Contemporary Monasticism

April 7, 2008

The Margins of a Spiritual Wilderness

We stand at the dawn of a dysfunctional transitional time in which Westerners seem able to express their doubts but not yet their sustaining beliefs; their lack of belief in the way things are but not yet their commitment to change.

Along the margins of the mountain ranges of North America, where unmanageable fortifications and regal satellites of rock surrender to low plains, lies a series of lesser ridges. They are known as the ‘outer range’, and winding through these barren lowlands is what the Native Indians call ‘The Trail’ – the pilgrimage to go beyond the here and now, and on toward the colonies of heaven. To many indigenous cultures ‘the trail’ is widely regarded as the most precious gift we have, and during the autumn of 1994 I remember sitting in the bar of a small town due south of the Adirondack Mountains with an old Indian. That night he told me the story of the ‘coal holders’.

As the seasons changed, when winter would eventually arrive, the tribe would have to move camp. Each tribe would designate coal carriers, and as the fire burned low, when the time came to move on, someone would have to carry the last hot coal to start the next fire at the new campsite. The old man explained that the community needed this fire to cook with, to sleep near, but most importantly this fire was the place of communication. It was the sacred place of storytelling, of dance and song. In short it was the heart of community. For many a weary pilgrim today it may feel like the fire has gone out completely. For those spiritual refugees who have connected to something they know to be true but no longer know where to go to explore and develop that connection our current spiritual climate may seem very cold.

We stand at the dawn of a dysfunctional transitional time in which Westerners seem able to express their doubts but not yet their sustaining beliefs; their lack of belief in the way things are but not yet their commitment to change. Our world is beginning to groan and toil for something beyond the inadequate patterns it has experienced and knows. Humanity is tired and longing for a life liberated by a spirituality that offers hope and gives rise to a world of justice and peace. Our common task, it seems, is to discover a new way of being human. It is this new way of being which intrigues me. I find it unfortunate that ‘church’ has become a by-word for the hypocritical and the insipid. Is it possible that a place can be found where spiritual refugees are able to be heard, can believe and belong without conforming in some way to an institution which makes us feel fraudulent, masking who we really are?

Bonhoeffer’s Monastery Without Walls
More than fifty years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer predicted that the renewal of the Western church would come from a new monasticism whose only connection to traditional monasticism would be Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). New conceptions of church have been a central component of contemporary Protestant mission in the West. This plurality of ideas has led to many different types of church communities. These changes appear to have risen from the conviction that traditional churches are themselves a problem. Many have come to believe that, if the Christian faith is to become a viable alternative within a post-modern culture, then the form of the community of faith must journey towards the blurred edges of the post-evangelical mood and be re-evaluated and reformed. It is a genuine practical concern about the possible manifestations of Bonhoeffer’s new monasticism that has led me to ask: can, in this macro-cultural context, a contemporary monastic movement bring about the kind of reformation of our incarnational religion that will enable Christian people of the West both to relate their faith to the world, and also form, in a micro-cultural context, the kind of community which allows them to explore that faith fully and so bring rest for their souls?

Ronald Roheiser prudently observes that, ‘we, the children of Western culture, post-modern, adult children of the enlightenment, struggle with practical atheism. Our churches are emptying and, more and more, the sense of God is slipping from our ordinary lives.’ An observation I concur with and one that saddens me, as I always get the idea that Jesus is more interested in the ordinariness of our at times mundane difficult existence than anything else. Bonhoeffer seems to be suggesting a return to ‘camp side community’ where the coal carriers of today become the embodiment of the Sermon on the Mount. To push the analogy a little further it may be that in the imperishability of salt we have a guarantee of the permanence of the divine community – that community being a new monastic order. Historical and sociological insights urge theologians to look hard at situations where church praxis is worked out. Ideas in isolation are not enough. Theology needs to be seen in relation to the events which will eventually shape it. Bonhoeffer’s theology is best understood as an account of the continuity of God’s identity interpreted through the identity of Christ – which would then inform the Christian identity through the Sermon on the Mount. Christ then lives in and works through the new monastic community, so demonstrating a Christological pattern of human relationship that affirms the intrinsic value of integrity and faithfulness.

Some scholars say that Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship can be read as theological manuals on Christian community. There are complimentary themes of meditation and immediacy that originate in Bonhoeffer’s work. He suggests that the ‘disciple community does not shake off sorrow as though it were no concern of its own, but willingly bears it.’ The elucidation of such propositions occurs in the way Bonhoeffer develops his doctrine of community. He suggests that when salt loses its flavour it in fact ceases to be salt, suggesting that judgement hangs over the Christian community depending upon whether or not it seasons the world. It would seem that at this moment in history we need the coal carriers more than ever – illusions don’t keep us warm at night.

