What is the New Monasticism?

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : March 5, 2008

I get asked this question a lot. When some people hear this phrase, their mind immediately goes to the medieval period. They assume that “new monasticism” means “a return to medieval monasticism.” Others hear “new monasticism” and they think of a particular community–like the Northumbria Community or the Simple Way or Rutba House. Still others read one of the few books about it and think that the description contained therein captures the movement.

All of these definitions of “new monasticism” (and also the ones floating around the internet) are insufficient. Why? Because a list of 12 Marks (fyi: the 12 Marks of a New Monasticism should never be seen as a litmus test. Not all communities fit the description…and many communities weren’t a part of drafting these 12 Marks) or a quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was exploring the monastic impulse in the midsts of 20th Century Nazi Germany) or the experiences of one community (just like one church shouldn’t define all churches) cannot capture the movement, which is much broader than most folks seem to recognize. There isn’t just one face to this movement…one voice…or one spokesperson.

For some reason, human beings tend to use words to limit, rather than to inspire. When someone utters the words “new monasticism,” folks immediately attempt to define what the movement is…to understand it in its totality. This is unfortunate, because the word “new” was placed in front of “monasticism” to inspire–to invite someone into reimagination.

New monasticism isn’t primarily about nostalgia (as though merely appropriating old stuff into our context will bring about transformation) it is about quickening the prophetic imagination to wonder about what it could look like to embody the Gospel in our day. The phrase conjures up images of monks and abbeys, to be sure, but it doesn’t invite us to stay there. Instead, it asks: what if we, in our day, attempted a similar project as Benedict or Francis did in their day? What if we, on the fringes of Empire, sought a communal incarnational spiritual life in a way that sought to embody the teachings of Jesus Christ?

New Monasticism learns from the old, but it doesn’t seek to re-create it. It is an imaginative movement inspired by the past but open to new possibilities.

This is why there are so many different communities–each with a unique charism. While there is often some reoccurring themes, communities tend to have unique strengths. It seems to me that new monastic communities enter into this movement through one of several ways:

  • They start as activistic communities that share housing (in the long tradition of the activist communal experiments) .
  • They begin with a desire to be a place of recovery or healing.
  • They flow out of a set of relationships–it seems a natural step for a group of friends or family to share resources and serve out of those relationships.
  • They begin as a ministry team that decides to become an intentional community as well.
  • They are a house church that desires to go deeper.
  • They start as an artist’s cooperative.
  • They begin with a desire for a greener, simpler, life.
  • They begin as an experiment in spiritual practices.

The new monasticism is as diverse as the old. Missio Dei started as a network of three house churches with a missional impulse. The more we pursued that missional impulse, the more monastic we’ve become. We pursue simplicity and prayer, but we are best at things like hospitality and feel like we are growing in our capacity to offer creative resistance to the Empire.

But what IS new monasticism? At the very least, I think almost every community can agree on the following:

  1. New monasticism has a strong focus on orthopraxy.
  2. New monasticism learns (but isn’t necessarily limited by) traditional monasticism.
  3. New monasticism places the teachings of Jesus at the center of the Gospel.
  4. New monasticism is attempting to reconnect to the ancient practice of hospitality.
  5. New monasticism is USUALLY practiced in proximity, and OFTEN in share living.
  6. New monasticism is USUALLY interested in embracing simplicity.
  7. New monasticism fosters spirituality through rhythms rather than events (in other words, it is about a way of life rather than a series of weekly, or bi-weekly, events).
  8. Almost all new monastic communities recognize that the larger culture is corrosive to the way of Jesus and seeks a community that helps them live out that way.

Beyond this, as far as I can tell, each community is different. So, if you’re exploring new monasticism, don’t be confined or limited by a book that you read. Publishing companies have a different agenda that the Spirit of God. Don’t feel like you suck because you’re not as awesome as Shane Claiborne. Don’t feel intimidated because your not as creative as Seven in San Francisco or as contemplative as Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove or as intellectual as so-and-so.Instead, gather together your friends and start serving a neighborhood and discern together where it leads. Obey the Gospels. Learn from some good books. But in all things let the Holy Spirit animate your endeavors so that you can be the community God wants you to be.

for further reading . . .

  • None Found


14 Responses to “What is the New Monasticism?”

  1. Jonas Lundström on March 5th, 2008 3:19 pm

    brilliant. thanks, Mark.

  2. Tanden Brekke on March 5th, 2008 4:15 pm


    this article had some good stuff in it. You are right on about words being restrictive instead of being freeing.

    I hope what you had to say inspires more people to dream and ask what could be?

  3. jonathan stegall » Blog Archive » links for 2008-03-05 on March 5th, 2008 5:36 pm

    [...] What is the New Monasticism? : Jesus Manifesto (tags: new-monasticism) [...]

