New Monasticism, recent developments and challenges regarding Christian community building

Ds. Rosaliene Israël

Congress | Saturday, 30 nov 2019

New Monasticism, recent developments and challenges regarding Christian community building

Ds. Rosaliene Israël

Congress | Saturday, 30 nov 2019

There was once, a long time ago, a time when in a city like Amsterdam, where I live and work for almost twenty years, one in five inhabitants was a monk and one third of the area of the city was made up of monasteries. Although those days are far behind us, a few years ago I argued at a symposium on the future of religion in the city, that the monks are back. In the guise of mainly young Protestants, who live together, pray and offer hospitality in modern city monasteries and Christian communities. Not only in Amsterdam, but in all kinds of cities and regions of the country.

I would like to share with you what developments are taking place in Christian community building, why now, and what challenges there are with a view to the future of these new communities and their place in the religious landscape.

What is going on?

The number of church members and churchgoers has been steadily declining for years and fewer and fewer people identify with Christian beliefs. At the same time there is an undiminished need for meaning and people are looking for forms of spirituality outside the beaten, institutional church paths. In response to these developments, the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) decided in 2012 to free money to realize a hundred ‘pioneering places’: experimental forms of being church, aimed at populations and sectors of our society, that are estranged of the church.

A growing number of these initiatives has ‘monastic’ features. Think of ‘Bid in de Binnenkamer (pray in the inner chamber), a ‘monastery in the cloud’, with a community praying the hours in a virtual monastery and Nijkleaster, a new monastic community around a historic church in the Frisian countryside, where spiritual retreats and pilgrimages are organized, inspired by the spirituality of Iona.

These monastic initiatives are now part of the agenda of the future of the PKN and the importance of learning networks that explicitly focus on these new forms of community is recognized. This is certainly a fascinating development in the context of this study day, because at the same time in your context, that of religious life, ways are being sought to preserve monastic spirituality and its traditions and to unlock them for the future.

This interest in new forms of community inspired by monastic spirituality does not only exist within the PKN, but in the breadth of the Protestant world. Then I think of Ki Tov (in Utrecht, in a building of the Brothers of Tilburg), inspired by the spirituality of Taizé and the Kleiklooster (in Amsterdam South-East), inspired by the Benedictine spirituality.

Meanwhile, within the Protestant language field, there is talk of a ‘new monastic’ movement. We owe this terminology to the American publicist Shane Claiborne, who, moved by the social problems in his city and ignited by the monastic ideals of Benedict and Francis, founded a hospitable community with friends. This initiative grew into a community movement called ‘new monasticism’. Common denominators are peaceful, contemplative and ‘ordered’ living, hospitality towards foreigners and ecological awareness (defined in 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, Wilson-Hartgrove, 2005, xii-xiii). Claiborne’s ideas also inspire young, originally Orthodox Protestants in the Netherlands, whom we find among the residents and initiators of city monasteries and Christian communities.

Why now?

I think the growing interest in new monastic community forms is a response to a number of interlocking religion-sociological developments and social factors. I will mention two.

The first is formed by the spiritual development and need of a new generation. Research shows that – contrary to what popular secularization theories predicted – young (especially Protestant) Christians are more ‘religious’ than their predecessors. Young people are increasingly attracted to communities that focus on interconnectedness and group formation, where mutual moral orientation is offered and where there is room for emotions and direct contact with the divine (De Hart, 2014, 66-67; Maffesoli, 1996, 83-84).

The second factor is the social context within which these new forms of community develop. The combination of the loss of meaning of institutional churches and major social challenges – such as the refugee problem, the economic crisis and climate change – means that the new generation also wants to make concrete efforts in its environment, and searches for an alternative, peaceful and sustainable way of living.

Frank Mulder, who, inspired by Claiborne and his new monasticism, founded the Overhoop community in the disadvantaged district of Overvecht, aptly expresses the reason behind his community:

‘The world is changing rapidly. Fixed frameworks are disappearing, both morally and economically. Communities are weakening and people increasingly have to shape their lives as individuals. This is especially difficult for people at the lower end, but also for high potentials it is often no longer clear what you live for now. In this setting, what does it mean in concrete terms to seek God’s kingdom, to be a church together, to show something of the new world that is to come as a family of God? You cannot do that on your own. That is why it is important to establish new communities where a different way of life is central, a life of love and peace, prayer and hospitality. ‘

What are the challenges for the near future?

I expect that the number of city monasteries and Christian communities will continue to grow. And so it seems relevant to me to portray their spirituality, way of life and contribution to society more accurately. I hope that also leads to reflection within the institutional churches. What does the appeal of these communities say about the Church, its spirituality and mission in the world, and the way it shapes them?

The intensive way of living together in a Christian community and all the daily and interpersonal struggles also make community life a vulnerable enterprise. It is therefore vital for communities to develop networks that share good practices and offer spiritual encouragement and guidance. The Association of Religious Communities was recently established with this in mind. A network that has the potential to be expanded into a learning and expertise network of communities.

But I think it is also good and necessary for traditional religious communities, monasteries and congregations and the new Christian communities to meet each other. This is already happening on an individual basis, but how beautiful it would be if centuries and decades of experience with long-term commitment, initiation into an orderly life, the relationship between church and monastery, spiritual guidance, daily prayer and hospitality were exchanged on a larger scale and regular basis with the new living communities?

The monks are back. They look a bit different, and yes, they are largely Protestant originally. But they know – I dare say that – they are without exception inspired by the religious life you represent. They face the gigantic challenge of putting a new form of religious life into practice, and are willing to connect body and limbs, soul and bliss to it. And their need for inspiring examples and committed experts is great. So that’s why – what was that saying again – whoever fits the shoe puts it on?

Watch video:

End notes / Literature list

  • Berger, P., Davie, G. and Fokas, E. 2008. Religious America, Secular Europe? A Theme and Variations. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company
  • Bernts, A.P.W. and Berghuijs, J. (eds.). 2016. God in Nederland, 1966-2015. Kampen: Ten Have
  • Brouwer, R. 2012. “The Simple Way.” A practical theology of new monasticism”, Jaarboek voor liturgieonderzoek 28, pp. 167-151
  • Claiborne, S. 2005. School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism. Eugene: Cascade Books
  • Cray, G., Claiborne, S., Freeman, A. et al. 2010. New Monasticism as Fresh Expression of Church. Ancient Faith, Future Mission. London: Cantebury Press
  • Davie, G. 2002. Europe: The Exceptional Case, Parameters of Faith in the Modern World. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd
  • Israël, R.P. 2015. Monastiek pionieren, een verkenning. In opdracht van de afdeling Missionair Werk van de Protestantse Kerk in Nederland,
  • Maffesoli, M. 1996. The time of the tribes. The decline of individualism in mass society. (Trans. by Don Smith) London: SAGE Publications
  • Markofski, W. 2015. New Monasticism and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism. Oxford: University Press

About the author

Ds. Rosaliene Israël

Protestant Church Amsterdam