Category Archives: new monasticism

Emerging Church / Alternative Worship

Someone asked me recently if I still keep up with Emergent/Emerging Church “stuff.”

Not really, though its hard to say these days – what constitutes “emerging” anymore? If we’re talking Peter Rollins, I’m still intrigued – but that’s because he’s actually doing some theology. (I’m looking forward to picking up his new book Insurrection next month.) For the most part I’ve backed away from Emergent not because I think they’re too liberal or because I’m afraid of some kind of guilt by association.

I’ve backed off because frankly, I got bored with the whole alternative worship conversation.

This of course is a gross overgeneralization, but it seems that after a while what I was hearing/seeing in this conversation was just 21st century hipster modernism. We find an old warehouse, add candles, sit in the round and viola – we’re emergent. And yet the conversation is still focused on what we do during the once-a-week event. When our theology makes implicit claims on our living based on explicit claims on our gathering, I don’t really think it matters how good it is – it stops short.

I recently saw Kester Brewin’s article titled Into the ‘Year of Opposition’ (thanks to Tony Jones’ fb post) in which a side comment was made suggesting that New Monasticism may be a redressing of the old while the “alternative worship” types represent the radical new. I’ve already admitted that I’m somewhat out of the loop here – I’m not entirely sure what “stuff” Brewin’s been doing that is gaining opposition, so I need more before I make too many assumptions.

There may be much more to the conversation than I’m currently aware, but I have a hard time seeing that alternative worship will truly be the more “radical” position – even compared to fairly liturgical contexts in which many new monastic communities worship. The reason? The aim of new monasticism is first about incarnating the gospel in community and only then about how that calls us to gather for worship, whereas the alternative or emerging worship stuff seems to go the other way around. I could be wrong here…and if anybody who’s more in the know wants chime in, I’d appreciate it.

I still find some of McLaren’s stuff interesting and helpful – I highly recommend his recent book, Naked Spirituality: A Life With God In 12 Simple Words. Brian is certainly still a figurehead of emerging church – but he tends to focus on more broad issues of ecclesiology than just the setting/focus of the worship gathering.

Maybe once I get this dissertation finished I’ll catch up on what I’ve missed – who knows, there may be a new depth to the conversation.


Helping the Church Be the Church: Conclusion

Over the last couple months I’ve been reading a whole mess o’ books written by and about the new monasticism. (You can read the intro to the series here). I haven’t really set out to give a full synopsis of the books, but rather consider certain contributions they might make to different groups. In this final post I offer a few closing comments.
The Church is so much more than a powerful organization. In being joined to the Church we have the opportunity to receive a foretaste of the fulfillment of God’s intention for creation. Community, just as God is community. Interestingly the biblical images of Body of Christ and Church are not merely different ways of understanding ecclesiology. They are theology of the first order. Because the Church is the Body of Christ we catch a glimpse of the Trinitarian God we serve. God is one God and three persons. The Church is one body with many parts.
To function as an organization, club or loosely connected gathering of individuals is to be shortchanged in our experience of the Trinity…and the great beauty that is the Body of Christ. The new monastic movement, like the prophetic influence of previous monastics, reminds the church of the centrality of community in our theology. The purpose of community is much deeper than mere fellowship. We are community because God is Community and we are created in the image of God.
While the new monastics should not claim to have a monopoly on communal expressions of life and faith, there should be little legitimate debate that, in the West at least, the Church is in dire need of good models of community.
Not everyone will be called to experience community and express their faith in the same manner as the new monastics. Monastic orders throughout history, as several of our books have attested, have functioned with the understanding that theirs is a particular calling rather than a universal one. Yet to the established church, those who heed the call to monastic living offer hope that it is possible to begin experiencing greater tastes of heaven even now. It is possible to cultivate community that extends beyond transactional relationships and convenient circumstances. It is possible to make the difficult decision to align oneself with the poor, marginalized and overlooked. It is possible because Christ is already at work in these things.
The decisions made to live simply and to step out of the line to upward mobility; to reject coercive power and embrace life lived in connection and submission to others are decisions that carry both criticism and hope. They offer a prophetic call to everyone. As I recently said to a friend, “You may not be called to take the same risks for Christ that I have, but you are called to risk nonetheless. Whatever it looks like for you to follow Christ, you should embrace it wholeheartedly.”
This is a message that the new monastics offer the Church. You may not be called to live among the homeless in Philadelphia, or battle racism in deep south. You may not be called to form a ministry to street kids in Boulder or spend a season living in one of the slum communities across the globe, but I guarantee there is an aspect of God’s mission that you are called to embrace. The new monastics not only call the Church to hear and respond to the mission of God but also to do so in community rather than isolation.
If we take seriously the prayer that Jesus taught us, we will not be satisfied until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. If we aren’t making a conscious choice to live that way ourselves, at least among a small community of people, then our lives declare we are already satisfied.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove set the tone of this paper with his conviction that the role of new monasticism is to “help the church be the church.” If we expect the new monastics to offer something unique and novel to be considered substantive, then we are using a matrix that the new monastics themselves would reject. The value of the monastic contribution is not found in its creativity, per se, but in the simplicity of ancient wisdom which throughout human history has drawn people out for the benefit of us all. This movement is filled with monks and prophets that are putting flesh on issues of justice, reconciliation, freedom, community, whole-life discipleship, prayer, worship, evangelism and stewardship.
The value of this movement extends beyond its ability to bring about neighborhood renewal (as great as that is). The monastic rejection of passive consumer Christianity provides opportunity for each of us; for whole congregations and denominations, to examine our own complicity and respond in a way that is true to Christ’s claim on his Church.
The books that have been all too briefly addressed in this paper present a picture that transcends youthful rebellion or a postmodern reaction to the perceived ills of previous generations. They describe a commitment to whole life discipleship without ever claiming to be descriptions of THE commitment to such. There is little in this movement that strives to be truly novel or unique. Some of it feels such, given the typically individualistic experiences of faith in the West. Solidarity with the poor and oppressed is important. Connection to community is undeniably central, but there are certainly Christians of all stripes, found in all contexts who value such things.
Monastics are not the only ones reclaiming the values of prayer, scripture reading, worship, confession and spiritual disciplines outside of set religious gatherings. Unique or not, both historical monasticism and its contemporary expressions have a record of commitment to these values with a prophetic call for the Church to reclaim them as well.
Regardless of what “type” of church we find ourselves in, there are ways in which the new monasticism is poised to help that church be the Church.

