Chasing Justice with Mark Van Steenwyk

April 9, 2008 by

More and more churches are trying to do the right thing, beyond simple evangelism. They’re reimagining everything they do and each step in their processes to see if they’re glorifying God.

We’re huge advocates of this process, and we want churches to seek integrity in every single thing they do. To celebrate this journey, we’re launching a new category today, called simply Social Justice. We’ve got a few entries coming your way to get our momentum up and running, and we’re going to start off by talking with Mark Van Steenwyk. He’s a leading face in the “New Monasticism” movement, so check out what he has to say about the church’s movement towards justice:

Mark, thanks for doing the interview. Why don’t you go ahead and let us know a little bit about who you are.

Mark: I’m 32, married to Amy (coming up on 11 years of marriage) and our first kid is due April 1 [Editor’s Note: Their first son was born in late March–Congrats Mark!]. I’m a Mennonite pastor, and my community Missio Dei sorta fits into the “New Monasticism” movement. A handful of us live in a community house together, most of us live within a couple miles of each other. Our rhythm of life together includes a Sunday evening gathering, a Wednesday evening hospitality meal, a urban community garden, and a Saturday afternoon meal in the park (that we call the “hospitality train”–you can find out more on our web site). Some of us also work and volunteer in the neighborhood. We’re also exploring prayer rhythms together. We have a book of morning and evening prayers that we published (called the Missio Dei Breviary). The folks in our community house are trying to pray every evening together through our prayer book, and we encourage all folks in Missio Dei to pray the breviary morning and evenings.

Great. So is Missio Dei your job? Or do you do other things?

Mark: A lot of my own ministry extends beyond my life with Missio Dei. I guess I consider Missio Dei my community, but not my job. I’m the editor of, which has become a sort of radical Christian node on the web. I am currently writing a book called the Jesus Manifesto as well (I named the web site after the book project). I’m working on a contract with InterVarsity Press. The book explores what it means to follow in the way of Jesus in the Global Empire.

In addition to writing, I’m doing a lot of speaking–a few conferences here and there, speaking to student groups, occasionally speaking in churches. I love meeting with groups that have begun to explore what it looks like to live out the radical “Jesus stuff” and helping them explore what could come next. I’m in the very beginning stages of launching a network called “Christarchy” that will help groups form that can do experiments in the way of Jesus.

I’m also working with a team to help coordinate the efforts of Submergent–which is a new network of emerging Anabaptist leaders from around the country (with a few folks from Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America thrown in). We’re trying to infuse the emerging church conversation with a hearty dose of the Anabaptist vision … and also trying to bring Anabaptist groups like the Mennonite Church USA into new ways of being church.

Wow, sounds like you stay busy. So would you call yourself something like a pastor, an activist, a revolutionary or an entrepreneur? Or something totally different?

Mark: Lately, I’ve begun to describe myself as a “grassroots educator.” I realize that I’m not an activist like Shane Claiborne (though I do some activist stuff) or particularly pastoral. My passion is in helping people see the world the way God sees it and understand the radical implications of Jesus’ teachings. So a lot of my time is spent stirring up uncomfortable thoughts through groups like Christarchy, through writing, through speaking, and mostly through 1:1 conversations with random people who stumble across my path or seek me out.

Well as a grassroots educator, what can you tell us about the current climate in the U.S.? Are people really looking for something like the New Monasticism?

About 10 years ago, David Brooks (a well known author and columnist) wrote a book called “Bobos in Paradise” that introduced a new word into the English language: bobo. A bobo is a bourgeois bohemian. Bobos are yuppies with hippy values. They love the idea of the just, holistic, earthy life, but think they can buy it. We live in a bobo culture where people pay ten bucks for soap with chunks in it, where folks spend fifty bucks for hemp purses, where everyone cares about genocide and poverty and global warming. But the counter-cultural ethic has been co-opted by consumerism. This means that more people want social justice and peace, but they’ve bought into the lie that they can buy it.

New Monasticism is sorta hip right now. But I’m not sure New Monasticism will ever be a huge trend–at least not in practice. I think what we’re seeing now is a lot of interest in social justice and having meaningful lives. But usually that results in a lot of noise without much action. More people, especially younger people, long for meaningful lives that make a difference. That is the trend. But that trend will only become a movement–a real movement–if those young people put feet to their faith. And I’m not talking about going to India for a few months. I’m talking about living in the Kingdom of God wherever they are located–Calcutta or Minneapolis or San Diego or the burbs–with the long view and a long commitment to the radical way of Jesus Christ.

Do you think folks headed towards the New Monasticism are reacting against things they’ve seen in the contemporary church? Or is it more of a natural evolution?

Mark: Yes. Both. New Monasticism is part of a long tradition of radical movements. Radicals–in the classic definition–are those that want to get back to the root of something. Christian radicalism is that impulse that longs to get back to the Jesus stuff. Now, that is often motivated by a disdain or dissatisfaction with the way things are. But if it were only about that, we’d simply be seeing a huge exodus of young people away from Christianity as a whole. The fact that we’re seeing people wanting to provoke change shows that it is being motivated by a desire for something purer. Something transformative and real and beautiful and messy.

It makes sense than New Monasticism is gaining traction now. In the 70s and 80s you had the Jesus Movement. While it didn’t have much staying power, it loosened things up for new innovation. Suddenly you had creative new attempts at doing and being church. And it created some permission for evangelicals to learn from other traditions. Evangelicals began to “discover” spiritual formation, contemplative prayer, and social justice. And Mainliners began to learn from the seeker church movement. Cross pollination was happening. But it was, for the most part, still within the box.