The new monastic life must embrace both the need for community as the essence of an authentic spiritual journey and the importance and freedom of individual interpretations of that journey. Those wishing to communicate and build relationship with a post-Christian culture need to implement this with some urgency. Only a dying minority have an interest in mediocre uniformity. Many are tired of those who would espouse theoretical knowledge, what is longed for is a sharing of a practical knowledge of how to live as an individual who is part of and co-responsible for a community. Bonhoeffer states that, ‘the community which is the subject of the Beatitudes is the community of the crucified.’ Contemporary missiology is concerned with amalgamating strands – restoring those broken and embracing those which survive. Scholars such as Lesslie Newbigin and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were some of the last voices of modernity who believed community was key to living fully. Mike Riddell and Dave Andrews are two of the first voices giving perceptive insights of how we embrace and build community from within the complexities of post-modernity. At some point we must ask the question; does anything connect across this paradigm shift? I suspect authentic and lasting renewal comes not from a Pentecost experience, but from moments immersed with the fragrance of Gethsemane and Calvary.

In other words the Enlightenment (modernity) was the old paradigm; just maybe the new monasticism (post-modernity) could be the new. A principle central to the ideas of post-modern monasteries without walls was an equally essential aspect of any historical monastic order, namely solitude. Solitude is something post-modern people crave but struggle to find. Jesus often retreated to be alone, to find privacy and nourish his soul – to that place where God mystically and tenderly exposes our weakness and nourishes and sustains us. Thomas Merton describes this mystical solitude as contemplation and I believe that this contemplation (solitude) is a helpful eschatological vision to manifest a simplicity that will assist in building an authentic community of faith.

Vows of the Contemporary
Matt Rees believes that this simplicity will come from three ‘essentials’ of the contemporary monastic – community, rule and vows. These ‘essentials’ require the development of shared rhythms, resources and hospitality. Vows of poverty, chastity and obedience have long been a part of the monastic life. A new monasticism needs to re-establish the meaning of the vows through contemporary expression, e.g. vows of generous justice, reckless love and unconditional listening. One should not abandon traditional vows but reinterpret them in ways which will make sense in the post-Christian world.

The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ commits us to live simply, to be committed to ecological stewardship, and to have a deep concern for the poor and marginalised. Bonhoeffer believed that vows give a framework to counter the excessive individualism that permeates our culture, so enabling something Tom Sine calls, ‘the future of God through creative community,’ where our lives, energy and resources are poured outwardly to re-establish a new age of economic justice, a life source for the broken, and rest for the weary. Realisation and experience are vital for the bare bones of this idea to find some flesh, for there too many weary pilgrims asking the question, ‘where can I go?’ For what it’s worth, I would call for the re-shaping of local churches and for small groups to grow around contemporary hermits. I was talking with Ray Simpson of Lindisfarne recently and he told me of a young pastor who admitted to the feeling that somewhere deep inside himself he was called to be a monk, but that he did not know what that meant. When I asked Ray how he answered the man he said that it could mean adopting a new rule or rhythm of life. It might also lead to the church as a whole adopting a set of values and practices which include daily prayer and regular meals together.

These comments are important. This position of not quite being sure where we are travelling, not fully understanding the realisation of a mystery once more I think is a healthy one. We are inundated with varying analysis of the slow haemorrhage of the contemporary church, but to the thinking Christian this is not news. What most disillusioned pew leavers need is practical assistance on what physically is possible as an alternative. Mike Yaconelli, in pastoring a church for people who don’t like church, pioneered a new ecclesiological paradigm. It is something Moltmann calls the ‘Open Church’, and what Bonhoeffer called ‘the Church for others.’ So many have lost faith whilst living in the shadow of the Enlightenment, and so what has developed is a pseudo-spirituality of the individual, where the West, it seems, is seeking to transcend itself. This becomes problematic because it creates isolation and fragments any kind of hope for a communal pattern of living. Yet to embrace the fragmented, marginalized, and flawed people of our communities, who are suspicious of Institutions, might just be part of the mystery which helps reconnect them. Most of my own friends, particularly those who don’t profess any kind of faith seem to want to explore uncharted territory, not to escape, but to find some way back home. The new monastics will be spiritual guides who will listen to stories, and having listened will offer some helpful clues for the general direction to be travelled, maybe offering some hospitality, a meal or a warm bed for the night, before allowing the pilgrim to journey on. Bonhoeffer alluded to this when he said that ‘prayer and action on behalf of others were two essentials that the new monastics would be limited to.’ This new monasticism is not trying to convince the community of faith to return to the historical manifestation and understanding of monasticism, but rather the opposite, that the new order would radically become fully engaged with the world.