Helping the Church Be the Church: Part VIII

If you are new to this series, you can read the intro here. This post contains excerpts from 3 sections of my essay on The New Friars.

The New Friars differs slightly from the previous works discussed in this series of vignettes. Each of the books have described, to one degree or another, the call to the simplified, stable, communal life of the new monastics. One of the 12 Marks of new monasticism is relocation to the abandoned places of the empire. That commitment, perhaps one of the more easy to spot marks, has been displayed by groups sharing space with the homeless in Philadelphia, families living and working together on a farm; a small community of folks sharing life in a large house or even moving into a neighborhood together. We’ve seen a few who were willing to spend a season in India with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Mercy.
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. For the new friars, solidarity with the world’s poor extends beyond drinking fair trade coffee and boycotting globalization megastores that perpetrate the dehumanization of the two-third’s world. Instead the new friars are those who have left behind any number of comforts, friends and security to instead bind themselves to the poor and experience their fate. Friars, new and old, often take a vow to live in non-destitute poverty among the poorest of the poor.
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, no matter what we do for a living.”
Last week someone made an unnerving comment regarding my life as a church planter. “Not everyone is called to take their faith so seriously and do something as crazy as what your family has done. Most people are just called to be normal Christians.”
Not every preacher is called to leave their steady paycheck and begin starting new congregations…praying that eventually God would bring along a workable financial situation. Though, perhaps rather than people being called to leave the “secular” workforce to receive training and be ordained as full-time clergy, more clergy will be called to learn the holiness of a secular vocation; called to embrace life in their community, to relieve the financial burden of struggling congregations that don’t have anything left to give away after paying the bills.
Not every family is called to relocate in order to live, work and play among the marginalized. Though, I am convinced that every family should be aware of the marginalized, overlooked, forgotten and oppressed people that are already in their midst (they’re there, I can almost guarantee it).
I find little evidence to suggest there is now or ever was such a creature as a “normal Christian.” We are a peculiar people, called to follow the Way of the Risen King. We are those who both experience and anticipate a new existence. Living into this seemingly abnormal calling will not look identical from person to person and community to community. However, whatever it is we are called into, we should, with both confidence and humility, enter into that calling with the same prayer, commitment and dedication that any other person enters into theirs. Those who carry the name of Christ are those who display the new normal…even if it still appears abnormal to most people.
For New Monastic Communities: The New Friars does represent a slightly different calling than that which we have dealt with most commonly in this series. Hearing and responding to a call to voluntary poverty, particularly abject poverty among communities with little or no hope of recovery, is a weighty but worthwhile endeavor. It is not necessarily the same as the choice to live simply or to chose the path of downward mobility in community. It is a choice to, like Christ, live as hope among the hopeless; not swooping in as an aloof savior from on high, but settling in to share in the plight of those you love. The new friars are those who align themselves with the truly forgotten and oppressed because they are convicted God has done so as well.
New monastic communities will benefit from the expectation of these new friars, as described by Bessenecker. There is little hope for neighborhood renewal on a grand scale (at least immediately) for those living in the slums among the world’s poor. Their goal is to love. Their goal is to share in the ministry of presence. To be there and to remind others that God was already there.
There is a temptation among Western (or perhaps all) monastic communities to locate success in the neighborhood and societal reforms that our presence has influenced. We describe neighborhood watch programs, community picnics, reduction in crime, rezoning legislation, return of police presence, crackdowns on slumlords and drug-dealers.
These are certainly exciting, and precisely the kinds of effects we might expect to find in the wake of Jesus. Still, there is a danger of becoming a social agency whose existence is defined, not by the presence of Christ, but by the success of our projects. Will we remain faithful even if the police never respond to our 911 calls? Will we maintain solidarity with these people if the slumlord and the drug dealer continue to hold sway? Will we chose to stay if the schools continue to deteriorate and the medical care is still just out of reach?
The new friars encourage us to say, “Yes!” followed by a deeply felt, “come Lord Jesus.”
For the Established Church: In the book, Bessenecker mentions his work, and that of several organizations, in recruiting students and young adults to live, for a season, among the world’s poor. It strikes me that churches should be leading the way in sending missionaries out to proclaim life, light and hope. Bessenecker notes that throughout history the periodic times of renewal and reform have typically been led (from a human viewpoint) by youth17 and this new movement appears to be no different.
With that said, why is it that most of our churches experience disturbingly high percentage of teenagers graduating from high school and leaving the church altogether? Perhaps our kids no longer recognize the Church as a valid place to be a part of something revolutionary and worthwhile.
I recently attended a conference where Alan Hirsch made the comment that Western Christians have attempted to eliminate risk from our lives and in so doing we’ve lost our sense of adventure and we’ve lost out on the full and passionate life available to us. Jim Rayburn, founder of the Christian parachurch ministry, Young Life, was known to say, “Its a sin to bore a kids with the gospel.” Perhaps in our attempts to keep our kids entertained we’ve bored them all the more.
What if in addition to using the latest technology, relevant speakers, music and free food to call kids to pledge sexual purity, avoid drugs and recycle, we also invite young people to join Christ in changing the world? What if, instead of ski trips in Colorado, we dedicated resources to introducing our young people opportunities for solidarity with the poorest of the poor? What if our churches once again became the primary sending ground for radical missionaries of hope?
Throughout this series of papers, we’ve acknowledged that though there are often ways in which the principles can be applied and the prophetic call can be invigorating, many established congregations will either not be willing, not be able or not be called to transition wholly into more monastic expressions of faith. In this case, it may be that the Spirit, through Bessenecker’s work, may be calling us to, once again, “Set apart… Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

