Friday, September 29, 2006


One of the peculiar things that fires my imagination and makes me really excited is monasticism. So, as if this blog wasn’t already too exciting to handle, I’m now introducing a series of articles on why I think monastic-patterned communities could revitalize the Western evangelical church. No doubt this is what you’ve been waiting for from me. Well, let me tell you plainly, it hasn’t been easy to hold back and find other things to write about the past few weeks.

I have a dream of someday joining or leading an evangelical monastic community. Let me first clear up a few misconceptions about the sort of monasticism I’m referring to, because we’ve all been trained to imagine a certain stereotype. The conventional image of a monastery for many of us is a community of sad and lonely men living separately from the world, focusing on prayers and self-flagellation in an effort to attain some sort of inside track to sanctification. Many people regard monasticism as something that would better be left in the Dark Ages. Some of these misconceptions are well-founded historically, others aren’t.

Monasticism was and is a broad movement throughout various cultures and periods of history, and not every incarnation of the monastic model was the same. Some separated themselves completely from the world in order to better pray and avoid temptation. Others were passionately outreaching and evangelistic. Some made a clear division between monks—those who could live a more fully ‘spiritual’ life—and the laity. Others embraced laypersons and sought to guide them to spiritual maturity through discipleship and example. But traditionally, Christian monasticism in general is a movement which seeks to follow Christ in constant community by adhering to the ideals of poverty, chastity, and obedience. And given some thought, I don’t think any Christian would venture to claim that that is a poor goal.

I’ve always had an attraction to the monastic lifestyle. Most of the heroes in my stories are either warriors or monks, or some combination of the two. In fact, all three of my historical fiction novels have the main characters eventually forming or joining some sort of quasi-monastic movement. But until about eight months ago, I never seriously considered the possibility of a modern evangelical monastic movement.

The idea first struck me in Angola, during a conversation with Kevin, a lone-wolf YWAM missionary currently living in Menongue. He was describing the current crisis of the Angolan church, how young people were turning to drinking and violence as urban culture began to transform the traditional village lifestyle of the Angolans. “We need to give them something more,” he said. “It just isn’t cutting it to have Sunday morning services and nothing else. They need something more than a youth choir to keep them involved in the church.”

“What about monasticism?” I asked, surprised at the idea myself.

He wasn’t too enthusiastic about it, having been trained to think of monasticism as a separatist movement. But the thought stuck with me. What if we could form Christian communities that lived together—families as well as single believers—worshiped together, and daily encouraged one another toward outreaching service and evangelism? The members of this community could still have outside jobs and be intimately involved with the surrounding neighborhoods, and the arrangement would empower members to see ministry as the task of the whole congregation rather than just the pastor.

And as I thought about it, I began to consider whether it could work in America. In the next few weeks I’ll be posting pieces that address this point in particular.

On returning to the US, I’ve been encouraged to find that this isn’t merely some wild fancy of my own. There are evangelical monastic groups popping up all over North America—families living together in simplicity and concentrating on outreach. These movements often call themselves ‘the new monasticism’. Perhaps the most well-known is a group in Philadelphia called the Simple Way, who live in an inner-city environment and minister to the people and areas around them. (One of the founder/leaders has a memoir-style book out, The Irresistible Revolution).

But one of the most encouraging things to me was to find an article from Christianity Today which spoke directly to this idea—that evangelicalism could benefit from a ‘re-monking’. The article opens with an anecdote about the respected pastor and church statesman John Stott, who, now in his later years, had been asked what he would do differently if he could go back to the beginning of his discipleship and start again. The article then gives his answer: “He would establish a kind of evangelical monastic movement.”

I’m not saying that this is the only way to go or the best idea out there for how to organize the church. But I am saying that it’s a good idea, and it deserves to be tried.