Begging or Making a Life?

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Scene from “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972)

It’s a pendulum swing:

the self-sustaining fellowship of believers, and the practice of begging—two time-worn ways we have learned to support ministry.  Whenever we get seduced by the risks of one, somebody shoves the pendulum in the opposite direction.

A quick (oversimplified) refresher course:

In the earliest days of the church, Christians were a self-sustaining fellowship.  In Acts 2 we learn that the believers pooled their pocketbooks to devote themselves “to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. . . . All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:42, 44-45).

Three centuries later, “the fellowship of believers” had grown into institutions that needed to support themselves—which made Christians hard to distinguish from everybody else trying to make a living. Enter the austere ascetics like Anthony of Egypt. Anthony’s wealthy parents died when he was a teenager, leaving Anthony responsible for his sister and the family fortune.  After hearing a sermon on Matthew 19:21 (“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me”), you guessed it: nineteen-year-old Anthony gave away the family fortune, placed his sister with “a group of virgins” (an early version of a convent–we don’t know what she thought of this arrangement), and headed to the desert for a life of solitude. His life of prayer was supported by friends who brought him bread.

That’s how the monastic movement started, seeded by colorful young people who, like Anthony, literally “got by with a little help from their friends” – a very different way of supporting ministry than the fully engaged, self-sustaining community of Acts. Over time, ascetics got more extreme (grass-eating monks? Simon Stylites living on a small platform on top of a pillar for 37 years?)—until in the sixth century, Benedict of Nursia pushed the pendulum back the other direction.

Benedict’s famous rule urged all things in moderation. He advocated a life of prayer, work, and holy reading in community whose labor sustained itself.  That labor paid off.  By the twelfth century, monasteries and convents were among the wealthiest institutions in Europe–and along the way many of them became more like spas than hubs of prayer and reform.

At about that time, a 23-year-old son of an Italian nobleman named Francis returned from war with a call to ministry and a heart for the poor. He stripped himself of his worldly possessions (literally) on the steps of the cathedral in front of his horrified father. (Okay, there may have been some issues there.) The popularity of mendicant or “begging” religious orders soared. Intent on reform, orders like the Franciscans and Cistercians relied solely on the support of others so they focus on walking with and serving the poor.

And so it went. It’s easy to think that the church’s begging days are over; modern culture tends to frown upon begging by those capable of physical work, and monasteries once again support themselves through business enterprises, funding their ministries by growing olives, brewing beer, and manufacturing honey, bread, cheese, stained glass, fruitcakes, or coffins.

To me, begging feels so “thirteenth century” – until the annual stewardship campaign rolls around.  I’m starting to wonder if we postmodern Protestants have more in common with the beggar monks than the ones selling fruitcakes through Williams-Sonoma. With admirable exceptions (especially in poor and immigrant neighborhoods), few churches participate in the daily economic lives of their neighborhoods, living instead inside a bubble of dwindling donations as we try to “get by with a little help from our friends.” We try to stay above the fray, untainted by finances—which makes us more much like the guy living on a pillar than the community of Acts. But cultivating donors is not the same thing as cultivating generosity. The current financial condition of the American church suggests that a change of strategy might be in order, not just for the sake of solvency, but for the sake of ministry.

[tweetthis url=””]The financial state of the American church suggests a change of strategy might be in order for the sake of ministry.[/tweetthis]

I wonder if those beer-brewing Belgians might be onto something. No one questions a monk’s devotion—but the necessity of meeting with health inspectors, getting government permits, and creating sales orders means that these monks generally share in the rising and falling fortunes of their communities. They share lives, not just moments, with their parishioners.  They surrender their insularity and get involved with the community like everybody else, all the while tempering our common materialism with their witness of simplicity and prayer.

Many new Christian communities are taking note. Simple Church—a dinner church in Braxton, MA—bakes bread as their chief form of income; National Community Church in Washington, DC and Union, a coffee shop congregation in Dallas, sell coffee. The Presbyterian campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin – Madison built a dorm and rent rooms to students who are, and who are not, involved in campus ministry.  It goes both ways, too—secular businessmen founded the Rooster Soup Company—a lunch restaurant in downtown Philadelphia–to support the hunger ministries of a local congregation.

What about you? Are you more beggar or brewer?

Kenda Creasy Dean


Kenda Creasy Dean

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