Editor’s Note: This article is based on material in Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical and information on the Web site of “The Simple Way,” (www.thesimpleway.org ).
“Most good things have been said far too many times and just need to be lived.” So says Shane Claiborne at the beginning of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, his book on his ongoing quest to discover what that “living” might actually look like. Claiborne and six others are the founders of The Simple Way, a community in Kensington, one of Philadelphia’s most challenging neighborhoods.
Claiborne is clear to note that The Simple Way is not a “church plant” or an attempt at creating a model of “radical Christianity” that is theirs alone. “We have never considered ourselves a church plant,” says Claiborne, adding, “I’m not sure we need more churches” (pp. 144-45). It does, however, represent a way of being in the world, a way that is intentionally and self-consciously Christian.
Those in more established church traditions might want to pay attention.
“We decided to stop complaining about the church we saw,” Claiborne explains, “and we set our hearts on becoming the church we dreamed of” (p. 44). The church they saw (the one that prompted complaining) was one that “often has offered little to the world, other than the hope that things will be better in heaven” (p. 17). They also found themselves looking for something beyond the liberal/conservative divide, “estranged from the narrow issues that define conservatives and from the shallow spirituality that marks liberals” (p. 18). They longed for something that went beyond the “old answers and traditional camps — whether believers or activists, capitalists or socialists, Republicans or Democrats, pacifists or just warriors” (p. 29). What they longed for was, as Claiborne describes, “a new kind of conversation.”
It is this new kind of conversation he hopes to encourage among those he meets and within the pages of the book. He calls it a movement of ordinary radicals — not doing anything amazing, just living out the faith that they claim to believe. He recounts that in college one of his professors challenged him, “Don’t let the world steal your soul. Being a Christian is about choosing Jesus and deciding to do something incredibly daring with your life” (p. 18). Claiborne has obviously decided to take that challenge.
One might be tempted to dismiss these musings as the idealistic dreams of youth. “Give him a few years in the ‘real world’ and we’ll see how this all sounds,” might be running through readers’ minds at this point. Some youthful Christians are told they will have to pick a side in the liberal-conservative divide that threatens the witness of the church and “get realistic” about the necessity of the church as institution — those voices that subtly explain away the radical nature of the gospel message. Or voices that encourage the faithful to remain “decent and in order.”
Regardless of what criticisms may be launched, that of naÃ¯ve optimism and lack of experience are difficult to substantiate with The Simple Way, into its second decade of existence.
“There are those of us,” says Claiborne, “who, rather than simply reject pop evangelicalism, want to spread another kind of Christianity, a faith that has as much to say about this world as it does about the next.” Having grown up in the church, Claiborne realized that “preachers were telling me to lay my life at the foot of the cross and weren’t giving me anything to pick up. I had become a ‘believer’ but I had no idea what it [meant] to be a follower” (p. 38).
This realization thrust him on the path to discover what being a “follower” might look like in today’s world.
His search for followers led him to befriend the poor of inner city Philadelphia as a student at Eastern College, to volunteer at the Home for the Destitute and Dying with Mother Teresa in Khalighat, India, through a year at Wheaton and internship at Willow Creek, and finally back again to the inner city Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington.
“The people who have changed the world have always been the risk-takers who climb through windows while the rest of the world just walks in and out of doors” (p. 119), said Claiborne in his graduation speech at Eastern College. Upon graduation, Claiborne and others from Eastern College were not content to simply take their places in line at the counter of the American dream. They began to talk, to ponder and to dream about another way of doing life. Their vision was simply, “love God, love people, and follow Jesus” (p. 121).
In January 1997, The Simple Way began with seven of those dreamers moving into a house in Kensington. With no vision statement, no plan or strategy other than this vision to love God, love people and follow Jesus, they began this new life. In explaining “what they do” Claiborne tells of hanging out with kids, jumping in open fire hydrants on hot summer days, sharing food with folks who need it, eating the food their neighbors share with them, running a community store, making gardens in the midst of abandoned lots and discarded appliances, and sharing life with their neighbors while trying to take care of each other. “Our programs revolve around the needs and gifts in our community,” says Claiborne, “and are always changing. They never define us, for we set out not to start programs but simply to be good neighbors” (p. 125).
This focus on practice is not an attempt to avoid the issue of belief, but to incarnate belief in ways that are lived out. “For us, belief is only the beginning,” Claiborne points out. “What really matters is how we live, how what we believe gets fleshed out.” This he sees as one of the most evident failures of the church in America today, churches that are strong in belief but weak in the practice of that belief. “They tell us only what they believe, but they do not tell us how their beliefs affect their lifestyles” (p. 148), laments Claiborne. The Simple Way is an overt attempt at remedying this shortcoming.
In the early days of The Simple Way Claiborne admits that they had a “radical disciple” mold that those who wished to work with them needed to fit into. Dreadlocks, Birkenstocks and “Jesus was homeless” t-shirts made up the vision of this model urban Christian rebel. But, he says, “As we have matured … we have seen the beauty of diverse vocations and the multidimensionality of Christian discipleship. One of the best things communities like ours do is carve out a space for people to discern and redefine their vocations” (p. 138).
The exercise of freely expressing faith in this way led to greater personal spiritual fulfillment.
“When people look at us like we are sacrificial servants, I have to laugh. We’ve just fallen in love with God and our neighbors, and that is transforming our lives,” says Claiborne (p. 133). In an era of the church when many are trying to rethink what “missions” might look like and what it might mean to be “missional,” The Simple Way’s focus on friendship born of relationship might have something to offer to the discussion.
Their community is one example (and Claiborne is quick to remind that they are simply one of the many such experiments in community) of an attempt to remove the layers of insulation separating the rich and the poor from encountering each other. Once they are allowed to get to know each other through relationship that is when the real transformation begins. “It is a beautiful thing when folks in poverty are no longer just a missions project but become genuine friends and family with whom we laugh, cry, dream, and struggle” (p.128).
Claiborne and others in the group know and use church-type terminology, but not always with the usual meanings. “Conversion is not an event but a process,” he says, “a process of slowly tearing ourselves from the clutches of the culture (p. 150). I know plenty of people, both rich and poor, who are suffocating from the weight of the American dream, who find themselves heavily burdened by the lifeless toil and consumption we put upon ourselves.”
But this conversion does not happen in a structureless vacuum. Though intentionally not bound to institutional or organizational form, The Simple Way does have a list of Commitments that read like a statement of faith or belief. These commitments include recognition of the Bible as “the supreme and final authority in faith and life” as well as an emphasis on justice in which they “acknowledge with sorrow the brokenness of the world at personal, national, and international levels” and strive to “seek justice, reconciliation and transformation in all arenas of life.” Their Foundations and Functionality are as detailed (or more so) as any “institutional” church, focusing on the importance of simplicity, non-violence, balance, spirituality, and play.
“Today the church is tempted by the spectacular, to do big, miraculous things so people might believe, but Jesus has called us to littleness and compares our revolution to the little mustard seed, to yeast making its way through dough, slowly infecting this dark world with love” says Claiborne (p. 132). The problem, as he sees it, is that “many spiritual seekers have not been able to hear the words of Christians because the lives of Christians have been making so much horrible noise” (p. 127).
By contrast, in Philadelphia, a mustard seed is quietly breaking through the soil to bloom and bear fruit in a way faithful to God and to the faith expressions of those in The Simple Way.
The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne. Zondervan, Â© 2006 by The Simple Way. ISBN-10: 0-310-26630-0; ISBN-13: 978-0-310-26630-3.
Erin Dunigan is a seminary graduate and freelance writer/photographer living in Newport Beach, Calif.