The New Monasticism
"How can you worship a homeless Man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?" said the sign outside St. Edward's Cathedral in Philadelphia. Inside, a group of 40 homeless families were joined by students from Eastern University to protest the eviction of women and their children from the abandoned Kensington neighborhood church. In 1996, the story was all over the news as a community activist group and a crowd of Eastern students fought the eviction by living in the church, sleeping on pews, and worshiping each Sunday. Shane Claiborne and other students left Eastern's campus in St. Davids, drove the 20 miles into Philly, and unpacked their things in the nave.
At first, it was a shock to live among the homeless, Claiborne says. But face to face with poverty, stereotypes quickly broke down. During those fall days, as the stone building grew colder each night, the students began to rethink Gospel passages about the poor being blessed and doing "unto the least of these."
For some, learning to see the gospel through the eyes of the poor was like a second conversion. "I was born again again," Claiborne says in his book The Irresistible Revolution (Zondervan, February 2006). Their eyes were opened to the Christian imperative to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and they saw that more important than handing out food or clothes was offering the love of Christ. In 1998, two years after the St. Edward's experience, Claiborne and six other students formed a community called the Simple Way and permanently moved into Kensington, just blocks from St. Edward's.
Today, the Simple Way, with its two houses on Potter Street, is one of the oldest of a new crop of Christian intentional communities. Formed often independently by mostly young, single Christians, these communities are the latest wave of evangelicals who see in community life an answer to society's materialism and the church's complacency toward it. Rather than enjoy the benefits of middle-class life, these suburban evangelicals choose to move in with the poor. Though many of the same forces drive them as did earlier generationsa desire to experience intense community and to challenge contented evangelicalismthey are turning to an ancient tradition to provide the spiritual sustenance for their ministries.
Scott Bessenecker, director of global projects for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, says he sees among these evangelicals the latest burst in missionizing monastic orders. In his work among InterVarsity students, Bessenecker finds "an emerging movement of youth taking up residence in slum communities in the same spirit that I find in the start of the Franciscans and the early Celtic orders, in the Nestorian mission, and in the Jesuits."
Bessenecker is working on a book about these "new friars," as he calls them. There's a similar spirit among communities like the Simple Way, who call their movement the "new monasticism." Like earlier movements, the ones today attract mostly 20-somethings who long for community, intimacy with Jesus, and to love those on the margins of society. And they are willing to give up the privileges to which they were born.
A June 2004 conference officially marks the birth of the new monasticism, and participants wrote a voluntary rule for the many and diverse communities. New communities and academics met in Durham, North Carolina, with older communities like the Mennonite Reba Place Fellowship, Bruderhof, and the Catholic Worker. Drawing from church tradition and borrowing the term new monasticism from Jonathan R. Wilson's book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World (Morehouse, 1998), participants developed 12 distinctives that would mark these communities, including: submission to the larger church, living with the poor and outcast, living near community members, hospitality, nurturing a common community life and a shared economy, peacemaking, reconciliation, care for creation, celibacy or monogamous marriage, formation of new members along the lines of the old novitiate, and contemplation.