Helping the Church Be the Church: Part VII – Inhabiting the Church

If you are new to this series, you can read the intro here. This is an excerpt from my essay which takes a look at what Inhabiting the Church has to offer Christian communities of different kinds. I’ve included a passage from the intro and church planting sections.
I haven’t been asked to take many vows in my life as a (non Roman Catholic) Christian in the US. I exchanged vows with a beautiful young lady in 2000. A decade before that I heard a call to enter into a most incredible covenant through baptism. I understood that certain things were expected of me…but mostly I was just asked if I believed. I have signed conduct agreements with universities and accountability contracts with small groups, but outside of my baptism and marriage I can’t recall any relationships 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, particularly as they have been implemented within new monastic communities comprised primarily of free church Protestants.
Even setting aside momentarily our issues with the taking of vows, the three Benedictine promises of conversion, obedience and stability are perhaps themselves somewhat foreign among many Christian groups. The values of individualism and autonomy which cause us to cringe at the thought of being held down by vows also react to any claims of authority which expect obedience or the subjection of our personal freedoms. Yet, the authors claim, this is precisely what Jesus and indeed the whole corpus of Scripture demand.
At first glance conversion doesn’t appear too radical…until we consider that both internal AND external changes are expected. Many Protestants, especially those from more biblicist traditions, are used to the idea of obedience…until it is revealed that for the Benedictines this includes declaring our intent to be obedient to a community and even a human leader. Stability is fine as long as we’re referring to financial stability and our friends accepting the tough decisions we’ll have to make to do what’s best for our family…we’re not? Oh, then we all agree that’s ridiculous.
For Church Planting: One aspect of the Benedictine vows that struck me while reading this book was their positive and constructive nature. Those who feel called to a life that is dissimilar to the prevalent culture are often tempted to understand their identity in negative terms; they’re tempted to define themselves by what they are rejecting. It is easy for those setting out to cultivate community and plant new faith communities to think in terms of what they’ve left behind and how they are different from traditional churches.
While there is certainly a place for thinking through and critiquing the status quo, this is not a sufficient expression of identity, nor does it provide a compelling vision for the community. The vows of obedience, conversion and stability 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. It is about embodying hope and announcing the new kingdom.
The authors state that, “Conversion is a way of life that must be practiced.” This vision for our community is one that inspires excitement. We are learning to expect God to break into our lives and transform each of us regularly. We expect to see miracles in the lives of our friends and we anticipate ways in which God will allow us to witness glimpses of the kingdom even in the lives of our non-Christian neighbors.
Within my own community, we are becoming increasingly convinced that long periods without such experiences should be considered aberrations that can often occur when, 1) we’re not regularly seeking the kingdom and the presence of the King for our own continued transformation and 2) we aren’t praying specifically for the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.
We are not creating a counter-culture merely for the sake of being counter-cultural, we are inviting people to join us on a journey into new life. Yet the reality is that the essence of this journey does run counter to the systems of this world. Those who would invite others to follow the Way of Christ are wise to consider the role of vows taken in community. The life of church planting is incredibly hectic and unpredictable. Our network is convinced that no one should plant alone, but this conviction alone is insufficient. The Benedictine vows represent some very specific areas of struggle and temptation for church planters and provide equally specific tools for combatting these trials.
The book opens with an essay on the legitimacy of vows in general and confesses that, “if vows are applicable for new monasticism, they can only be such in a setting where face-to-face encounter is a daily reality. I suspect that vows, ultimately, are only as true as the life together that they represent.” Upholding a commitment to whole life discipleship in community is imbedded in the very nature of these vows.

Helping the Church Be the Church: Part VI – God’s Economy

If you are new to this series of posts, you can read the intro here. This post is somewhat longer than others as it includes excerpts from the introduction as well as sections on missional monastic church planting and the established church.

