The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World’s Poor

The New Friars is the story of Christians who, for the love of God, have sold their possessions to move where the needs for justice and mercy are very great, among the poorest of the world’s poor. These new friars are carrying on the work of the monastic tradition, in the spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi, Clare of Assisi, St. Patrick, St. Brigid, the Jesuits, the Nestorians and Moravians.[1] Scott Bessenecker writes:

Is God really stirring up another movement of preaching orders to serve the world’s most destitute residents? Is it really fair to call these slum-dwelling missionaries “friars”? They do not come under any one denomination or church structure. They seem to be creating a variety of mission agencies and organizations. Are they worthy of comparison with the likes of Franciscan, Jesuit, and Celtic orders?[2]

I believe we are at the front edge of new missional, monastic-like orders made up of men and women, many of whom are in their twenties and thirties, burning with a passion to serve the destitute in slum communities of the developing world—not from a position of power but from alongside them, living in the same makeshift housing, breathing the same sewage-tainted air, subject to the same government bulldozers that threaten to raze their communities. They are new friars, flying just below our radar because they have not come under any single denominational or suprachurch banner.[3]

Solemn vows. “These communities,” Bessenecker writes, “are carried forward in their mission through solemn vows or commitments made to God, just as the missionary monastic orders of old. These vows rule their conduct, their community, and their ministry.”[4] But this brings us to a problem, because in our Protestant tradition Martin Luther criticized vows that he took when he became an Augustinian monk:

When Luther condemned the making of vows, he may have left the Protestant movement bereft of a God-ordained function to set oneself apart (not for the ministry of a local church, though that is an important calling) but for committed communities of men and women with defined, disciplined devotion and a particular mission . . . In fact, I would go so far as to say that there are places on earth that cannot be truly changed by the kingdom of God without people willing to make Nazirite-like commitments. Call them new friars, twenty-first century monks and nuns, or radically charged missionaries. They follow a long-established pattern of movements of vow-driven Christians directed to the social and geographic fringe.[5]

The Nazirite Vow. God ordained a vow called the Nazirite vow in Numbers chapter 6. Nazirites drank no alcohol and, after shaving their heads at the start of their vow, they did not shave their heads again. Women could also be Nazirites (Numbers 6:2). The Nazirite vow is operative in New Testament as well (John the Baptist for one. Paul took a Nazirite vow for two special seasons of ministry). Bessenecker writes:

God gave opportunity for those outside the priesthood to set themselves apart for acts of devotion and service to him. Anyone could set himself or herself apart by taking the Nazirite vow. You might say a Nazirite was a kind of Jewish monk or nun.[6]

Committed Communities in Christian History. The early Christians seemed to have remarkable zeal and sense of mission. This is so today with the charter members of every new church. However, in succeeding generations, it is not always so. After four generations, even the most evangelical church has allowed many nominal Christians to join. Renewal of zeal in the church has often begun when lost souls joined one another in fringe groups (at least they seem to be fringe groups to church administrators). Adolf Harnack wrote, “It was always the monks who saved the Church when she was sinking. It was the monks who emancipated her from enslavement to the world.”[7] Harnack added that it was monks who renewed our Lord’s mission to the nations.

Blincoe: Renewal is needed today and it will come through small committed communities of Christians who vow to pray until the Spirit renews our churches. Committed communities spread God’s love to others, like the person who lit a candle that “gave light to all who are in the house.” Their influence for good in the dark places of our world is larger than their numbers. We should be watching and praying for what is about to happen.

References Cited

[1] Scott Bessenecker, The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World’s Poor (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006). From the back cover

[2] Ibid. Acknowledgements.

[3] Ibid. 16

[4] Ibid. 16

[5] Ibid. 18

[6] Ibid. 17

[7] Ibid. 22-23