By Jeff Brumley
The lifestyle of simple living may appear intimidating to those who have only read about it or know someone who practices that spiritual discipline.
Does it mean having to wear hemp clothing to church, digging a well in the back yard or going “off the grid”?
It doesn’t mean any of that, according to those who live or study the intersection between simplicity and Christian faith. In fact, they say living simply is, well, pretty simple.
“Simple living is no more complicated than a commitment to removing the excess from your life and recognizing how many of your possessions are excess,” said Joshua Hearne, executive director of Third Chance Ministries and abbot at Grace and Main Fellowship, a Danville, Va.-based organization characteristic of the new monasticism movement.
Hearne said simple living can be practiced by anyone, in every context.
“It can be just pairing down your possessions, getting by with a little less and that often means finding ways to do more with less things,” he said.
Of course for many, including Hearne, the lifestyle can go much further.
That new monasticism movement got its official start in June 2004 with a conference in Durham, N.C., whose participants devised rules for living in intentional communities, Christianity Today reported a year after the event.
They modeled themselves after ancient and more recent church thinkers, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and used the term “new monasticism” from the book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World, by Jonathan R. Wilson.
Common denominators among the groups that developed include submitting to the larger church, living with the poor, living with or in proximity to other ministry members, shared economy, peacemaking, creation care and reconciliation, Hearne said.
Rutba House in Durham is one such community, as is Grace and Main.
The movement and its offshoots place an emphasis on a Christian faith marked by adherence to the example of intentional poverty and simplicity displayed by Jesus in the Gospels, said Hearne, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel member along with his wife, Jessica.
Along with it come an attraction to practices of hospitality that include inviting strangers and the homeless to live in homes, feeding the poor and communal living.
Among Baptists, the inspiration to live more simply dates back to at least the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council led to more ecumenical dialogue between Catholic leaders and Protestants, said Loyd Allen, professor of church history and spiritual formation at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta.
Among other developments, the shift brought Catholic monastic and contemplative Thomas Merton into contact with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Glenn Hinson, Allen said. Hinson was heavily influenced by Merton’s ideas on spiritual formation and later wrote A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle.
“It is in that conversation that simplicity is defined, is spoken of as a discipline” among Baptists, Allen said. “You start hearing about silence, solitude and simplicity as the three classic characteristics of contemplative life.”
But the movement didn’t really take off among Baptists and other Protestants until the 1980s, he added.
“It was a time of such unbounded enthusiasm for materialism and consumerism and I think there was a backlash against that by the next generation.”
‘Driving a stake’ into consumerism
The movement continued, resulting in the new monasticism but also in Baptists and other Protestants adapting the principles of the movement to their own lives, said Molly Marshall, president and professor of theology and spiritual formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary near Kansas City, Kan.
“A number of our students have become very committed to simplicity, living with others and offering hospitality to others — including a warm meal and a bed,” she said.
“We even have a couple living in a very depressed part of the city,” Marshall added. “To get into low-cost housing, they had to rid themselves of a third of their possessions.”
Some faculty members have chosen intentionally frugal lifestyles, many of them seeking to lower their carbon footprint, Marshall said.
As it did in the 1980s, a materialistic society is driving the movement, Marshall said.
“It’s basically driving a stake into the consumerist pattern, which has this seductive notion that if I just own a few more things I will be happy,” she said. “It’s a way of paying attention to what our longings and desires are and how we fill those desires with temporal stuff.”
Marshall added that the movement is following the same rough lines as the rise of contemplative and liturgical worship in Baptist and other traditions.
“There has been a real hunger to learn the traditions of the desert monastics and the medieval spiritual writers, and I think Baptists have awakened to a rich stream of Christian spirituality that we had neglected,” she said.
‘A way of life’
In Danville, Hearne said he, his wife and others who minister at Grace and Main have found that a simple-living attitude toward possessions bleeds over into other areas of life, including worship.
They’ve recently undertaken to declutter and remove many of the decorations that adorned an already sparse living room that doubles as worship space in their home. The music is usually sung a cappella unless someone brings a guitar or other instrument to services.
“When you’re living simply, you do develop an inherent distrust of flash — you start realizing when people are manufacturing a feeling.”
And there’s the issue that the New Testament is replete with examples where Jesus and members of the early church lived lives that were beyond simple, Hearne added.
He said it’s clear in Acts 2 the early church practiced simplicity in their common lives and common purse. Jesus urged his followers to remember that if the birds and flowers of the field didn’t worry about their material needs, neither should they.
Paul the apostle uses a discussion of the Lord’s Supper to caution Christians against great economic disparity among members of the church.
Implementing even small degrees of simple living can provide great amounts of stress relief because practitioners become less concerned about what they have to lose. The result, Hearne said, is an increased ability to focus on practicing faith as Christ lived it.
“We sometimes talk about simple living being a treatment for greed and the desire to acquire,” he said. “It’s not just a spiritually uplifting spring cleaning, it’s a spiritual discipline and a way of life.”