Hospitality – Church around the meal table
Jesus did not have a home, he relied on the kindness of strangers for the niceties of life that you and I probably take for granted – a cooked meal, a bath, and a place to rest ones head for the night. In both Jewish and Celtic traditions the household becomes the main expression of ‘church’. Contemporary expressions of monasticism would perhaps encourage household development of prayers and rituals for significant daily happenings, primarily because they are more natural and organic than the evangelical model of cells. With a covenanted, organic, relational, small community in mind, my wife Claire and I decided that our home would become exactly that: a safe haven for a few vulnerable pilgrims to join us in the sharing of our journeys. One of our group describes it so:
Church is about relationship: Church around the meal table allows intimacy, confidentiality and security. Ideas can be voiced, ignorance’s confessed, mistakes allowed for and blessings shared. Time can be given to explore the nature of spirituality, the impact of the previous week’s experiences and points raised by that Sunday’s sermon. Because there is no particular agenda there is flexibility for change and sensitivity to what needs to be spoken about.

Criticising what exists is too easy, and unless we are ready to go beyond theory no reformation will be possible. Communities need to function and be energised. Bonhoeffer suggests that this is part of the completion with the working of atonement, particularly where the family is able to gather together, embracing the invitation to ‘come and eat’. The rhetoric of family values has become hurtful. There is a need for the rebuilding of family systems for it is abundantly clear that our polarities have weakened the community of family. Monastic communities though have always provided space and time for relating. Accountability and liability have always expressed the essence of the Monastic church for our brothers and sisters. As Tom Sine suggests, ‘over the centuries, much of the renewal of the church has come through small communities in which people are organically linked to one another in common purpose.’

The ability to relate to one another with out being inhibited is overwhelmingly difficult in large groups. Certain dynamics, where human emotion is embraced and intimacy nurtured, where we share one another’s joys and sorrows, becomes limited when numbers grow. Small groups also enable counter-dependency, and those who have been part of table church have expressed their gratitude for a place where one can question the taken-for-granted nature of the faith community’s beliefs, values and expected behaviours. It seems to provide a helpful sanctuary and refuge for those Alan Jamieson calls the reflective exiles, so helping the process of deconstructing the faith before re-building it. In other words table church and other forms of a new monastic order recognise that some traditional patterns are not helpful and appropriate for journeying into territory. As another of our group shared:
I guess I’m not in a place where I can speak passionately about the physical church. New concepts, new ideas, new pathways always require a period of hibernation. I am there at present.

Embracing the Organic Rhythm of Spirituality

It is essential that pious demands are not placed on people who are not ready to meet them. One must nurture carefully an earthed spirituality to allow a change of course and provide an open door into a new world. Throughout history story telling has been the primary means of communicating matters of significance. I think it was Walter Brueggemann who said that a metastory, if replaced by a personal story, only makes the Biblical story more poignant in connection to our journeying. Storytelling, eating and drinking around a fire – these are all participatory activities where one can learn, be vulnerable, and begin a healing at grass-roots level in the form of community.

For the coal carriers of today walking into the unknown is a risk. We have to live with contradictions, we have to help one another through the wasteland, but more than that we must continue to nurture what it means to follow Christ, and reform who we have become. The new monasticism will, as does table church, personify desire. There will be tempers and frustrations, but they are saturated in passion. As I look around the majority of churches I visit I see mostly the church is trying to create nice people, and the consequence of this is that most are bored. Was there not a promise of not thirsting any more and life in all its fullness? Too many pilgrims still leave church spiritually thirsty and malnourished. Contemporary monasticism is not about efficiency but inclusion. Douglas Coupland advocates this in his work, suggesting that they key happiness is the importance of a safe, open place to discuss and find the meaning of life, where friends and strangers can begin once more the difficult task of finding community in a fragmented world.

As I listened all those years ago to the intoxicating wisdom of my Indian friend, I realised the need to widen my boundaries, to sift my soul of the muck and mire of my religious ego. We are by nature ritual makers, and there is something profound in that rite of passage that allows us to let go of the past. I am not talking here about some emotionally charged resolution that will be disregarded once normality (whatever that is) reigns. Rather I am speaking of our duty to the soul. It is not just culture that is trying to balance religious obligation with secular freedom: there is a paradigm shift of the soul occurring where we wrestle with principles of inner reform. As we talked about ‘the trail’ the old man explained to me that rather than attending church he went to a sweat lodge; rather than accepting bread and wine from a priest, he smoked a ceremonial pipe to come into communion with the Great Spirit; and rather than kneeling with his hands placed together in prayer he allowed the tenderness and beauty of creation to wash over him for cleansing – the smoke carrying his prayers to the heavens.

