Church: Several years ago I was a part of a conversation about small groups. Pastors from multiple congregations were attempting to help their congregations connect more deeply with one another through the venue of small group ministry. One of our primary questions was whether to organize small groups using the homogeneous unit principle or by geographical proximity. The conversation was incredibly frustrating because it seemed to be driven by a defeatist “just the way it is” attitude which was resigned to people ignoring their neighbors.
I was a little surprised to find this issue once again being discussed in the context of planting house churches. It seemed that our commitment to our neighborhoods would settle the dispute before it began. Yet for the Christian families who joined our movement, experience told them that they would enjoy house church best if they carefully selected those with whom they’d be sharing life.
School(s) for Conversion is most helpful in that it locates the significance of geographical proximity in a more healthy place than did our dialog several years ago. We were unable to come to any consensus in that conversation and I believe it was because we weren’t asking the right questions first.
It would have been incredibly beneficial if members of new monastic communities could have spoken to us about the need for proximity emerging as a result of commitments to communal disciplines; serving this higher more important goal. If we were first committed to “common prayer, common meals, mutual confession of sins, spiritual guidance, and celebration, then geographical proximity [could have been] a great catalyst.” Instead, we attempted to pursue proximity in hopes that common practices would result.
The author highlights that we, including the members of established churches, have already chosen to organize by proximity. Yet it is primarily our closeness to school, work and favorable living conditions that has driven us, more so than proximity to members of our community. It is difficult to imagine how we can live out the call of the “one-another” passages in scripture when we see each other once a week.
It is the people in proximity sharing a common rule that really makes this principle so powerful. Most of us live near other people. Many times we are even friendly to those people, but sharing neighborhood space and sharing life are not inherently synonymous. When we do choose to engage one another more intentionally, we hold each other up through shared meals, shared celebrations and struggles…shared life. This may happen spontaneously. Probably not.
Established churches that have chosen to commit more intentionally to spiritual formation in a small group ministry may well find that geographical proximity is incredibly helpful. It will be important for these churches to remember to maintain the proper focus. Being close to others enhances our opportunities to live out the “one another” passages of scripture, it is not itself the fulfillment of those things.

Helping the Church Be The Church: Reflections on New Monasticism part I

New Monasticism by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

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.

Helping The Church Be The Church: Reflections on New Monasticism


Monasticism is about embracing the life of God. For some monastics this has meant a life of solitude; for many it is about true community (as opposed to surface level, transactional relationships). One contemporary leader of a monastic movement said, “Monasticism, I learned, isn’t about achieving some sort of individual or communal piety. Its about helping the church be the church.”

I describe our approach to church planting – which is focused on living the Way of Jesus and cultivating relationships in our neighborhoods, work places and coffee shops rather than on mass invitations to an event – as missional monasticism. (maybe that’s a post I should write as well…)

For a brief introduction to new monasticism check out and be sure to check out the post on the “12 Marks.”

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

So, that has become a guiding question in my studies at Perkins this semester. During the course of seven brief interactions with different texts, I’ll begin to anticipate how the authors of these books would respond to that very issue. Specifically, I plan to consider three primary questions. The first couple pages will review the book’s central offering to: 1) the development of new monastic communities and participants and 2) the planting and cultivation of missional-monastic communities among primarily non-Christians and new Christians.

The final section of each paper will then be dedicated to the contribution of these communities and the book influencing them to 3) the established church which wants to effectively function as the body of Christ beyond the Sunday morning worship event.

Obviously, essays of this length cannot hope to fully explore these questions; they will rather serve as springboards for further consideration, conversation and experimentation “in the field.” I’m posting rough drafts here on the blog and would love feedback. Again, this is meant to start conversations not provide a definitive response. If what you read raises questions – ask them! I’d love to have some dialog here that will benefit the refining process for this project.

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