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New Monks, New Friars

As some of you all know I am part of a church that is among those in the movement known as the New Monasticism. It consists largely of small churches across the United States whose members live in close geographical proximity to one another, seek to relocate to the abandoned places of the empire, nurture a common life, live under a common rule (though the content of such a “rule” is pretty fluid between and even within communities), and practice Christian initiation, and a number of other such marks.

So, when I encountered a new book by Scott Bessenecker entitled The New Friars, I was intrigued. Bessenecker distinguishes the New Friars movement from the New Monasticism in a couple of ways. First, he explicitly notes that the New Monastics more closely resemble the pattern of cloistered order than a mission order, which the New Friars model themselves after. Or, to put it another way, for the New Monastics it is often St. Benedict who is the primary influence from the ‘old’ monasticism whereas for the New Friars, the stronger influence is St. Francis.

Bessenecker identifies the New Friars as an emerging group of radically mission-minded young Christians who take seriously a vocation of living among and serving the urban poor of the world establishing communities and fostering partnerships in such marginalized contexts. Central to his description of these New Friars is their vows of intentional marginalization.

The second feature that I’ve noticed thus far in reading Bessenecker’s book is that, for all of the commitment of the New Friars to communal living, the keeping of vows, and the practice of rule, this movement is notably less ecclesially centered than the kindred commitments of New Monastics. The movement also seems more centrally composed of young singles than families, and somewhat more nomadic in their mode of missionality. Whereas for the New Monastics a vow of stability and commitment to a given people is central, this seems to be different for the New Friars, or at least take a very different from.

It remains to be seen what the fruits of both of these movements will be. My own wonderings are how churches might establish partnerships, or sisterhoods between more monastic-style congregations and more friar-style communities that would strengthen both. For the moment, though we all should just thank God for the ways in which western protestants are reappropriating the monastic tradition. Adolf von Harnack was surely right in his statements about monasticism:

It was always the monks who saved the church when sinking, emancipated her when becoming enslaved to the world, defended her when assailed. These it was that kindled hearts that were growing cold, bridled refactory spirits, recovered for the church alienated nations.

(Adolf von Harnack, Monasticism: Its Ideals and History [London: Williams & Norgate, 1901, Reprint, Wipf and Stock Publishers], p. 64ff)


  1. Ben wrote:

    Questions about this “new monasticim” and the “new friars.”

    What is the degree of overlap in doctrine between these groups?

    What is the role of a rule? The role of an abbot/abbess?

    Are these permanent configurations? I mean to say, do the people who join these groups make a permanent vow?

    To where do these new friars encourage their listeners to go? (When they say “Return to the Church” where are they talking about? Where are they not talking about?)

    How large of a role does factionalism play in these groups? What is the rate of fissuring?

    Wednesday, May 2, 2007 at 5:21 am | Permalink
  2. Chris L. Rice wrote:

    I have this book and keep flipping through it. I’m thinking about ordering it for our bookstore at Cornerstone Festival at the end of June. Shane Claiborne is speaking this year from Simple Way. BTW, are you going to be at the Englewood Church conference on New Monasticism in June? We at JPUSA got invited and are planning on attending. We’re still trying to figure out where we fit into these movements. We have lots of friends around and folks come and stay with us and we cross-pollenate in ways. But as you said New Monasticism seems to be for smaller groups. Are we just too large and cumbersome?

    Wednesday, May 2, 2007 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Ben, maybe I’ll be able to answer those questions better when I’m finished reading the book. I feel like I’ve been over some of those with you already about the New Monasticism. The 12 Marks, which I linked to should give you an idea of the doctrinal overlap. The New Monasticism is not clerical, so there is no abbot/abbess per se, though there is always a leadership structure in such communities.

    I see the New Monastic communities as permanent. Generally they involve vows of stability. These new Friars? We’ll see.

    Wednesday, May 2, 2007 at 6:50 pm | Permalink
  4. Ben wrote:

    Hey Halden,

    We went over quite a bit in our previous conversation, but most of my angle there was, “These people really ought to get with the RC or EO Church.”

    Here my angle is more like, “How do these people organize themselves? What’s kosher and what’s not?”

    Friday, May 4, 2007 at 9:00 pm | Permalink
  5. Ben wrote:

    Hey Halden,

    Off topic: Do you think you could recommend to me like three or four, or five recent Protestant theologians?

    I have discerned that Jenson is a pretty big deal, and possibly Leithart, but I don’t know much about them, and I don’t have time to read any multi-volume tomes… I’d like a few short introductions to their thoughts. Help a brother out?


    Monday, May 7, 2007 at 6:44 pm | Permalink
  6. Ben wrote:

    By short introductions I mean like 200~400 pages.


    Monday, May 7, 2007 at 6:45 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Ben, Sorry for the radio silence. About the organization of these “new friar” groups, I think they vary somewhat, but I’ll know better once I finish the book.

    Now, you’re right about Jenson. He’s probably the best American protestant theologian. The best book to read by him is Systematic Theology vol. 1 (about 250 pages).

    Another would be Rowan Williams. His book, On Christian Theology (300 pages) is a very important piece.

    If you really want to look at Protestant vs. Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiologies, Miroslav Volf’s book After Our Likeness is a good place to start. He engages Ratzinger and Zizioulas on ecclesiology in depth.

    Wednesday, May 9, 2007 at 5:46 pm | Permalink
  8. Ben wrote:

    Thank you very much, I will check those out.

    Wednesday, May 9, 2007 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

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