My old friend did not regard his spiritual beliefs as a religion in the way many Christians do. His practices form an integral and seamless part of his very being. We need the coal-carriers of Christianity to keep the God-man Jesus alive and well – to keep the voice of the soul breathing – to go clear the land for a new culture. As Douglas Coupland suggests, ‘if you are not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world – if you’re not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order – then you’re wasting your day.’ There is no blue print for the new monasticism, just many differing expressions of community stumbling together towards God. Initially, I suspect it will only attract those who have lost faith with institutionalised church – those spiritual refugees – searching to find a non-threatening home where their spirituality and search for God can be explored. In time I expect the balance to change. Bonhoeffer’s prediction, prophecy, vision, dream – however we package it – may just be the sign-post which will lead us in the right direction to restore and renew the community of God in the West…I hope so.

© Paul Chambers 2006 (Paul is a member of the Greenbelt Management Group)


The New Conspirators

March 25, 2008

by Tom Sine, Mustard Seed Associates


In the UK, more churches were planted in the last seven years than Starbucks were opened—over 1,000 churches as compared to only 750 Starbucks coffee shops. Interestingly, most of these church plants were ethnic and multi-cultural.

God is doing something new through a new generation, as I report in The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time, which will be published by IVP in 2008. I believe God is working through at least four streams: the emerging church, missional churches, mosaic church plants and the monastic movement. We have received very positive responses to the two most recent Seed Samplers the emerging and missional streams. This issue will attempt to describe what God is doing through those in the mosaic stream, which I define as multi-cultural church plants. While the emerging and missional leadership is overwhelmingly male and white, in this stream, God is doing something new through leaders from a number of different cultures.

In this issue, we have included some voices that are calling us to deal with issues that could enable the church to be more inclusive in terms of race and gender. David Park, of Next Gener.Asian Church, brings a very clear word about his concern with racial division in the church. Julie Clawson who administers the Emerging Women blog raises important questions about gender inclusion in the church, particularly within the new streams.

As I confessed in my book, as an aging author, I may not fully grasp all that God is doing through the young and the risk-taking. As a white author who has always been a part of a culture of privilege, I am certainly not the best one to write about the mosaic or multicultural stream. Eliacín Rosario-Cruz, who is a member of our MSA team and originally from Puerto Rico, holds our feet to the fire on issues of race, power and privilege.

It is past time for those of us who are white to wake up to the reality that we are living in a new majority world. By 2060, the United States will become the first non-European Western nation—a nation of Latinos, African-Americans and Asians. Those of us from European roots will just be another group. All of our churches need to help prepare to not only live in this future but receive and celebrate the gifts from other cultures as well.

In other words, the days of people with European roots running the world and the church are rapidly slipping away. While the churches in Western countries are overwhelmingly in decline, many churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America are growing at an explosive rate. Many of these churches are involved in reverse missions—planting churches in the United States, Canada and Britain. The leadership of the church will also increasingly shift to the majority world.

Clarkston Bible Church in Clarkston, Georgia, has already awakened to the new reality. Older white southern women in their Sunday finery find themselves worshiping with immigrants from the Philippines, Togo, refugees form war-torn Liberia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Afghanistan. Slowly, more and more churches are becoming much more like our richly multi-cultural world. But not only traditional churches are beginning to wake to this new reality. Young innovators are as well. Increasingly, multi-cultural leaders are beginning to come to the fore.

Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson’s book The Hip Hop Church and Tommy Kyllonen’s Un.orthodox offer compelling evidence that God is doing something new through young people from a spectrum of diverse cultures. Acknowledging some of the difficult issues associated with hip-hop culture, for example, sex, violence and materialism, both books recognize hip-hop as not just an expression of urban African-American culture, but the language of a new generation all over the planet, connecting young people in Britain, Germany and Japan.

Though most in the mosaic stream have never heard the word “postmodernity,” the urban youth of hip hop culture share a suspicion of modernity, authority and pat answers with the young leaders of the emerging church. Efrem Smith tells me that urban hip-hop culture isn’t just postmodern, but also post-institutional, post-soul and post-civil rights too.

Urban African-American young people are hungry for a spirituality to which they can relate. There are reportedly some 20 hip hop churches in United States and more are coming. Hip-hop churches are only one expression of what God is doing through a growing number of multicultural churches.

Kyllonen reminds us that the times are changing: “The emerging church is also the young black male in the hood. It is the second-generation Mexican in LA and the child of the Chinese immigrant in Houston. The emerging church is the Puerto Rican female on Wall Street.”

A number of second-generation Asian churches in Canada and the United States have chosen to become multicultural congregations. Some multicultural churches in California came together around inter-racial families that didn’t feel completely at home in mono-cultural churches.