Sometimes, when I’m alone with my thoughts, I am afraid they made a poor decision. Nevertheless, it is easy for me to name a long list of wise, godly men and women who have made a considerable investment of time, money and even their own lives in me personally and in my development as a leader. To whatever degree I have learned, matured and grown in leadership, I owe a debt of gratitude to the Spirit of God at work in these teachers, advisers, coaches and friends; a work that continues to this day.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s work in God’s Economy emphasizes the value this type of investment over a carefully and meticulously crafted stock portfolio, retirement account, business venture or McMansion in the ‘burbs.
He believes in a theology of abundance and invites us to approach God with a desire to be blessed with a rich and full life; we ask the Father for our inheritance of great wealth. Meanwhile he sets out to show that in the new (or very old) economy of the Kingdom, wealth and success are defined in much greater terms than society and even many of our fellow Christians realize.
Some of the accepted wisdom passed on in the Church and in seminaries reflects this confusion of economies and reflects Western business principles more so than the radical abundance of God. Preachers and televangelists wearing two thousand dollar suits telling the lonely widow to invest her money in their ministry so that God will give her more money in return are an easy target in this conversation. But perhaps the danger goes deeper and is more subtle than that.
Few people significantly challenge the tenured and well-respected professor at a certain seminary who teaches future ministers that they cannot have true community within the congregation they serve because they are an employee that can be fired at will. I hope and pray that he is wrong, but I think he’s accurately describing the present situation. What disturbs me is not that he is wrong, but that neither he, nor those who hang on his words seem to believe this is a travesty which must be eradicated.
More recently I remember a conversation with a good friend and coach who was reflecting on something said to him by a friend and advisor to us both. He said, with a hint of resignation, that as we grow up we must accept that spending time with good friends is probably redefined as regular phone calls and an occasional get-together for coffee or a meal. The reality is that we are busy and highly mobile. Our close friends will move away and our work keeps us from being able to spend face-to-face time with them regularly. That conversation has haunted me since.
Wilson-Hartgrove highlights a reality that many outside the white, middle class seem to know intuitively; the lifestyle of isolation and upward mobility is not the only choice.
I have several Hispanic friends who are part of a community in Dallas. Some of them are doing well financially, many of them are not. Some of the families have lived here in the States for two or three generations, quite a few grew up in Mexico and came here for a fresh start. Some speak perfect English, most used to push me to dust off my Spanish if I wanted to communicate. All of them know how to party.
It is not about impressive presentation or outdoing the last soiree. I’ve heard that all Hispanics need for a party is grass and Corona. That statement, meant as a joke, actually provides a glimpse into a worldview that is rich in the new economy.
I don’t remember many of their gatherings, formal or informal, that didn’t involve a feast. I don’t remember a single one of those feasts being catered and I don’t remember ever wishing one had been. They taught me to put my grill in the front yard and have extra to share with my neighbors. They taught me that the best way to help newcomers become part of the group was give them a job cooking or helping prepare for the meal. I think its fair to say that the development of my “strategy” for incarnational ministry in our neighborhood is credited as much or more to the Trejos and Vejars as it is to the missional church folks like Darrell Guder, Alan Hirsch, Hugh Halter, etc.
These truths of community contain wisdom for us all, regardless of the outward appearance of the our church structure. These truths are very much part of God’s economy. They require investments in people rather than financial security. They value stability, consistency and loyalty over upward mobility. And, like the parable of the shrewd manager highlighted by Wilson-Hartgrove, they appreciate the “wisdom of the weak” to develop economic friendships which provide security that seems so counter intuitive to many of us.
For Missional Monastic Church Planting:
“What are we inviting people into?” This question has come up from time to time among our leadership. It is easy to fall into the trap of defining ourselves by what we have rejected. We may have spent time processing through and deciding that wasn’t our motivation on the front end, but it still tries to creep in when we aren’t looking. We are convicted that the Kingdom of God is not driven by programs and passive consumerism, but merely avoiding those things is not a sufficient calling.
