If you are new to this series, you can read the intro here. This post contains excerpts from 3 sections of my essay on The New Friars.
The New Friars differs slightly from the previous works discussed in this series of vignettes. Each of the books have described, to one degree or another, the call to the simplified, stable, communal life of the new monastics. One of the 12 Marks of new monasticism is relocation to the abandoned places of the empire. That commitment, perhaps one of the more easy to spot marks, has been displayed by groups sharing space with the homeless in Philadelphia, families living and working together on a farm; a small community of folks sharing life in a large house or even moving into a neighborhood together. We’ve seen a few who were willing to spend a season in India with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Mercy.
Bessenecker sets out to describe the prophetic call to relocate, not only to abandoned places of the Western Empire, but also to the abandoned corners of the globe. For the new friars, solidarity with the world’s poor extends beyond drinking fair trade coffee and boycotting globalization megastores that perpetrate the dehumanization of the two-third’s world. Instead the new friars are those who have left behind any number of comforts, friends and security to instead bind themselves to the poor and experience their fate. Friars, new and old, often take a vow to live in non-destitute poverty among the poorest of the poor.
It should be noted, before the reader’s blood pressure spikes, that Bessenecker acknowledges, “The call of the friars to bind themselves to the poor in a vocational way is a particular call, not a universal one. The universal call to any who profess to follow Jesus is to believe that he is the Son of God and to act like, no matter what we do for a living.”
Last week someone made an unnerving comment regarding my life as a church planter. “Not everyone is called to take their faith so seriously and do something as crazy as what your family has done. Most people are just called to be normal Christians.”
Not every preacher is called to leave their steady paycheck and begin starting new congregations...praying that eventually God would bring along a workable financial situation. Though, perhaps rather than people being called to leave the “secular” workforce to receive training and be ordained as full-time clergy, more clergy will be called to learn the holiness of a secular vocation; called to embrace life in their community, to relieve the financial burden of struggling congregations that don’t have anything left to give away after paying the bills.
Not every family is called to relocate in order to live, work and play among the marginalized. Though, I am convinced that every family should be aware of the marginalized, overlooked, forgotten and oppressed people that are already in their midst (they’re there, I can almost guarantee it).
I find little evidence to suggest there is now or ever was such a creature as a “normal Christian.” We are a peculiar people, called to follow the Way of the Risen King. We are those who both experience and anticipate a new existence. Living into this seemingly abnormal calling will not look identical from person to person and community to community. However, whatever it is we are called into, we should, with both confidence and humility, enter into that calling with the same prayer, commitment and dedication that any other person enters into theirs. Those who carry the name of Christ are those who display the new normal...even if it still appears abnormal to most people.
For New Monastic Communities: The New Friars does represent a slightly different calling than that which we have dealt with most commonly in this series. Hearing and responding to a call to voluntary poverty, particularly abject poverty among communities with little or no hope of recovery, is a weighty but worthwhile endeavor. It is not necessarily the same as the choice to live simply or to chose the path of downward mobility in community. It is a choice to, like Christ, live as hope among the hopeless; not swooping in as an aloof savior from on high, but settling in to share in the plight of those you love. The new friars are those who align themselves with the truly forgotten and oppressed because they are convicted God has done so as well.
New monastic communities will benefit from the expectation of these new friars, as described by Bessenecker. There is little hope for neighborhood renewal on a grand scale (at least immediately) for those living in the slums among the world’s poor. Their goal is to love. Their goal is to share in the ministry of presence. To be there and to remind others that God was already there.
There is a temptation among Western (or perhaps all) monastic communities to locate success in the neighborhood and societal reforms that our presence has influenced. We describe neighborhood watch programs, community picnics, reduction in crime, rezoning legislation, return of police presence, crackdowns on slumlords and drug-dealers.
These are certainly exciting, and precisely the kinds of effects we might expect to find in the wake of Jesus. Still, there is a danger of becoming a social agency whose existence is defined, not by the presence of Christ, but by the success of our projects. Will we remain faithful even if the police never respond to our 911 calls? Will we maintain solidarity with these people if the slumlord and the drug dealer continue to hold sway? Will we chose to stay if the schools continue to deteriorate and the medical care is still just out of reach?
The new friars encourage us to say, “Yes!” followed by a deeply felt, “come Lord Jesus.”
For the Established Church: In the book, Bessenecker mentions his work, and that of several organizations, in recruiting students and young adults to live, for a season, among the world’s poor. It strikes me that churches should be leading the way in sending missionaries out to proclaim life, light and hope. Bessenecker notes that throughout history the periodic times of renewal and reform have typically been led (from a human viewpoint) by youth17 and this new movement appears to be no different.
With that said, why is it that most of our churches experience disturbingly high percentage of teenagers graduating from high school and leaving the church altogether? Perhaps our kids no longer recognize the Church as a valid place to be a part of something revolutionary and worthwhile.
I recently attended a conference where Alan Hirsch made the comment that Western Christians have attempted to eliminate risk from our lives and in so doing we’ve lost our sense of adventure and we’ve lost out on the full and passionate life available to us. Jim Rayburn, founder of the Christian parachurch ministry, Young Life, was known to say, “Its a sin to bore a kids with the gospel.” Perhaps in our attempts to keep our kids entertained we’ve bored them all the more.
What if in addition to using the latest technology, relevant speakers, music and free food to call kids to pledge sexual purity, avoid drugs and recycle, we also invite young people to join Christ in changing the world? What if, instead of ski trips in Colorado, we dedicated resources to introducing our young people opportunities for solidarity with the poorest of the poor? What if our churches once again became the primary sending ground for radical missionaries of hope?
Throughout this series of papers, we’ve acknowledged that though there are often ways in which the principles can be applied and the prophetic call can be invigorating, many established congregations will either not be willing, not be able or not be called to transition wholly into more monastic expressions of faith. In this case, it may be that the Spirit, through Bessenecker’s work, may be calling us to, once again, “Set apart... Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”