There are even a few mono-cultural churches that are beginning to question whether that model is fully biblical. Kingston United Reformed Church in Britain, comprised of Korean, Russian, Nigerian, Chinese and English members, has worked very intentionally to become a multicultural congregation. Pastor Leslie Charlton believes diversity is essential to being church. “You cannot call yourself a church if you are all the same.” She added, “It may be a nice group, but a church, like the kingdom of God, must have room for everybody.”

In Doug Lee’s church plant, called Catalyst in Culver City, California, the multiethnic congregation enjoys the rich gifts of several different cultures. People from the South Pacific Islands bring a spirit of warmth, welcome and generosity. African American members teach others about being fully present to God and highly invested in worship. Latino members remind the congregation of the importance of family and hospitality. And Asian members bring service without the need for recognition. Doug Lee says his church family is richer because of diverse gifts people bring.

I experience something of the rich gifts of the tapestry of God’s new community at the annual conference of the Christian Community Development Association, started by John Perkins. They always have an urban choir in whatever city they are meeting that lifts our souls to the rafters. I also experience rich gifts at the Urbana Missions Conference because those who lead worship represent the many of the wonderful cultures of our world.

Mustard Seed Associates hosted an evening with community activist Rudy Carrasco called “The Color of Love in the City” to start a conversation about what love looks like between communities. After Rudy shared his stories, Eliacín Rosario-Cruz led a discussion on race and culture. To my surprise, people from a range of different racial backgrounds shared very openly about both their pain and their attempts to live faithfully in a multicultural society.

One of the most innovative congregations in the US in the area of ethnic diversity is a church in Southern California actually called Mosaic. It is located in Los Angeles, California, where people from all over the world settle. The church responds to the challenge of a multi-cultural, postmodern, pluralistic and global community. Like the emerging church, they give a major piece of their life and mission to the arts; their group Urban Poets includes artists, dramatists and social innovators.

Most of the pastors of these churches are not content to just create interesting programs to meet the needs of people within the building. Like missional leaders, these church planters are intent on involving their members in word and deed ministries that impact the lives of people in their communities. Eugene Cho created a multicultural church plant in Seattle called Quest. Quest has been devoted to local and global mission from its inception. Their coffee shop, the Q Café, serves as a place to engage their community and a performance space for local artists. They work with the homeless and offer computer education classes for kids struggling in school as well as being involved in global initiatives.

As you can see from this brief overview, multicultural churches—along with the increasing number of immigrant churches—are going to be part of the growing edge of the Church in Western countries. This new mosaic stream is quite diverse, but what they all seem to share in common, like emerging churches, is their desire to a reach out to new generation. Like the missional churches they also see their mission much more focused on the needs of those beyond their congregation. We all need to pay more attention to what God is doing through the mosaic stream and explore new forms of collaboration that enable the church to lead in celebrating the gifts that will be a part of our richly multicultural future.




March 25, 2008

12 Marks of a New Monasticism


Throughout the history of the church, monastic movements have emerged to explore new ways of life in the abandoned places of society. School(s) for Conversion is a communal attempt to discern the marks of a new monasticism in the inner cities and forgotten landscapes of the Empire that is called America. This book invites us into a way of life that is simultaneously ancient and wonderfully new. By combining first-person accounts of the marks of Christ-formed communities with rich historical and biblical reflection, the various writers provide truthful and hope-filled descriptions of contemporary Christian community. First in a series. Paperback, 190 pages.



March 25, 2008

Biblical Wisdom for a New Monasticism


Conversations between contemporary Christian communities and Benedictine monasticism are among the most surprising and promising in the church today. Given that the roots of monasticism and of contemporary Protestantism lie in different parts of the Christian tradition, mutual engagement between contemporary Christians and monastics has been rare. Recently, however, the scene has shifted, and Inhabiting the Church represents the new eagerness to learn the art of living together faithfully from experienced and ancient practitioners.
—Christine D. Pohl, foreword

If the church is more than just a building, what could it mean to live in it — to inhabit it as a way of life? From their location in new monastic communities, the authors ask what the church can learn from St. Benedict’s vows of conversion, obedience, and stability about how to live as the people of God in the world. Second in the series that began with School(s) for Conversion. Paperback, 140 pages



March 25, 2008

The Journey of a New Monastic Community


In the 1930s, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer anticipated the restoration of the church after the coming second world war through a new kind of monasticism, a way of life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. Since then, the renewal of Christian monasticism has become a great spiritual movement. Imbued with a love for God and neighbor, and with a healthy self-love, people are going to monasteries to deepen their relationship with God, to pray, and to find peace. While some monastic institutions are suffering a decline in traditional vocations, many Christians are exploring monastic lifestyles. This book introduces The Community of the Transfiguration in Australia, the story of a new monastic community and an inspiring source of hope for the world at another time of spiritual, social, and ecological crisis. Third in the series that includes School(s) for Conversion and Inhabiting the Church. Paperback, 186 pages

Click here for “Community of the Transformation” on Amazon UK


NEW MONASTICISM:What It Has to Say to Today’s Church

March 25, 2008



“New Monasticism” is the name that a recently formed movement of evangelical Christian communities has given itself. In the last 10 years, more than 100 of these small communities have formed in order to seek a relationship to God through mission work, evangelization and radical poverty.