We are so used to inviting people to a worship gathering, retreat, youth group activity, revival, Christian concert, marriage seminar or some other event that it can sometimes be difficult to imagine any other kind of invitation. The invitation to a new life; to walk with us in community in the Way of Jesus can sometimes seem a bit ambiguous, particularly to those who have a clearly preconceived notion of “church.” For those looking for ways to describe the calling to whole life discipleship, God’s Economy can be a tremendous help.
We have made a decision not to ask new house churches and incarnational communities to tithe toward corporate building funds, administration costs, overhead, salaries, etc. That decision means that I’m now a seminary trained roofing contractor who offices at local coffee shops and worships with his community wherever the doors are opened. We don’t always know where we’re gathering until Friday or Saturday and some people don’t really like that. We have several kids under the age of six and that often brings up issues for which we don’t have good solutions.
It has been very difficult, but I am convicted that this is precisely how we are called to operate at this time. We are being reminded of our roots as nomadic people, with a God who tabernacles among us. We are free to use our community’s resources to invest in people, to give generously to others. We aren’t compelled to base our decisions on what will boost the bottom line financially. We are no longer under the illusion that ministry requires a line item in the budget.
We are learning, and God’s Economy is going to be a useful resource in this, to reject ecclesiological mindsets that assume scarcity. Our young network of communities will most likely never have stacks of money in the bank. Still, we are learning to expect wealth of a different kind without waiting to leave this rock and this body behind for a mansion in the clouds. We’re learning that if our friends have a car, we have a car. If we have a lawnmower, our friends have a lawnmower. Just like that our resources have multiplied without increasing our clutter.
For Established Churches:
For those within the established church who are wondering whether these young communities have adequate theological grounding and biblical support, God’s Economy can be quite informative. Yet, I also think there are benefits that established churches themselves can reap from this book as well.
A few years ago a church I knew of laid off several ministers for budget reasons even though they had (literally) millions of dollars in the bank. This money was earmarked for missions, not ministry. Besides, good stewardship wisdom suggested that the principle balance remain untouched and only interest be used… after all the money needs to last. Overnight, several people learned precisely what my professor had warned – the minister’s relationship with the congregation is a transactional one, and they found themselves alone without a job, a church or a support network.
I was once informed by a well-meaning minister of a five-hundred member church that they were interested in church planting, but until their weekly contribution averaged twenty-thousand dollars they would be unable to give any money to outside efforts.
When approached with the idea of serving as an anchor church for a missional-monastic church planting movement, a local senior pastor asked, “What is the financial benefit for us?”
I do not believe that any of the congregations just described are evil; I don’t think that the leaders are malicious or their love for God insincere. They are simply functioning within a system that is bound to the rules of the empire. As Wilson-Hartgrove, quoting Dwight D. Eisenhower, reminds us, “you cannot amass great possessions without also having to take up the sword and defend them.” This quote doesn’t merely refer to violence, it affects our process for decision making and world viewing.
That isn’t to say that established churches have to sell their buildings and fire their ministers. It might mean that they draft new criteria for decisions regarding the use of congregational funds. However, I think that this book is extends beyond merely calling congregations to change their budget process.
Image the possibilities for blessing if a church of two hundred people began taking the needs of one another more personally. What about a church of five hundred or two thousand? Can you imagine any single mothers in those congregations still struggling to decide whether to pay the electric bill or buy groceries? Would there be any way that an elderly widower would die alone because he couldn’t get out of his house and didn’t want to burden his children living 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 don’t automatically see each other everyday, but it is far from impossible. Imagine the possibilities!
Imagine what affect it would have on a city if suddenly there were hundreds of people experiencing this kind of life in their midst. I predict that this type of economy and kingdom would roll forward with such force that no gates – be they of hell or a gated community – could stand against it.

