In an era in which televangelists and megachurches dominate the face of American evangelicalism, offering a version of Christianity inflected by populist aesthetics and the gospel of prosperity, the rise of the New Monastics suggests that mainstream worship is leaving some people cold. Already, they are transforming evangelical religious life in surprising ways. They are post-Protestants, breaking old liturgical and theological taboos by borrowing liberally from Catholic traditions of monastic prayer, looking to St. Francis instead of Jerry Falwell for their social values, and stocking their bookshelves with the writings of medieval mystics rather than the latest from televangelist Joel Osteen.
All share a common frustration with what they see as the overcommercialized and socially apathetic culture of mainstream evangelicalism. They perceive a “spiritual flabbiness in the broader church and a tendency to assimilate into a corrupt, power-hungry world.”
New Monasticism is part of a broader movement stirring at the margins of American evangelicalism: Evangelicals disillusioned with a church they view as captive to consumerism, sectarian theological debates, and social conservatism. Calling themselves the “emerging church” or “post-evangelicals,” these Christians represent only a small proportion of the approximate 60 million evangelical Americans. Yet their criticisms may resonate with more mainstream believers. A recent study by Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois – one of the most influential megachurches in the nation – discovered that many churchgoers felt stalled in their faith, alienated by slick, program-driven pastors who focus more on niche marketing than cultivating contemplation. The study suggested that megachurch members know how to belt out jazzy pop hymns from their stadium seats, but they don’t always know how to talk to God alone.
Many New Monastics live and worship together, and their practices sometimes resemble the communes and house churches associated with the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. Like the hippies who were “high on Jesus,” New Monastics tend to favor simple living, left-leaning politics, and social activism. However, they are quick to cite the intellectual seriousness and monastic forms of prayer and study that set them apart. “I doubt most of the Jesus Movement people were reading the philosophers of their day in the way I have friends reading Zizek and Derrida,” said Mark Van Steenwyk, founder of Missio Dei, a New Monastic community in Minneapolis. Van Steenwyk’s group has also compiled its own breviary, a book of scriptural texts that guides the group’s abbreviated version of the divine office sung in monasteries.
“The real radicals aren’t quoting Che Guevara or listening to Rage Against the Machine on their iPods,” writes Wilson-Hartgrove in a forthcoming book, “New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church.” “The true revolutionaries are learning to pray.”
They embrace ecumenism over doctrinal debate, encourage female leadership, and care far more about social justice and the environment than about the culture wars.
Serving the poor is not a new impulse among evangelicals, but serious contemplation is. American culture has never placed a high priority on solitude, and historically, self-denial has gone hand in hand with bustling capitalist productivity, not contemplation (though the Puritans did balance their active lives with a heavy dose of journaling and soul-searching). America has produced a few geniuses of contemplative life – Henry Thoreau and Emily Dickinson come to mind – but we have no indigenous contemplative tradition comparable to that of Catholic Europe or Buddhist Japan. Yet contemplation is the heart of what it means to be a monk: the root of the word, monos, means “alone” in Greek.