For my Sociology class this Interterm, I had to write a research paper involving the Sociology of Faith and the Bible. I chose to write mine on the New Monastic movement in America. It’s a bit of a read, but if you have time, it would be really cool if you read it.
Capitalism. Liberty. Money. Opportunity. When we think of the “American Dream,” we often picture someone like John Rockefeller or Henry Ford. What is it about their lives that makes them successful? In my opinion, it was their drive and their never-ending desire to reach their goals despite difficult circumstances. But would we consider individuals like Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove or Sean Gladding, some of the leading men in the New Monastic Movement in America, in the same way? I think it is fair to say that all of these men have a drive and never-ending desire to reach goals despite difficult circumstances. However, their lives could hardly be described by the words mentioned earlier; in fact, these men are hardly interested in the concept of capitalism, money, or a “rags to riches” story. In the following pages, I will tell you why the stories of these men differ so greatly from our common picture of the “American Dream” and why maybe we could reconsider the effect the Bible should have on the way we live our lives.
First things first, I need to give a bit of history to show the common bond that all of these men hold: New Monasticism. The first example of this can be seen in Acts 2, starting in verse 42, saying,
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2:42-46, New International Version)
It goes on in Acts 4 to say,
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)
What is portrayed here was a common Christian community at this time; however it is a little more difficult to say when the New Monastic movement came about in North America. One individual that has been very influential in making the New Monastic movement much more mainstream in the Christian world is Shane Claiborne. Through the books he has written, such as Irresistible Revolution and Jesus For President, Claiborne has been rather outspoken about his thoughts on how he believes Christians should live regardless of location.
In Claiborne’s (2006) book, Irresistible Revolution, some insight is shared on how he thinks Christians ought to be living their lives in a different fashion than normal Americans. He tells a story about a wealthy businessman who confided in him. The businessman tells Claiborne, “I, too, have been thinking about following Christ and what that means… so I had this made.” He then pulls up his sleeve to show off a bracelet engraved with WWJD. It was custom-made of twenty-four karat gold. Claiborne goes on to say, “The more I’ve gotten to know rich folks, the more I am convinced that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor, but that rich Christians do not know the poor.” (2006) Later on in his book he says,
“Layers of insulation separate the rich and the poor from truly encountering one another. There are the obvious ones like picket fences and SUVs, and there are more subtle ones like charity. Tithes, tax-exempt donations, and short term mission trips, while they accomplish some good, can also function as outlets that allow us to appease our consciences and still retain a safe distance from the poor.” (2006)
When looking at Claiborne’s lifestyle, he offers one of the most realistic imitations of Christ that America has seen. While most Christians feel that the easiest thing to do is ignore the poor and dismiss their needs because it is inconvenient for them, Claiborne and other followers of the New Monastic way of life feel that their duty is to live a simple life with shared possessions and give to anyone and everyone as they have need.
Understanding what the New Monastic movement does, it is crucial to understand the motives and reasoning behind the individuals who take part in such communities. In the chapter aptly titled “Another Way of Doing Life,” Claiborne talks a lot about the motivation behind why he chose a New Monastic lifestyle. His mission was simple: love God, love people, and follow Jesus. A group of six students from Eastern College near Philadelphia decided to move into a small house in Kensington, an extremely poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. He says in the chapter, “We had no idea what we were getting into. We had no big vision for programs or community development. We wanted only to be passionate lovers of God and people and to take the gospel way of life seriously.” (2006)
In the subchapter titled “Shouting the Gospel with our Lives,” Claiborne talks about the concept of “come and see.” He says,
“So if someone asked me to introduce them to Jesus, I would say, ‘Come and see. Let me show you Jesus with skin on.’ Sometimes we have evangelicals (usually from the suburbs) who pretentiously ask how we ‘evangelize people.’ I usually tell them that we bring folks like them here to learn the kingdom of God from the poor, and then send them out to tell the rich and power there is another way of life being born in the margins. For Jesus did not seek out the rich and powerful in order to trickle down his kingdom. Rather, he joined those at the bottom, the outcasts and undesirables, and everyone was attracted to his love for people on the margins.”
It is quite intriguing the stark difference in approach that Jesus used to reach the masses in comparison to the average American. Even in the American Christian community, it is often the goal to move up in the world and be promoted at any position you hold. Whether it is for high status, pay raise, or increased benefits, Americans often do everything they can to be more successful.
Despite the large contrasts in method, one thing remains true in both approaches to a successful life: a focus on relationships. Claiborne spends over 2 1/4 pages talking about the different kinds of relationships that are built by simply being present. Your average American college student knows that getting a job after college is rarely what you know, but “who you know.” But what is the reasoning behind forming these relationships? For most Americans, it gives them an entrance into the environment they are pursuing, allowing them to reach their goal of moving up in the world. With Claiborne, and any New Monastic you will meet, it is about being Jesus to that person in that moment. As the old Franciscan slogan goes, “Preach the gospel always, and when necessary, use words.”