Helping the Church Be the Church: Part V – Follow Me to Freedom

If you are new to this series of posts you can read the intro here. This post includes excerpts from the introduction and section addressing the established church.

I’ve been blessed to witness some terrible leadership in my life…and there are people I’ve attempted to lead who could make the same statement. The top-down business model of leadership; a model which centralizes authority and power in a few individuals has always seemed (to me) to be at odds with the example of Jesus. Sadly though, it is all too present in our churches.
The son of God, who has the rightful claim to authority, comes to earth and refuses to fight injustice in the halls of power; refuses to take public office…refuses to have health insurance, a savings account, a 401k or even a house! Jesus declares himself to be the servant of all and then backs it up by washing his disciples’ feet. Jesus declares himself to be in solidarity with the poor and then models it by living without all the “stuff” I can’t seem to go a day without.
I’ve seen and participated in leadership models that are much more closely aligned with modern corporations and nation states than with the Master we claim to serve. For the longest time it seemed clear that something was broken, but I had no idea where to begin looking for alternatives. Supporters of the present system would declare that the options were either the status quo or anarchy. These are the choices, it is what it is. Pick one.
It can be terrifying when leader makes a statement like, “I can no longer go up the mountain for you. I can’t carry you and I won’t march out front on my own. But I do want us to head up this mountain together.” Due to our programmed expectations of what leadership is and isn’t, the response to such a declaration may often be a fearful assumption that there is no longer any leadership for the community.
On the other side of this fear are those who react strongly to bad leadership and become suspicious of anyone who claims to lead; they have decided to seek a leaderless environment. Perkins and Claiborne, in Follow Me to Freedom, claim that, “The answer to bad leadership isn’t no leadership; rather, it is good leadership.”
This book locates good leadership within the ability to submit to Christ and also to one’s community. Leaders are a part of the community they seek to lead. This flies squarely in the face of what I remember being taught in seminary. We were told that as leaders we would need to cultivate a community outside of our congregation. Leaders, at least paid ministers, have no choice but to remain somewhat distanced from the membership of a congregation for several reasons such as the power differential that is present due to the authority of the office and of course the reality that we can be fired/laid off at any point.
Such a viewpoint is poison to the cultivation of true community and the empowerment of people to follow Christ with their whole lives. Follow Me is refreshing in its treatment of leadership because it rejects this disconnected approach without rejecting leadership itself. It doesn’t matter if we are a small group of committed disciples sharing life together, a team of missionaries working among skeptical neighbors or the pastor of a large church: we all need to hear this message about leadership.
For Established Churches:

As movements become organizations, logistics and administration demand greater amounts of attention. Having served both as a domestic missionary and as a preacher for an established church I’ve seen both sides. That doesn’t let us off the hook though.
Claiborne points out that as busy as Jesus was, he never lost sight of the people and the struggles that plagued them.7 We must remain grounded in our call to love God and love one another – more than we love (or focus on) programs, events, sermons, committee meetings, building projects, etc. These things aren’t wrong, but they can definitely distract us from the greater things. This book provides helpful encouragement for keeping ourselves grounded in community.
Those operating within clearly defined structures may have less freedom or ability to change course or affect systemic change. Claiborne and Perkins understand this reality and remind us that, “leaders know how to nudge folks without pushing them.”8 However, the system doesn’t have to be officially redrawn before we can begin living out these principles. The leader that embraces the suffering of Christ, looks into the eyes of those in pain and chooses to act rather than duck into their office to study is a leader who is already beginning to change the system.
Practically speaking there are tremendous opportunities for powerful leadership within established churches. Follow Me to Freedom, describes a beautiful picture of hope in the midst of chaos that results from communities that respond to crises and natural disasters. The resources of God entrusted to the established church can be brought to bear against suffering, but there is a need for leadership that not only talks about care for our neighbor, but makes preparation to respond when the needs of our neighbors become apparent. The reality is that it is too easy to hold back our resources for our own comforts and preferences. Perkins and Claiborne remind us that the task of the leader who is submitted to Christ is to lead the whole community in the process of continually resubmitting to Christ through both prayer and action.

