By Scott Bessenecker

Monks and Nuns on Campus

The USA Today reported recently on the rise of young men and women who are attempting to live a life of simplicity and faith, often serving quietly on the margins of society. It’s not that they are attempting to attain some kind of social and career martyrdom, nor are they trying to move up a rung on the ladder of spiritual elitism. They are simply unwilling to allow the ad executives at Taco Bell to define the “good life” for them.

Sometimes referred to as the “New Monastics” or the “New Friars,” this emerging movement of young Christians are capturing something of what medieval youth experienced when they forsook culturally-defined religiosity and the pursuit of mainstream life in favor of the vita apostolica – the apostolic life, a counter-cultural expression of Christian devotion and service in a self-oriented world. Of course the old wineskins of these historic orders had plenty of issues, and the new ones are not even “new” as plenty of young Christians have birthed similar reform movements in their generation. But the new monasticism is not going away anytime soon and will likely serve to help revitalize a western Christianity in decline in the same way that the old monasticism called the Church back to her Sermon-on-the-Mount moorings.

Since 2001, more than one thousand InterVarsity students have moved for a summer into slum communities of the developing world on the Global Urban Trek. Their quest is to consider for themselves the possibility of relocating to a slum community long-term as an act of worship, an apprenticeship among the poor, and an agent of transformation for God’s kingdom. One-third of these students commit to living for at least two years among the poor, and many have found the path of downward mobility serves to free them from an addiction to accolades and assets. One InterVarsity and Trek alumnus, speaking from a slum in the Middle East, talks frankly about what it has been like for her to step out of the role of “ministry superstar” and into the role of obscure neighbor to some of the poorest people on earth.

But the life of a “new monastic” does not need to wait for graduation. There are ways one can live the life of a monk or a nun (so to speak) right now at UC Berkeley, Marquette, or Purdue.

1. Sabbath: There is something beautiful about being dormant for one day in seven. You do not need to live in a monastery to enjoy the spiritual fruit of weekly rest. I recommend a portion of this time be spent in solitude and silence. Embrace the fact that your identity does not hinge on being with friends, working, or studying. You have value even in dormancy.

2. Intentional Community: I stayed with four guys who had relocated to a poor neighborhood near campus. They got up early to pray for one another, had a constant stream of neighborhood kids around, and chose not to have internet or gaming systems in the house. They were attending university and trying to live out a set of shared values in intentional community.

3. Hospitality: One household of students decided to host a weekly meal, not just for their friends, but for some of the people on the street they met. Each week they opened their doors for a meal and hang out night with whomever would show up. It was a weekly practice that marked the students for the rest of their lives and taught them the value of radical hospitality.

4. Common Prayer: Whether living on or off campus, anyone can gather each morning and evening at the same time for common prayer. So grab those in your dorm or household who are interested and cluster around the 21st century breviary – a computer connected to this website.

The old friars and the new friars are all broken, fallible people and will no doubt struggle with forging a sustainable lifestyle, succumbing to worldly pressures, and division. But their attempt to live simply, communally, and biblically is a wake-up call to a western church that is far too often either not fully “in” the world or too fully “of” the world.

This week, we’re posting practical tips for following Jesus as a college student. Read Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4. 

Scott Bessenecker is Associate Director for Missions for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He is author of The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World’s Poor among other books and blogs at http://www.urbana.org/blog.
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