Frustrated with the increasing commercialization and social isolation of mainstream religion, New Monastics endeavor to live and interact with others as Christ would. Often from Protestant backgrounds, they seek to serve the wider church. Many are inspired by, and seek guidance from, traditional monasticism.



What It Has to Say to Today’s Church

“It’s hard to be a Christian in America,” writes Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a leader in the New Monasticism movement in America, a growing group of committed Christians who are living lives of radical discipleship. However, the movement doesn’t mirror traditional monasteries — many members are married with children and have careers, yet they live differently, often in community in once-abandoned sections of society.
Wilson-Hartgrove founded a New Monastic community and works with an alternative theological collaborative. In this book, he takes readers inside New Monasticism, tracing its roots throughout Scripture and history and illuminating its impact on the contemporary church. He identifies the key tenets of New Monasticism, including:

How monasticism is the oldest form of counter-culture in the West

God’s alternative economy and financial practices for church

Hospitality and active peacemaking

A model for grassroots ecumenism

What the church offers New Monasticism: stability, diversity, and structure

“Monasticism isn’t about achieving some sort of individual or communal piety. It’s about helping the church be the church,” Wilson-Hartgrove writes. A must-read for New Monastics or those considering joining the movement, this book will also appeal to 20- and 30-somethings, pastors, leaders, and those interested in the emerging church. Paperback, 160 pages

Click here for “New Monasticism” on Amazon UK



Downward Mobility in an Upscale World

March 25, 2008


The vision of Jesus is not spread through organizational structures, but through touch, breath, shared life. It is spread through people who have discovered love.

Not long ago, I sat and talked with some very wealthy Christians about what it means to be the church and to follow Jesus. One businessman confided, “I, too, have been thinking about following Christ and what that means … so I had this made.” He pulled up his shirt-sleeve to reveal a bracelet, engraved with W.W.J.D (What Would Jesus Do?). It was custom-made of twenty-four karat gold.

Maybe each of us can relate to this man — both his earnest desire to follow Jesus and his distorted execution of that desire, so bound up in the materialism of our culture. It is difficult to learn to live the downward mobility of the gospel in this age of wealth. For the most part, those of us who are rich never meet those of us who are poor. Instead, nonprofit organizations serve as brokers between the two in a booming business of poverty management.

I believe that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor, but that they do not know the poor. Yet if we are called to live the new community for which Christ was crucified, we cannot remain strangers to one another. Jesus demands that we live in a very different way.

I recently surveyed people who said they were “strong followers of Jesus.” Over 80 percent agreed with the statement, “Jesus spent much time with the poor.” Yet only 1 percent said that they themselves spent time with the poor. We believe we are following the God of the poor — yet we never truly encounter the poor.

About five years ago, I became part of a community called the simple way, a group of Christians literally born out of the wreckage of the church. Dozens of homeless families and children had moved into St. Edward’s, a cavernous, abandoned Catholic church in one of the most struggling neighborhoods of Philadelphia. A small group of us who were students at Eastern College, a suburban Christian school, decided to move in with them as a gesture of solidarity. From that initial step, one miracle followed another as those families mentored us in community, worship, and love.

Eventually, we settled in a rowhouse in Kensington, a few blocks from St. Edward’s. It is the poorest (but most beautiful!) district in Pennsylvania. There is no place we’d rather call home. Here, we play and dance. We plant gardens. We feed people. We cry. We have a community store. We help kids with homework. We live, and we spend our lives joining folks in poverty as they struggle to end it. Because we know that we cannot end poverty without ending wealth, we also spend time talking with Christian communities about our work and hosting visitors.

Before moving to St. Edward’s and then Kensington, I had worked in Calcutta, India, first at Mother Teresa’s home for the destitute dying and then in a leper colony. A week after returning to the United States, I began a year at Willow Creek Community Church, one of the largest, wealthiest congregations in the world — where a food court graces their worship center. Talk about culture shock!

This contrast brought me face to face with Christ’s radical love, a love strong enough to bring us together across chasms of difference. I longed for the two worlds to meet, for the lepers to know the landowners. I committed my life to trying to make that a reality.

Over the years I have come to see how charity fits into — and legitimizes — our system of wealth and poverty. Charity assures that the rich will feel good while the poor will remain with us. It is important that the poor remain with us, because our capitalist system hinges on it. Without someone on the bottom, there is no American dream and no hope for upward mobility.

