Is New Monasticism for Everyone?
We recently had one of my favorite authors on this subject here as our houseguest for a couple of a days. To say that Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s books about applied faith, racial reconciliation, close Christian community, and deliberate life among the poor and the enemy have been formative for me and our neighborhood here in Shreveport would be an understatement. He has given concise language to so many inner wars and wonderings of mine over the past seven years; and I am restocked with new and fresh gratitude for the fact that I get to live and learn during this same century and era of faith as him and those like him.
Jonathan met and shared with many in our community and greater city during his visit. And much conversation has been birthed and rebirthed in a ripple effect since he left. And while many things stuck out during all of the discussions being had, I noted a common inquiry floating around the rooms in which he sat. It is a question that is not foreign to us, one we’ve asked and have been asked many times in our last five years of attempting to grow a life of intentional Christian community.
Is New Monasticism for everyone?
I have sat with this more heavily for a week now, this question that is no stranger to my own thoughts. And I have wondered, what would be my answer? New Monasticism has been a tool and a structure in recent years that has given words and practical challenges for my own faith to be real in, connected to, and informed by the world where we live. Its name (alongside other buzzwords like “intentional community” and “life-together”) have been a guidance for the transformation of this Sunday School Christian into one that thinks her following of Jesus should have something to say to the various (actual) hurts of our earth…like poverty, systemic racism, cheap “solutions” such as war, loneliness, enemy-hate, the dehumanization of human trafficking, immigration issues, fear, the death penalty, how we spend money, creation care, and disconnection of the wealthy, etc. God has undoubtedly used its marks and measures to show me that this life of discipleship has something to say about how we eat together, share possessions, fight well, give unreservedly, and live closely.
But, is it for everyone?
Is this lifestyle of taking some of the most long-standing monastic practices and applying them in the more marginalized places of our societies today in fact for all people? Do any of the marks (or implementations) of New Monasticism that recent theologians and practitioners have outlined lay outside of the reach of any person’s lifestyle or season (barring a bit of sacrifice)? Do these twelve practices, written to help laypeople model the ancient ways of monasteries, indeed exist for some but not for others?
- To relocate to “the abandoned places of Empire” (or rather, to integrate your life into the marginal places of society where people are overlooked and oppressed)
- To share economic resources with community members and the needy among you
- To show hospitality to the stranger
- To lament racial division within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of just reconciliation
- To humbly submit to Christ’s body, the Church (in all her forms, dialects, and imperfections)
- To take part in intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate (or rather, to be formed by a body of believers’ vows to a specific lifestyle that hold you closer to the way that Jesus exampled)
- To nurture the common life among members of intentional community (by eating together, praying together, sharing together, grieving together, celebrating together, marching together, working together, etc.)
- To support celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children (in a world where our faith separates people who need each other into staunchly divided small groups)
- To live within geographic proximity to community members who share a common rule of life (or rather, to live geographically close to the tribe with whom you make promises and share your day-to-days…this has not always been a foreign concept)
- To care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies
- To make peace in the midst of violence and resolve conflict within communities along the lines of Matthew 18
- To commit to a disciplined contemplative life
I suppose it would be easy for me to say yes, it is for everyone, as it would be easy for anyone to say yes who has had their life changed or informed by something significant (be that a traveling preacher, a powerful retreat, or a mountaintop experience like Peter, James, and John witnessed as Jesus transfigured before them). “We’ll make tents and live here, Lord…”
Knowing full well that it is the human tendency to want to camp out in the area that has most transformed us, I have wrestled with this question, hesitant to answer for fear of being unrealistically hell-bent on my desire to get us all doing the same thing.
But I think, after much processing, I have come to an answer with which I feel peace about sharing.
Is New Monasticism for everyone?
My answer: I don’t know. But I think maybe it could be for anyone.
There are many tributaries that get us to where Christ wants us to go, as there are many different people in the world living out a plethora of existences that I believe could be called “faithful.” And variety is good.
However, I think that I have noticed a trend when this question is being asked—there are two different wells from which the words surface.
One person is asking if this New Monastic life is for everyone because their manifestation of faithful living doesn’t quite look like the common examples of intentional community (a life imbedded within an under-resourced neighborhood, community gardens, common purse and prayer, etc). However, they may in fact be living out different versions of the same marks. They may be living in an upper middle class neighborhood, opening their home to foster children, and sharing meals and prayers with the neighbors they’ve grown to know and love. They may be living in a downtown loft intertwining their lives with addicts and prostitutes while growing a family of unlikely connection. They may be a grandmother living under the poverty line who has little but her stories to share, however she shares them as she plants flowers to make the Projects more beautiful; and she invites all ages and races to come and visit. They may be a person of trade (electrician, dentist, hairstylist) who shares their free gifts with those less able to pay for the service; they may be standing on the front lines of political issues that are effecting the most overlooked in our cities. Though their living may not totally line up with the more referenced versions of New Monasticism or Intentional Community, their lifestyle (when examined more closely) is in fact not far from the marks, though they may never use this language to explain why and how they do what they do. And I think that’s just fine.
