2009 Anabaptist Conference : New Monasticism

I was at the Anabaptism and New Monasticism conference in Melbourne from 23-26 January. The speakers were all associated with intentional Christian communities and ‘New Monastic’ to lesser or greater extents; the term isn’t one any of the groups had consciously adopted.

I want to share my impressions of four Melbourne communites who spoke (there were others speaking too, with just as interesting stories to tell):

The Community of the Holy Transfiguration from near Geelong are a group of Baptist monks who have been living in community for forty years; that’s a significant achievement to my mind. But the thought of living in community with the same people for forty years horrifies me. I don’t think I’m very monastic. Too easily people say that someone has become ‘like family’; forty years is truly becoming family to each other. To me, it seems they are psychotherapic in outlook: the community is built around a group of broken people trying to recover through community.

Jahwork is a community of five households in Doveton. They seem to have the most similarity to Peace Tree in Western Australia. They have energy and youth and have managed to sustain five households with no designated leaders and working by consensus. They have common meals every night that everyone is invited to. This year they are taking over a cafe.

Urban Seed and UNOH are more structured. I’ve spent a long time being suspicious of ‘structure’, but it seems to me that it could make a big difference to communities being sustainable. At nearly 28, I’m ready for some structure.

Urban Seed is a series of Christian households in Melbourne supporting the work of the NGO. I visited their household in the city and was so impressed. They work with homeless people and the urban poor every day in their drop in centre/cafe. They seem to have negotiated common life really well too and have a good balance between ministry, work, life – without those being too compartmentalised.

UNOH has a board and formal policies about the shape of the common life of its houses. UNOH missionaries commit to one or three years and they truly live ’embedded’ in their neighbourhoods; they must spend eight hours of their day in the local neighbourhood. From what the speaker, Gabriel, said, they have thought through many of the hazards of the mission. Missionaries are given one day a week for personal enrichment – in his case painting; this is in addition to a sabbath day. Their whole family goes to another house away from the neighbourhood for a day. UNOH seems truly effective over the last fifteen (?) years and I’m going to read one of the books by Ash Barker, their founder, because I think they’re doing something amazing.

(Last year I wrote about how radical Christianity needed to learn from the Sydney Anglicans who have a disciplined, designated path for adherents to follow; in UNOH in particular, I think I see just what I was calling for. Whether I would be up for it is another question. But the idea of living in any of these last three communities appeals to me, from my first impressions; I think they’re living the kingdom really well.)

All the communities face the problem of what to do with people outside the core group. There are opportunities for associates to work with them in the projects they are doing in their local communities. But what of people who work nine to five and don’t have time during the day to give? Hospitality fills some of the gaps; the open table policy of some of the groups must give associates a good opportunity to participate. The UNOH community who spoke run Rainbow Church, which impresses me a lot: by creating a gathering that all can come to, they are including so many more people. The world is crying out for churches built on a radical vision of God’s kingdom, gatherings of people even for those who can’t or don’t want to live in intentional community.


8 thoughts on “2009 Anabaptist Conference : New Monasticism

  1. Hey Nathan,

    Hope you’re well. Really interesting post about Christians living in community. I found it fascinating. And Baptist monasticism! What is the ecclesiastical world coming to? Soon we’ll be having Roman Catholics practicing full immersion believer’s baptism. : -)

    Whilst I have no problems with believers living in community, it seems to me that there is no NT mandate upon believers to have to do it? Indeed, are there NT principles which say it’s important to do? Moreover, isn’t the nuclear family the basic unit of community in Scripture? Yes, of course, in the NT era there was the extended family, but husbands are called to love their own wives, and children are called to obey their own parents, and parents their own children etc. In 1 Cor. 7 even the believing wife with an unbelieving husband is called to stay in the family community. It is here where the Christian life is worked out so powerfully. Just some random rambling thoughts.

    Every blessing to you,


  2. At the end of your post I think you articulate one of the great challenges for these ‘radical’ communities and that is how your average person can sign up / get involved.

    I am a fan of those who push the edges and who are willing to call the church to more serious discipleship, but in some of the new monasticism I get a sense of being in such an extreme place that few can genuinely do it – unless they live outside the frame of reference of ordinary suburban life. ie don’t have a full time job, a mortgage, a family etc

  3. Hi Marty, thanks for stopping by and for your excellent comments. I think you raise a very important question and your comment about family is actually part of how I would answer it.

    I agree there is no NT requirement for living in intentional households under the same roof. But central to my understanding of the NT is the call to a radically different common life – ideally expressed in the church. Alas our churches often aren’t doing this very well. Because of the disconnection of most suburban life, intentional households offer a good model for recovering a common life. That’s where I would see their main purpose.

