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What chores would Jesus do?

They wanted their Billings, Mont., communal home to bring them a deeper faith and a simpler life. But everyday concerns kept getting in the way.

January 26, 2008|By Stephanie Simon | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

BILLINGS, MONT. — In a peeling house on South 32nd Street, five friends came together to stretch their faith.

They left comfortable apartments for a communal home within walking distance of a prison, a pawnshop, a derelict trailer park. Exhaust from a sugar beet factory drifted down the streets.

Moving in last January, they pledged to spend one year together, learning to become true followers of Christ. They would give generously, love unconditionally. They would exchange their middle-class ways for humility and simplicity, forgoing Hardee's fries, new CDs, even the basic comfort of privacy.

"The focus has to be on God and the way of life he has set out for us, as opposed to the way we want to live, which is very selfish," Jeromy Emerling said.

A few months into the experiment, at a weekly house meeting, Jake Neufeld framed the vision this way: "Church is not something we attend. It's something we are."

But even lofty rhetoric could not lift the mood that sleety evening in early April. A quarter of their year together had passed, and the friends felt they had failed. They had not met a single neighbor. They had not given any aid. Everyday life seemed to suck up all their energy; it was draining just to figure out whose turn it was to mop the kitchen floor.

"We're trying to live so every dimension of our lives is different," Jeromy said. Then he admitted: "We don't know what that will look like."

The household consisted of Jeromy, a fundraiser for a Christian nonprofit, and his wife, Debbie, who stays home with their toddler and newborn son; Kyle Porrett, an architect, and his wife, Phyllis, who cares for their baby daughter and two young foster children; and Jake, a builder.

Theirs was a radical vision, but also a trendy one, part of the New Monastic movement sweeping white, suburban evangelicals. In the last few years, perhaps 100 communities like the Billings house have been founded across the country, and hundreds of Christians have attended workshops to learn of the concept.

"There's something happening here, some sort of reformation," said Scott Bessenecker, who studied the movement for his book "The New Friars."

"They're asking the question 'What constitutes God's people?' "

On that April evening, the Billings monastics met to renew their commitment to simplicity.

Their personal space was suitably spartan; Jake lived in the basement, and the two families had bedrooms upstairs, off a dark, narrow hall.

But when it came to food, clothing and entertainment, they had not been able to agree on ground rules, beyond a vague vow "to live a continually more modest lifestyle."

Some monastic communities pool their resources and renounce private property. The Billings friends chose to control their own finances, though they shared equally in rent, utility and grocery bills. They all said they wanted to consume less, spend less, so they could give away more. Yet they found it unexpectedly hard to give up little comforts.

Each family had come to the house with a refrigerator, so they now had two. They sat on a leather couch to watch Bible study videos -- and Jennifer Aniston comedies. Their pantry was filled with bulk beans, but they splurged on kiwi fruit, reduced-fat Cheez-Its, mint-chip ice cream.

When Phyllis, trying to be diligent about budgeting, refrained from buying a $5 pacifier for her baby, she stewed all day, questioning how much she must sacrifice to live up to the ideal of a simple life.

"Do we want to be simple about how many outfits our kids have? Or how nice the furniture is?" she demanded. "How many kinds of salad dressing are in the fridge?"

Phyllis proposed a cap on discretionary spending -- perhaps $250 to $300 per adult. Excess income would go into a community account, to be given away. Everyone nodded approval. Months later, though, they still had not put the plan into effect, or even agreed on a definition of discretionary: Did that include car insurance? Cellphone bills? What about Christmas gifts?

That was how many of these discussions went. Everyone was so determined to be respectful and open-minded that they tended to talk in circles, rarely reaching a decision.

Debbie picked up the laundry she had been folding. "We are not equipped to lead ourselves," she said, "let alone each other."

"God operates within our own inadequacies," Jeromy reminded her. He looked around the room, his eyes tender. Then he gathered the rest of the laundry.

The couples came to monasticism out of frustration, a sense that modern Christianity had grown soft and self-centered.

Jeromy, 29, and Debbie, 30, worshiped at an evangelical church with a bouncy six-piece band, but they thought the sermons empty; they went more out of habit than conviction. Kyle, 30, and Phyllis, 25, had stopped going to church because their lives were too hectic.

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