Helping the Church Be the Church: Part IV – Longing for Spring

The timing has been atrocious. I’m struggling to move into a bi-vocational approach to church planting. I’m working insane hours trying to keep the plates spinning and have seen a few come crashing down lately. In the midst of this circus I’m reading a whole list of books and writing a somewhat lengthy paper for SMU. Typically, I like to set regular time aside to process through books of this nature – especially a long list that work together somehow. Time to read and process is a bit of a luxury these days.

Even though it has been hard to keep up with the self-inflicted pace, the books have been phenomenal. I’ve posted a few excerpts from my paper and introduced a few of these books. This weekend I’m trying to finish sections 5 and 6 so that I can work on 7 and 8 next week.

Here is the introduction to the section covering a short, but incredibly helpful book by my professor, Elaine Heath. If anyone has read this (or any of the others I’ve referenced) please share your thoughts as well.

Longing For Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community by Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker.

Though addressed largely to a Wesleyan audience, Heath and 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, it can be embraced as a faithful and powerful ministry of the church, with deep roots in our various traditions.

Regardless of one’s denominational affiliation Longing for Spring provides an apology for continued connection between the established church and more organic expressions that many have sought to cultivate. In the forward, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove notes that, “as we learn to navigate a rising tide, we are all increasingly aware of the degree to which we are in the same boat.”

If the book, New Monasticism, (written about here) addressed the question of what the new monastic movement has to say to the church, then this book begins to describe ways in which that conversation can bear fruit in the church.

The desire for authentic community and the call to live out whole-life discipleship beyond membership in an organization are in no way new impulses 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 notably, the early Methodists. Herein lies a subject often apparently overlooked in both monastic and missional literature.

The semi-monastic structure of bands and class meetings in early Methodism contained several components that are essential to the cultivation of authentic community. The “bands” were small, gender and life-situation specific groups that met together regularly for prayer and confession. The Wesley brothers developed this discipleship tool from what they encountered among the Moravians in America.

The mutual accountability and humility fostered by these bands were reminiscent of the more intentional monastic communities previously mentioned.

The class meetings were even more central to the formation of Methodist community. Though attendance had decreased since the mid-19th century, until 1939 participation in these meetings officially defined membership the society. Because the classes were lay led, the beginning of localized clergy in Methodism marked the gradual ending the class meetings’ significance.

The relatively short span of monastic influence in Methodism may be to blame for its relative obscurity outside Methodist circles. However, the demise of the class meetings may well have something of great value to teach us all regarding monastic and missional community.

I find no reason to suspect that anyone within the denominational hierarchy sought to discourage the monastic impulses in Methodism by moving away from a truly itinerant preacher system. However, Kisker notes that with the arrival of localized clergy, people could go straight to him with their questions, and the lay led class system slowly (depending on perspective) lost its efficacy. Would the effect have been different had the localized preacher been called from the congregation rather than placed from the outside through a still somewhat itinerant system?

Whether a different process would have still affected class participation can be debated. It seems less debatable that, in the given case, there is a clear connection between the presence of ordained clergy and a decrease in the “regular” disciples’ participation in monastic commitments. Stated another way, the localization of clergy appears in this case to be correlated with an increase in a more passive consumer approach to religion.

I do not think there is enough evidence here to suggest that having ordained or trained ministers located in a community will universally lead to lower levels of whole-life discipleship. However, Kisker’s brief historical sketch does clearly suggest that we should think carefully about the impact our models of leader selection and preparation may have on future generations of disciples, particularly if we desire to see an increase in missional and monastic characteristics.

Helping the Church Be the Church: Part III – Response to The Mystic Way

I recently posted a short excerpt from the book, The Mystic Way of Evangelism, by Elaine Heath. Several people have asked about the book so I thought I’d include a couple short sections from a paper I wrote. For those that haven’t read the previous posts on this topic (read intro here), the paper is a review of 12 books pertaining to new monasticism and creative missional expressions of faith. After reading each of the books, I’m asking 3 primary questions: 1) What does this book offer new monastic communities? 2) What does this book offer missional/monastic church planting movements? 3) What does this book offer to the established church wrestling with these issues?

This paper is meant to provide a 30,000 foot view – it isn’t meant to touch on every important aspect (otherwise I’d never be able to deal with all 12 books in this one paper!)

Regarding The Mystic Way, here is a section from my introduction and question #3 (pertaining to the established church).