Then the emerging church conversation began to push the envelope of ideas. People began to experiment. The house church movement began to take on new life. And younger evangelicals, all the while began reading things like liberation theology and Eastern Orthodox theology and feminist theology in seminaries and Bible colleges. All of this resulted in this new freedom to do something differently. In this fertile soil, in a bobo society, it is inevitable that we’d see the emergence of a new Christian radicalism. New Monasticism is the 21st Century American Christian expression of that radical impulse.

From your experience, is this a way all churches should market themselves? Or is it in the DNA of certain groups, but not others?

Mark: I’m not sure about the word “market,” but I definitely think that the church as a whole needs to embrace more of this sort of approach. Certainly, some groups will place this stuff more in the center of their group identity, but as a whole everyone needs to move in this direction.

Here’s the thing. Christianity started as a movement. It was a way of life. An orthopraxy. Sure, there were beliefs and creeds and teaching and songs, but all of that happened in the context of communities that were following in the way of Jesus. The Gospel was not simply something to be proclaimed, but lived out. Then things began to change. Slowly, the Church got in bed with the Empire. And those parts of the Way of Jesus that conflicted with the Way of Caesar got sidelined. And then, over time, Europe became a place where it was assumed that everyone was a Christian and the Church became a chaplain to society. Then the Reformation and Enlightenment hit and the Church began to understand itself primarily as an educational institution.

Today, “church” is a place one goes to listen to a half hour message and sing. And if you’re really spiritual, you also go to church on Wednesday to get more information. Ours is a disembodied faith that is about teaching and singing. It isn’t a way of life. We treat things like care for the poor, living simply, practicing hospitality, etc. as optional. They are primarily understood as supplemental programs. Not things that are woven into the fabric of our lives.

New Monasticism is an attempt to weave that back in. The Church as a whole doesn’t need to do it exactly the same way. But it needs to weave it back in, man.

Church marketing and New Monasticism don’t seem off-hand like two terms that
would have a happy marriage. How do you see church marketing being involved in churches following this movement?

Mark: As I understand it, marketing is about communication. I’m not a big fan of “marketing” in the classic sense of the word. To “market” means to sell. And I don’t think Jesus, his message, or his people, should be sold. To commodify is to put a price tag on something. However, I’m all about the communication. And how we communicate to the world. What New Monasticism has to teach the Church about marketing is that you have to embody what you proclaim. Too many times, churches promote something that doesn’t exist. They send out mailers with multi-ethnic families on the front, even thought that isn’t them. They used canned marketing that sells ideas that aren’t embraced by the communities.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once commented that that church in Europe (particularly in Germany) had lost the right to proclaim the Gospel. Through cheap grace, religious apathy and subservience to political power, the Church not only enabled, but empowered the rise of Nazism. Before it could proclaim the Gospel, it needed to once again embody it. And only then could the church once again proclaim the Gospel.

Before we market and communicate to the world the virtues of our communities, we need to embrace virtue. If we want to use justice as a trendy marketing tool, we need to first be doers of justice. Embody first. Proclaim second. Don’t sell what you don’t own.

But then be bold. People long for something meaningful. The phenomenal sales of Shane Claiborne’s books shows that people long for a life that looks more like the life of the early disciples. If we can offer people steps to take in that direction, we should get the word out! We should shout it from the mountain-tops!

Church marketing sucks when its only goal is getting people to show up. But I can get behind a community that uses it to communicate a new way of life to people … if they can back it up. If a community can do that, I can swallow my anti-consumerism tendencies enough to be encouraged. ;)

Thanks so much, Mark. Can you close us out with a story about community living? Something anecdotal, surprising, horrifying–any adjective, really.

Mark: Here’s a story about what’s at stake. Our community is big into practicing hospitality. For us, hospitality isn’t about having friends and family over for dinner. Its about welcoming the hungry, the stranger, the poor, etc. That is what all Christians should be about.

But being hospitable is awkward and difficult. We have a 48-year-old homeless friend. That’s pretty old for life on the streets. He’s been in and out of jail for a lot of that time. The last time he got released from prison, we had agreed to let him live with us. We had worked things out with his probation officer. He had all these rules to follow as the conditions for his parole. One of them was that he could only leave the house with permission from his parole officer.

Well, his first day in the house, he went out for an appointment–and didn’t come back. He stopped by some “friend’s” house on the way back to our house and started drinking and doing drugs. That is our friend’s downfall. He has been homeless for much of his adult life because he’s an addict.

So that night, I called his parole officer. I struggled with the decision, but we felt like they needed to know sooner, rather than later. For some reason, that resulted in four Minneapolis police officers coming to our house looking for him, guns out. They looked through our entire house. One of our housemates was in her room alone listening to music with headphones in as the police barged in and scared the hell out of her!

They picked him up the next day. And because he broke probation, he went back to jail to finish out his sentence. At the end of April, he’s getting out of jail again. And he’ll be living with us. We’re anxious about it. My wife and I are having our first child in early April. We don’t know what that’s going to look like. We’re not worried about our safety. But we’re not sure what it looks like to be family with our friend as we’re learning to be a family with our baby.

Post By:

Joshua Cody

Josh Cody served as our associate editor for several years before moving on to bigger things. Like Texas. These days he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, and you can find him online or on Twitter when he's not wrestling code.
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One Response to “Chasing Justice with Mark Van Steenwyk”

  • Nathan A
    April 10, 2008

    Martin Luther King Jr. said it best:
    “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

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Interviews, Social Justice