On Friday January 20, 2012, I had the opportunity to personally interview Sean Gladding and ask several questions about his lifestyle and the impact the Bible has had on why he chose a New Monastic lifestyle. When I mentioned to him the intent of my interview and told him about the research I had already completed, he said to me, “The most articulate voice of New Monasticism is Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove… The two most helpful books are The Wisdom of Stability and New Monasticism: What it says about the church.” (2012) (Unfortunately, the Greenville College library did not have these books and they did not come in time from other libraries for me to use them fully.)
Gladding first experienced New Monastic living when he started attending Asbury Seminary in 1998. An Australian named John Smith, who played a big part in the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, was a big influence in Gladding’s life and it was his idea to start a “missional community” in the city of Lexington called Communality. During the summer of 1999, twelve Asbury students moved into the city and began living together in three or four different houses and “just started loving [their] neighbors.” (2012)
Gladding told me that in 1999, when they first started their community, the term that was most commonly used among the people involved in it was “missional community.” The term came from the book Missional Church (1998), and the community members were very inspired by what they had read from this book. This lifestyle gave their entire community an opportunity not only to talk about a missional life, but to truly live a missional life.
After a seven year stint as a Co-Pastor at a United Methodist megachurch in Houston, Sean and his wife Rebecca moved back to Lexington to live in Communality. Upon returning, he told me it was a very different community than when they left in 2002. When asked if the change was good or bad, he said it was more of a change in environment. When the Gladding family left Communality in 2002, the community had been renting a house on High Street downtown where they were hosting services, communion, ESL classes, live music every Friday night, and interfaith dialogues. However, during the time they were gone, this neighborhood went from a run-down part of town to a business district. Because of this, Communality was forced to relocate in order to continue reaching out to the needy in Lexington. Now their main facility is a borrowed space from an Anglican church in the city where they meet weekly to share a meal together.
When asked how the Bible has dictated his lifestyle or convicted him into this style of living, he answered by first explaining his interpretation of the Scripture. It is his belief that “The story of the Bible is God’s plan to save the world through a people.” (2012) He also goes on to say “God’s intent was for there to be ‘a people’ through whom God would reign.” (2012) When speaking about the idea behind salvation, Gladding says “God’s plan is not to rescue individual people from eternal hell, but it is for God to redeem all that God is made through a people who are faithfully seeking to live the kind of holiness that God has always asked of God’s people.” (2012) It is because of this, he says, “All of us have an important role in the story and all of us have an important role to play in the story of God’s people through whom God is redeeming all of creation, and I want to be part of a group of people that is not homogenous.” Because of this interpretation and understanding of Scripture, Sean feels that the best place for his family to live this life is in a missional community.
The last question of the interview was whether he thought, in his opinion, that the New Monastic lifestyle is something every Christian should do. Before I could finish the question, he answered very quickly with a “no.” He responded by saying “There is not anything that every Christian should do. The only thing that every Christian should do is love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Everything else is up for grabs.” (2012)
If you look at what any individual in the New Monastic movement has to say about the movement itself, they will all tell you that it is constantly reforming and changing. Gladding put it well when he said “Even with the ancient and traditional monasticism, it was always a reforming movement from within the church to not become the church, but to show there are some important things being lost.” Whether you look at the roots of this movement from the Scriptures in Acts or listen to the people who are actively living in community currently, you see that they hold a very different worldview than most Americans of any walk. The Gospel of Matthew reads, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21) While many Americans, and dare I say even Christians, spend their time taking advantage of getting ahead in this capitalist culture we take part in everyday, men like Shane Claiborne, Sean Gladding, and Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove live a much different life investing not in assets, but in humanity.
Claiborne, S., & Wallis, J. (2006). The irresistible revolution: living as an ordinary radical. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company.
Stock, J. R., Otto, T., & Wilson-Hartgrove, J. (2006). Inhabiting the church, biblical wisdom for a new monasticism.
Wilson-Hartgrove, J. (2008). New monasticism, what it has to say to today’s church. Brazos Press.
Freeman, A., & Greig, P. (2007). Punk monk, new monasticism and the ancient art of breathing. Regal.
Talbot, J., & Moring, M. (2011). Two minutes with… John Michael Talbot. Christianity Today, 55(6), 75-22.
Wuthnow, R. (1980). Living Together Alone: The New American Monasticism. Theology Today, 36(4), 609-611.
Rubta House (2005). School(s) for conversion, 12 marks of a new monasticism.
Claiborne, S. (2009, January 09). Interview by Relevant Magazine [Personal Interview]. Q&a with shane claiborne. , Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/Claiborne-Interview.
Gladding, S. (2011, January 20). Interview by M. Moore [Personal Interview].