Is the American Church experiencing a dark night of the soul? Elaine Heath thinks so and I doubt many people find this hard to believe, or even surprising. What we may have not considered is her claim that this dark night is a necessary component of the path to renewed health, vitality and evangelistic impact. In a world that is becoming increasingly aware of the widening disparity between the have’s and have not’s; a culture that has come to suspect that the Modernist/Enlightenment project was never more than a smoke-and-mirrors illusion, perhaps a good dose of humility is precisely what the Church needs.

Particularly here in the West, we have come to exhibit a level of entitlement that is (for some of the people I talk to on a regular basis) simultaneously terrifying and nauseating. We expect the government to enforce our religious convictions on others, yet we hit the streets in protest if we feel they’re infringing on our religious turf through taxation or accountability. It seems that we want to be simultaneously protected and ignored. We want to get something for nothing. Just as it did on Wall Street, that mentality may be leading to a crash.

I received the following text message yesterday from a member of our community: “If u can, turn to am-660, the topic is ‘zoning ordinances pertaining to religious home meetings.’ I think its important to note that the public conversation has begun.” There seems to be an increasing population of people dissatisfied with the Church attempting to function as a business in the competitive market, without playing by the market’s rules.

Operating with a sense of entitlement, functioning as a business (with or without proper oversight) and holding an ends-justify-the-means mentality to support coercive or deceptive evangelistic strategies may have all contributed to the present situation. For this reason, I think Heath is correct in The Mystic Way of Evangelism, to suggest that the way out is to move through, not skirt around, this dark night. This assertion simultaneously strikes chords of fear and hope because, as she says, “Though the dark night is perilous, with no guarantee of a good outcome, it holds the possibility of new beginnings.”

Heath’s book traces the ancient three-fold way of the contemplatives and mystics which includes purgation, illumination and union. Perhaps our present experience is one of purgation, not unlike the Israelites wandering around in the desert while time and new birth cleansed the community of its institutionalized slave mentality.

You can’t hurry a process that only occurs over time, but you can often hinder your progress and increase both the stress and duration of the ordeal. As we transitioned into more organic and whole-life expressions of faith, there were a myriad of different expectations, assumptions and (mis)understandings that had to be purged through our own desert experience. There was no way to rush through this time, and in many ways the process continues even today.

The Mystic Way reminded me that regardless of one’s specific context, the interior life (particularly with the intention of it bearing fruit in community) is something we cultivate rather than instantly inherit. We did not arrive at our present location overnight, nor will we relocate in such a way.

What does it have to offer the established church?

I recently saw a commercial attempting to convince people that they need to take action when they notice the early signs of a stroke in another person (which I never realized was a problem). The scene involves a young man with an arrow through his chest, confidently declaring, “It’s no big deal.” Perhaps this commercial could have also been used as a trailer for the release of The Mystic Way.

It is a big deal. The situation in our churches today is a big deal. The question that remains to be answered definitively is whether or not we will adequately acknowledge and respond to the situation.

Several years ago I heard Walter Brueggemann speak about prophetic ministries. He reminded us that prophets will not be effective unless the people to whom they speak are aware (or are made aware) that there is a problem to begin with. It appears that some of our churches are beginning to realize what many who have left our churches are saying: “something isn’t working.”

Mission Alive, a church planting resource group with which our team is connected, was formed in 2004 by missiologist, Dr. Gailyn VanRheenan, whose study of the status of churches in North America convicted him of the need for renewed efforts in domestic mission work. One fairly new aspect of Mission Alive is a ministry called REvision, where leaders from established churches are trained – often by and alongside current church planters – to develop, communicate and implement a missional ecclesiology within their traditional context.

It is still too early to assess the impact that this ministry is having on the congregations involved, but the hope and prayer is that there is hope beyond only planting new churches. As Brueggemann pointed out, a lack of awareness of the situation among a majority of the leadership (let alone the whole congregation) seems to be one roadblock to the needed growth and maturation process. Standing outside the circle throwing rocks may get people’s attention, but then we have the added roadblock of angry people with bruises on their heads!

I believe that The Mystic Way can serve the established church by raising awareness of the need for whole-life discipleship / community and presenting a way forward that doesn’t require a violent dismantling of congregations, yet contains practical content for how to proceed.

Heath describes in several brief, but encouraging sections, different potential avenues for partnership between established, “anchor churches” and new communities. The picture is one of mutual encouragement and support, where the strengths of each are used to build up the other rather than being placed in tension and competition. The question that looms in my mind is whether or not this is possible given the history of turf-wars, power struggles and (to be totally honest) market-driven-rather-than-kingdom-focused definitions of success in the church. The Mystic Way, suggests that it is not only a possibility, but is a necessary and exciting present opportunity.

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.
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