  4. Joel on March 5th, 2008 5:43 pm

    “But in all things let the Holy Spirit animate your endeavors so that you can be the community God wants you to be.”

    This is precisely what the world needs more of. Groups need to actually follow the Spirit, not just talk about the Spirit and then do their own thing. Or worse… do nothing at all.

    See Mark, I’m not always being critical. :-)

  5. Dustin on March 6th, 2008 7:13 am

    As someone who is exploring the idea of intentional community with some friends, I deeply appreciate your words here. While I am in the processing of reading the “books,” I in no way feel a requirement to form myself or our community in any particular pattern, but rather feel that God is the author and creator, and thus our community will be formed by the Spirit.

    Great words which I will pass on to my friends.

  6. Jamie Arpin-Ricci on March 7th, 2008 9:25 am

    Hey Mark,

    Excellent post. Our little community here has always resonated with the NM, but felt we were always held to a litmus test, thus never really identified with it. Over the last year or so I came to same conclusions as you, encouraging our team that we should take what most inspires us and reimagine what means to be missional community together, regardless of what we call ourselves.

    As we enter into conversation about intentionally partnering with a local denomination to start a new church in our community, these points are affirmations of our vision. I may drop you a note via email, as I would love to chat about some ideas. Let me know if that’s cool.


  7. Mark Van Steenwyk on March 7th, 2008 9:29 am

    Hey Jamie…drop me an email anytime. I’m curious about what sort of things God is doing up in Winnipeg. I dated a girl from Winnipeg when I lived up near Fargo (the commute was too long to sustain the relationship). :)


  8. Jason Storbakken on March 7th, 2008 12:10 pm

    Peace & Grace, Friar Mark!

    Thanks for the sincerity and depth of this post. I agree that new monastic communities are quite varied. In NYC, there are intentional communities sprouting up all over the place. Some have just four people, others have more. It’s not the number of members, a charismatic leader, or the extravagance of the weekly/monthly events that should be the defining marks of the community but, like you said, the rhythm, Christ-centeredness, and the yielding to the Holy Spirit.

    Every blessing, bro!

  9. arthur on March 8th, 2008 1:06 am

    i’m part of what some would call a neomonastic community. however, there are some - even part of our community - that wouldn’t call it neomonastic! like you have said, it comes down to definitions, whose definition, etc.

    i think i prefer a really simple definition, something along the lines of “a group of people living and following Jesus together, committed to some sort of shared calling/rule of life/covenant.”

    i think most of the characteristics of neomonastic communities (how we do this life together) vary greatly. isn’t the fact that we are intentionally doing this in some particular way what makes us a community like this? i don’t know, maybe that’s oversimplifying things.

    i do like that most communities aren’t too dogmatic about their way, and generally embrace and encourage other communities, even when they live and practice differently.

  10. Steve Hayes on March 8th, 2008 1:52 am

    A group of us are having a synchroblog on the new monasticism — perhaps you’d like to join in.

  11. Mike Morrell on March 8th, 2008 3:20 pm

    Excellent article, Mark, and I’m curious–how would you respond to this–the ‘flaw’ of new monasticism?

  12. Mark Van Steenwyk on March 8th, 2008 5:53 pm

    The phrase “new monasticism” may be technically incorrect. But it is very useful for those within protestantism (especially evangelicalism). “Communities” isn’t a helpful description because it applies to everyone. The primary difference with neo-monasticism (which I prefer to the phrase “new monasticism”) is that it centers on praxis in proximity, and is often bound by a rule. It would be more accurate to refer to such communities as “religious orders” but such a phrase lacks the capacity to inspire or motivate.

  13. David on March 9th, 2008 12:53 am

    Mark. Do the NM movement have any relationship with the charismatic movement such as Vineyard? I believe the NM represents half the picture (hospitality, peacemaking etc) but I’m worried if the spiritual gifts and the orthopraxi of healing, prophetics, signs and wonders remains peripheral…


  14. Mark Van Steenwyk on March 9th, 2008 7:55 am

    I can’t speak for all NM communities on this (which is kinda the point of this post). I can however speak for my community. Most of us have some background with the Charismatic movement. We care about Spirit gifts. But I would say that things need to be put in proper perspective.

    Pentecostalism seems to get derailed easily when it makes the “things of the Spirit” the goal in themselves or the signs of revival. In large numbers, Pentecostals have jettisoned the radical Jesus stuff along the way and instead become susceptible to strange non-Gospel teachings of the Benny Hinn variety. I know that there are peace-loving, hospitable, holistic Pentecostals out there, but I hardly ever meet them these days.

Got something to say?