    I read an interesting book by Roger Gehring called House Church and Mission, which was a study of the importance of household structures in the NT. He didn’t draw too many conclusions for today, but I’m convinced that the extended household was important to the mission and common life of the early church and could influence things in the right direction today if we recovered some things about it. (I need to unpack this; indeed the whole topic needs a long blog post, at the very least.)

    At the time Peace Tree formed in Perth, I decided it was more important to be putting my time into the church we had going than living in community. Sometimes I’ve regretted that decision, especially when the church folded, but I really believe in the church as the body of Christ, the bearer of good news for the world.

    Hamo – this is why I agree with you so much! There needs to be something everyone can get involved with.

    Shalom, Nathan.

  4. Dear Nathan,

    Thanks for your response. I’m so glad you’re thinking about all this, and I can eaves drop on your thoughts because it’s greatly needed in a superficial individualistic culture in which we find ourselves, which unfortunately has reshaped our conception of church (not to mention the gospel). Radical communal discipleship is fundamental in any culture, but especially ours.

    Again, I have no problem with Christians living in community. However, something with which I struggle is how the watching world actually observes Christians in community? How is a communal set up seen by the world when Westerners spend so much of their time away from their homes? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I suspect it was much easier even 25 years ago. (For example community groups like the Scouts (etc.) having been dying out at a rapid rate in recent years–the secular “local community” is becoming non-existent). Hence, wouldn’t the workplace be a critical place for radical disciples to target, and set up a presence? I wonder if there has been too much of a dichotomy between Yoder / Hauerwas (communal centredness) versus Kuyper / Dooyeweerd (cultural transformation). Why can’t we do both?

    There’s no doubt that the world of the NT the basic economic unit was the extended family. Hence, this would’ve affected church life greatly at the time. But, was the extended family integral to church life, or was it merely a cultural particular? Again, whilst I don’t see Christian communal living as wrong, I don’t see the extended family as integral to NT ecclesiology. Perhaps I’m wrong.

    God bless you bro,


  5. Hi Marty,

    I tend to think at the moment that part of the brokenness of our suburbs is the lack of local community which you describe – people are disconnected from each other. If, in God’s power, churches (or even new monastics!) can show the world what community is meant to look like, I think they will be doing something good for the kingdom.

    Of course, it’s hard when no-one’s home. But part of what I heard at the conference was how community is being restored at ‘the edges of empire’ – in poor suburbs and in the inner city, amongst unemployed people and drug addicts, the least of these, who have the time for community. Maybe it starts amongst these unlikely people! I don’t know where that leaves the vast majority of Perth, including all the people in my street. Do you think this could be part of the good news?

    I think I agree with you about cultural transformation. Is what Yoder describes in Body Politics the same thing, in the significance for the wider world of each of the church’s practices? Not sure.

    That question about family structures and the NT is one I’m still exploring. It was a cultural particular, but then that doesn’t end the question. Extended family aside, I think the fact that New Testament churches met in family homes was why the haustelfaun figure so much in the epistles and why family questions are church questions. There might be something we can learn from it – most simplistically by gathering in homes for at least some of our church life.

    You’ve certainly got me thinking; I hope to untangle some of this. Let me put it like this: I have a hunch that household structure (and transformation) was so important to NT ecclesiology that without replicating it today we can still learn a lot from it and draw some lessons for our churches today. I just can’t tell you how or why yet.

    Blessings, Nathan.

  6. Great post Nathan. Just discovered the blog and this post – added it to my RSS reader.

    I wrestle with the whole idea of monasticism and wonder at it’s place in typical Australian (I know that is hard to define but I think you get what I mean) blue-collar suburbia. I asked the question on my blog too.

    For my mind, Rainbow church, where you travel with a group of people, and share life, but may not share housing, provides community – and while UNOH is structured, Urban Seed closely matches our travels out here in Eastern Melbourne, particularly with their “Seeds” – groups around Melbourne.

    I love Peace Tree and loved to hear about how you guys are doing. I was priveleged to meet you and Amy and Josh, as well as Jarrod and Tyson. I long to belong to a group that is close and passionate, and not just centred on a 2 hour get-together each week.


  7. Hey Neal,
    Thanks for stopping by! I’ll have to check out your blog. I like the sound of Rainbow Church a lot; it’s great as an example of Monastics caring about church and recognising that church needs to be inclusive of the wider world.

    I’m not actually a part of Peace Tree. I’m’ just a friend of them. So I share your sense of longing for a close and passionate group.

    Shalom, Nathan.

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