The other person is asking if New Monastic life is for everyone because they do not know how to reconcile their current lifestyle with the call to which they feel they (maybe) should be living. They are wealthy, or they are in school, or they live in a gated neighborhood, or they are highly involved in the traditional institutional church, or they work too many hours for this communal life to be an actual reality no matter how they’ve felt inspired. In this case, the language and structure of intentional Christian community and/or New Monasticism (as it has been most commonly manifested) goes on to present a problem for the doctor, the preacher, the university student, the rich woman, the CEO. It is a life that seems not accessible to them, they decide, therefore they ask this question seeking confirmation for this conclusion. Monasticism was never for everyone, in fact; the monks knew and honored this. Monasticism was for the few, and something else was for the others. These are words that bring comfort to the wrestling soul.
However, that is the very reason why I have so appreciated what this language of New Monasticism has brought to our time. This way and rule of life has been deemed “new” or “neo” because it is slightly different from the structure before it; it is meant to be accessible to those living out real life in a real world. I just think we, in many circles including mine, have maybe lacked the tools, creativity, and space for the conversations needed that help people see some practical alternatives for what this might mean for their own special lives.
I don’t know that New Monasticism is necessarily for everyone. I do however think that discipleship of Jesus is intended for everyone; and if the marks of New Monasticism are simply an outline of values and practices for a disciple, then they could be a tool for anyone interested. But there are many interpretations and outlines that lead folks to Christ-following lives, and the way we talk about it doesn’t have to look or sound like the next person’s. As our friend Jonathan pointed out, monasticism has always been intended to point people toward Christianity, not toward monasticism. However, I am saying that I think that New Monasticism and Intentional Community are accessible and applicable for anyone interested in/inspired by it, no matter their life season or status. Deep connection to people in these ways doesn’t just have to be limited to the single years of your early twenties. And if in fact you are the person interested/inspired, however you feel like you’re life is not one that can live according to these practices, my question might would then be, “Which of the marks are holding you/us back?” And then with our answers, I’d want to talk about our different motivations and unquestioned systems that may be getting more stock than might be necessary. Creative conversations about how another world and life might be possible are critical things for which to make space.
The brainstorming in such spaces would potentially sound a bit like this…
Are you a college student that feels like you have to put your desire for intentional community on hold until you graduate? Maybe try meeting with a small group of folks 3-5 mornings a week before class in one of your dorm rooms to go through the book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, and watch as your sense of community grows. Spend your weekends with the homeless or get to know the neighbors that live along the outskirts of your campus. It is likely that your custodians and grounds keepers are among them. Create and attend forums that question oppressive systems and perceptions of our societies—universities have been brilliant birth places for creation care, anti-trafficking movements, peace marches, etc.
Are you an over-time professional whose hours are not flexible for shared and intentional life? It may be good to ask why is it so important to be so overtime? Could your cutting back make room for someone else to have a much needed job? Are you scrambling to satisfy the debt that has acquired? Intentional Christian community (though hard and heavy at times), should indeed make the load lighter, and life fuller, and existence cheaper…something from which we can all benefit. Have you asked yourself lately if you know anyone who is poor? Are you a part of a small group that could pool your money for a relational tithe then challenge each other to get to know and do life with actual people who are in need of it?
Are you a middle class family living in the suburbs? Don’t fret, you are surely not exempt. Have you met your neighbors? Hosted a block party? Suggested a supper wagon among a few families who can help carry the load of meal sharing, each taking one night a week to cook and deliver? Is the community of folks with whom you do close life (or with whom you wish to do close life) in a different part of town? You may want to consider relocating. Are a few of you unsatisfied with and disconnected from where you are currently placed because of the homogenous atmosphere of people just like you? You may want to consider your relocation being amongst folks who are marginalized and different from “your kind.” Try making space in your home for both strangers and friends to be welcomed, and ask the hard questions about what it means to live well. Establish a rule of life to which your body of folks (be that a small group, or a collection or neighbors, or a circle of friends) can covenant. Hold each other to these promises, submitting decisions and questions to one another in an effort to be made new in our asking, “What does our Christianity have to say to the world?”
Are you working for the traditional institutional church? Great! These lives are not meant to be separated. Maybe consider living closely to those in your congregation or within walking distance of your church’s front doors. If your church is located near an under-resourced neighborhood, however most of your members are piped in from the “better parts of town,” start questioning this reality and making friends with those who live near. Support the movement of your staff and congregants in living lives of intentional community. Learn from them, have your church be shaped by them. Do not be afraid of them. Establish time and space in your already erected buildings to host conversations about “othering,” war, greed, and poverty among community members. Offer people practical ways to live out the Good News in our world; show them those ways with your own life. Commit to not leading one more sermon series about community until your life is intricately intertwined and committed to a body of people with whom you’re being vulnerable. Our world and our churches could only be helped by senior pastors and ministry directors who would be willing to submit to lifestyles such as the ones that New Monasticism encourages.
Periodically, look back over the twelve marks with people who know and love you, and remember how they are connected to the life that Jesus lived and instructed, and then ask yourself which one/s seem currently far from your lifestyle and why.
Is New Monasticism for everyone?
I don’t know. Maybe not. But for those who are drawn to it, with a little bit of margin to think creatively, I can’t imagine a life or a season that would have to be excluded given some sacrifice and adjustments in order to make life-together possible.
A book list of Jonathan’s work that has been most helpful to our community here: