In a brilliant display of procrastination from my seminary homework, I’m presenting you with yet another neo-monastic discourse. Now we move from some of the cultural connections of evangelical neo-monasticism to discuss its practical application and historical precedents.
One questions demands our attention above all else: Is this sort of Christian community possible in this day and age? The answer is, of course, yes. Neo-monastic communities are already popping up all over North America. The real difficulty comes in considering the makeup of these communities. I’ve said several times that it would be good if neo-monastic villages could embrace a wide range of ages (and, if possible, subcultures and ethnicities), but most of the emerging communities are largely being formed by young adults, usually no older than their late 20s. But, practically speaking, I think that’s how it would have to start. While it shouldn’t be a great surprise if Christians of other age groups decide to join once the community is up and running, the fact is that young adults have the greatest flexibility and independence of any group. Many are just coming out of college and haven’t put down permanent roots in a particular place. They also tend to be somewhat poorer, again because of college (and to that I can attest from personal experience). These factors make it easier for them to commit to a communal lifestyle of voluntary poverty. Older age groups, however, already have houses and properties of their own, and so the sacrifice would be greater for them. If the movement is to start from the grassroots of American evangelicalism, it would probably have to be the young adults that start it.
We need now to turn our attention to historical precedents. The very first comes in Acts 2, in the initial form of the early church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer….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. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (vv. 42, 44-47).
A number of things need to be noted in conjunction with this. First, there is no evidence that any of the other New Testament churches operated on such a communitarian basis. In fact, there is no evidence that even the Jerusalem church continued in this pattern (but, on the other hand, there’s no evidence that they didn’t). Second, none of the regulations given for church organization in the pastoral epistles require this sort of organization. The point is that the New Testament allows for an incredible breadth of expression when it comes to ecclesiastical organization and leadership. We should not remain in the rut of thinking that the current paradigm of pastor/deacon board/church body is the biblical model. In fact, the evidence would suggest that ultimate leadership is more properly held by a group of elders rather than by a single pastor. My contention, however, is that since the NT allows such fluidity in organizing the church, and since the first model of the church (a communitarian one) seemed to work pretty well for them, why not give it another shot? My argument for neo-monasticism comes down to this: it’s not the only way, and quite possibly not the best way, but it’s a way that deserves to be tried.
Now that I’ve rushed through the relevant Scriptural connections much too quickly, let’s get on to the really exciting stuff: church history. Though there are numerous groups throughout history that have exemplified in one way or another the model I’m attempting to resurrect, I’ll only highlight four here: early Celtic missional monasticism, especially the form used by Columbanus; the Franciscan and Dominican movements; the Jesuits; and Zinzendorf’s Moravians. All four of these groups share some combination of a communal lifestyle, a devotional emphasis, and a missional passion.
In the latter years of the sixth century, as the western Roman Empire continued to become more and more of a memory, the territories of Frankish Gaul, originally evangelized by intrepid missionaries such as Martin of Tours, Samson, and Aredius, fell into a spiritual languor. The ruling warrior aristocracies were largely rural-based, and felt no deep connection to the urban Christianity of the old Roman provincial cities. The spark that re-lit the evangelization of Gaul came from an odd source—not Rome or Constantinople, but Ireland. During that period the Irish church was flourishing and sending out missionaries all through England and Scotland. One of these missionaries, Columbanus, crossed the English channel and began planting monasteries in northern Gaul. Columbanian monasticism appealed to the rural culture of the Frankish patrimonies in a way that other forms hadn’t. The monasteries became missionary bases, at which new monks could be trained and sent out, and they in turn would found monasteries in unevangelized territories. Within Columbanus’ lifetime this explosive spread of Celtic monastic Christianity brought him all the way across Gaul and into northern Italy. The dynamics of early Frankish Christianity are too complex to be explored here, but I’ve chosen this example to show that even in its earliest forms, monasticism did not preclude missionary outreach. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that monasticism was the vehicle that brought Western Europe to Christ.
Our second example is more familiar—many have, at one time or another, run across the delightfully enigmatic St. Francis of Assisi, who is well known for a number of things, including stripping down before a bishop, chatting with birds, fish, and wolves, and joining a crusade in order to preach to a Muslim sultan. St. Francis appeared on the scene in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, but even before his advent monasticism had sparked an incredible revival of devotional fervor across Europe. The monastery at Cluny had been at the forefront of this movement, bearing in its wake such spiritual giants as Bernard of Clairvaux. Then came Francis and the mendicant orders. The Franciscans were troubadours for God, going out into the streets to find men where they were and to preach the gospel. Their fellow friars, the Dominicans, were also a preaching order, and together these two groups of Christians captured the imagination of the European church. Francis in particular had a passionate desire to minister to Muslims, trying several times to go to Morocco before finally finding a way to visit Egypt instead. One Franciscan, Raymond Lull, is now remembered as perhaps the greatest missionary of his age to the Muslims.
In the turbulent years of the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century, yet another order arose in the Catholic Church—the Jesuits. The Jesuits were inspired by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the author of the Spiritual Exercises, and it was their outreaching (and sometimes hostile) action that reenergized Catholic Christianity and stalled the geographic progress of the Protestant Reformation. Jesuit missionaries flooded Europe, but they didn’t stop there. Hundreds of years before Protestants even began thinking about missions in the global sense, Jesuits were carrying the gospel and the Catholic Church all over the world—in eastern Europe, Africa, India, the East Indies, China, Japan, as well as in North and South America, in conjunction with French and Spanish colonialism. One of the greatest missionary heroes of all time, St. Francis Xavier, from the founding circle of sixteenth-century Jesuits, pioneered missions in India and China before dying in a final push to reach Japan. The Jesuits' passion for missions was unmatched until the Protestant surge three hundred years later.
The final example, and perhaps the best, comes from a Protestant group popularly known as the Moravians—Protestant refugees who had fled from persecutions in Bohemia and Moravia in the early eighteenth century and settled on the property of a nobleman named Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Zinzendorf, a man with Pietist leanings, organized these refugees into a village called Herrnhut, and he became the bishop of their church. But this little village of Protestant refugees would soon shake the world. They began a daily round of prayer in which there would always be someone in the community at prayer, no matter what hour of the day. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, they prayed. Popular tradition has it that this prayer cycle went on unbroken for a full century. Zinzendorf soon caught a vision for global missions, and members of the Herrnhut Moravian community began going out to serve the Lord overseas, something almost unheard of in Protestant circles at the time. Moravian missionaries showed an admirable zeal for the work, some even going so far as to sell themselves into slavery in order to preach the gospel to slaves in the West Indies. Later the Moravians’ piety would be a major influence in the spiritual journey of John Wesley, one of the key evangelists of the Great Awakening.
These are just a few examples, but they illustrate the neo-monastic vision well. There can be a wild and beautiful power in intentional Christian community, a power that we have largely lost here in American evangelicalism. In a generation where more young people are going more often around the world but at the same time speaking less about Jesus, neo-monasticism could be the spark for a new evangelistic missions movement. It’s worth a try.