Charity also functions to keep the wealthy sane. Tithes, tax-exempt donations, and short-term mission trips, while they accomplish some good, also function as outlets that allow wealthy Christians to pay off their consciences while avoiding a revolution of lifestyle. People do their time in a social program or distribute food and clothes through organizations which take their excess. That way, they never actually have to face the poor and give their clothes, their food, their beds. Wealthy Christians never actually have to be with poor people, with Christ in disguise.

If charity did not provide these carefully sanctioned outlets, Christians might be forced to live the reckless Gospel of Jesus by abandoning the stuff of earth. Instead, thanks to charity, we can live out a comfortable, privatized discipleship.

But when we get to heaven and are separated into sheep and goats (Matt. 25), I don’t believe Jesus is going to say, “When I was hungry, you gave a check to the United Way and they fed me” or “When I was naked, you donated to the Salvation Army and they clothed me.” Jesus is not seeking distant acts of charity. He is seeking concrete actions: “You fed me, … you visited me, … you welcomed me in, … you clothed me.…”

If we are to truly be the church, poverty must become a face we recognize as our own kin.

Several years ago, I attended a protest against sweatshops where the organizers had not invited the typical rally speakers — lawyers, activists, advocates. Instead, they brought kids from the sweatshops. A child from Indonesia pointed to his face. “I got this scar when my master lashed me for not working hard enough. When it bled, he did not want me to stop working or to ruin the cloth, so he took a lighter and burned it shut. I got this scar making stuff for you.”

I was suddenly consumed with the overwhelming reality of the suffering body of Christ. Jesus now bore not just nail marks and scars from thorns, but a gash down his face. How could I possibly follow Jesus and buy anything from that master?

If we are content with discipleship that ends merely with generosity, we still serve money. Generosity is a beautiful response, but we should not confuse it with love. Generosity is merely what is expected; what is required is to return that which has been stolen. God did not create some of us rich and others of us poor.

Basil the Great, writing in the fourth century, put it this way: “When someone strips a man of his clothes, we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not — should not he be given the same name? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.” Or, in the words of Dorothy Day, “If you have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor.” Should we not, then, return our stolen goods with humility, like a child returning a stolen candy bar to the grocery store clerk? Should we not cry out, in the words of St. Vincent de Paul: “May the poor man forgive me the bread I give him”?

Often wealthy folks ask me what they can do for the simple way. I could ask them for a few thousand dollars, but that would be too easy for both of us. Instead, I ask them to come visit. Writing a check makes us feel good and can fool us into thinking that we have loved the poor. But seeing the squat houses and tent cities and hungry children will wreck our lives. We will never again be the same.

As we have done this work and have accompanied others new to it, we’ve come to see a pattern. People join us with the idea of “saving the poor.” Later, they say instead that “the poor saved me.” But both comments have one thing in common. They revolve around me — what I have to give poor people and what they can give me. God wants us to move beyond ourselves to join all of creation in groaning for liberation. There we face, perhaps for the first time, the reality that we, too, are poor.

I believe the church has forgotten its identity. The church is not an institution, a meeting, or a building. It is not something we go to. The church is something we are — an organism, not an organization.

Instead of living out this alternative vision, the church has been content to be a broker between the rich and the poor. Both those trapped in poverty and those trapped in riches view the church as a distribution center, a place where the poor come to get stuff and the rich come to dump stuff. No radical new community is formed.

In this model, both go away satisfied (the rich feel good, the poor get fed) — but neither goes away transformed. They do not join together to discover a new way of living.

In ministering in this way, the church has adopted the model of many of our nonprofit organizations. Functionally, many nonprofits act as brokers between the rich and the poor. They facilitate the exchange of goods and services, putting plenty of professionals in the middle to guarantee that the rich do not have to face the poor and that power does not shift. Rich and poor are kept in separate worlds. Charity does not feed fundamental change.

Brokering poverty also seduces Christians into being gatekeepers to power. Our progressive movements are haunted by the temptation to facilitate power. If anything, the recent dismantling of the welfare system and the corresponding public praise of small attempts by churches, nonprofits, and other faith-based institutions to take up the slack has increased this pressure. Policies like charitable choice (where churches compete for federal funding to run social programs) allow our government to pat churches on the back: “You do a better job at managing poverty than we do, so we’ll just discontinue our social supports and let you do the job!” And our churches, flattered and uncritical, scramble for the new state money like a prize.

In that model, the power structure has not budged. The power has merely changed hands. But power does not trickle down. Just as trickle-down economics has failed, trickle-down politics does not bring change.

Many beautiful Christians working for social change in a range of movements believe we can bring about fundamental change by using power benevolently rather than reworking the power equation. We see ourselves as the good guys who will use our influence for justice — and perhaps, in these terms, we succeed in getting our candidate on the ballot or elected. But the Christ we follow has a different, harder path–one of downward mobility, of struggling to become the least, of joining those at the bottom.

Several years ago, I was at a meeting where a new movement to end poverty was announced. I looked around. The only poor people in sight were the handful of people I had come with. Launching a movement to end poverty without poor people in critical roles is like launching a civil rights movement without Black people, or a feminist movement without women. As long as the poor are not present and intricately involved in the process, ending poverty will remain an intellectual, political concept. It will not convert us.

The church needs to stop talking about ending the pain of the poor and instead join the poor. All around us, the poor are crying out. They can no longer be silenced. Wherever that outcry is heard, the church must be present.

All this does not mean that social-service organizations do not do a great deal of good. I am not calling for all these organizations to be dismantled. But I am calling Christians to ask critical questions about their relationship to God’s poor people.

I believe all our “programs” should have their genesis in true relationship. At our house, we tutor — but we did not start by deciding to do a tutoring program. We simply fell in love with kids who needed help with their homework. We feed people — but we did not begin with a decision to start a feeding program. We simply fell in love with our neighbors, and they were hungry.

We have now established a nonprofit organization ourselves, but we did this in order for the organization to serve us. We are not committed to the organization, but rather to our fellowship together.

I see many communities doing amazing things through established organizations. God can — and does — work through these organizations. But the reign of God dwells in people.

Those of us who yearn for the kingdom of God must follow in the steps of Jesus. Jesus was not “in charge” of the poor. He was poor. The message of Christ from the manger to the cross is that the world is conquered through weakness, through leastness, through struggle–not from the top, but from the bottom.

The people wanted a mighty Messiah. They got a baby refugee. They wanted a powerful king to take over Rome. They got a wandering homeless man. He could have saved the world with his mighty power, but he did it through his ridiculous love. The power of God lies in the brokenness of Jesus: naked, cursed, spit upon, with birds picking at his flesh as he died the rotten death of a criminal.

The great temptation of the church, and of every believer, is the offer Satan made to Jesus in the desert: to win the world with power. But power will not end poverty. We must discover another way of living.

Jesus did not set up a program, but rather modeled a way of living that incarnated the reign of God. That reign did not spread through organizational establishments or structural systems. It spread through touch, through breath, through life. It spread through people who discovered love.

I am haunted by the command of Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves. I struggle because I sleep in a house while my neighbor sleeps in a cardboard box; I eat twice a day while my neighbor hasn’t eaten once. I draw strength from following Jesus in community. I live with people who, if they pass someone with a worse pair of shoes, have taken their shoes off and switched; people who have quietly handed over winter jackets to someone they met on the street without a coat.

This is the reckless love of Jesus, which teaches us to see the connections between our wealth and our neighbor’s poverty. The love of Jesus will teach us another way of doing life, a way that will bring God’s reign to earth as it is in heaven. The reign of God is not for the future. It is something we live today.

Jesus reminds us that it is easy to love people who are just like us: “Even idolators do that” (Matt. 5:47). We are called to love those who hate us. Love those who create poverty, and love those who are trapped in it. See in each of them yourself — the same blood and tears We are all capable of the same evil, and we have potential for the same good. As one believer said, “In the oppressed I recognize my own face, and in the hands of the oppressor I recognize my own hands.” From addicts I learn of my addiction, and from the saints I learn of my holiness.

The God of love and the love of God know no bounds. The unending love of Jesus teaches revolutionaries to love police officers, anarchists to love politicians, vegetarians to love meat eaters, peacemakers to love soldiers. This is the love that makes us the church.

Ultimately, only this radical love of Jesus can end the poverty-wealth dichotomy. When the rich meet the poor, together they will end wealth. When the poor meet the rich, together they will end poverty.

People do not get crucified for charity. People are crucified for living out a love that disrupts the social order, that calls forth a new world. People are not crucified for helping poor people. People are crucified for joining them.

Few pastoral and practical guides help conscientized Christians to move beyond guilt, charity fatigue, or paralysis when they finally confront privilege that insulates. In Beyond Guilt (Adventure Publications, 2000), George Johnson addresses the struggles common to Christians as their social consciousness changes, moving through the natural emotional cycles of reflection, denial, and feelings of frustration and disempowerment to develop a commitment to justice that can be sustained. Though it sometimes diverts from its focus (moving privileged people into liberated, constructive engagement) to talk about the issues themselves, this is a good resource for individuals and groups who wish to make their privilege a tool of empowerment for themselves and others.

This article was first published in the November 1, 2000 issue of The Other Side, and was reprinted with permission of the author.