Note to Readers: My historical fiction novel Prester John and the Brigand King is once again available to read in full. Just click on the novel's title in the "Full Series" menu on the sidebar.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Part V: Against a Tangible Superficiality

In our present-day American culture, we’ve lost a great deal of the robust and life-giving fellowship that forms the core of church life. For many Christians nowadays, fellowship is what you do in the foyer of the church immediately before or after the Sunday service. It wasn’t always this way, even in individualistic America. Only two generations ago, houses were being built with big front porches and it was expected that community members would visit one another. But that cultural heritage is fading quickly, as we discover that it’s easier to keep company with our televisions than to go out of our way to make connections with our neighbors.

A neo-monastic community would be able to recapture some of that lost sense of fellowship. There would be the opportunity not only to share the informal camaraderie of life together, but to join in worship as a daily event. Wouldn’t it be great if Christians began to find themselves in a place where seeking the Lord, rather than entertainment, was the first priority for ‘down time’. In many places around the world there persists a myth that ministry is merely what pastors do. But it just isn’t so. Ministry is the work of the whole congregation. A less widespread notion (but still prevalent) is that there are 'Christian' things to do—like going to church or prayer meeting—and 'ordinary' things, like cooking a meal or watching TV. This is also a lie. Christianity is 24-7. It’s about identity before it’s about action. Christianity is the absolute center, the focal point of life, and everything we do flows out from it.

Having a regular, daily cycle of worship can serve to remind us of this. Further, it opens the door for God to do incredible things in our midst. We serve a God great enough to shake all the nations through our prayers and actions, and it is in committing ourselves daily and corporately to that end that we enter into the reality of that amazing possibility.

Another benefit of the life of fellowship is the opportunity for genuine, heart-level confession and accountability. How many of us regularly practice the apostolic command of James to confess our sins to one another? I know I don’t do it often enough. In practice I tend to assume that if I confess to God (1 Jn. 1:9), that’s good enough. It’s also a whole lot more comfortable for me, because God already knows what a hypocrite I am. He’s probably come to expect it by now. I can still fool others, though, so I walk around with a happy fa├žade of spiritual togetherness.

While such comments have a facetious edge, they are unfortunately all too true. And I don’t think I’m alone. Though church should be the safest place in the world to share our failings and hurts, it has become for almost all of us a stage on which to play out our joyful acting for the benefit of all the holy people around us. And none of us pause long enough to consider that everyone else in church is playing the same game we are, and we never get to the heart of the matter. We never actually know each other. We’re often so neurotically afraid of conflict and tension that we gloss over the difficult and unsightly things, desperately trying to manufacture ‘the peace that passes all understanding’ from our own flighty happiness. There is a tangible superficiality among many groups of American Christians. It isn’t true of all groups, but in my experience the majority, including myself, fall more often than not into this category.

It is a difficult thing to confess, to bare one’s soul to another person. One of the most amazing things I witnessed in the Sudanese churches was that in each Sunday service a time was set aside for people to come forward and confess their sins before the Body. And, to my continual astonishment, people always came up, often in tears, and confessed aloud sexual sins, hatred, unforgiveness, and all other kinds of wrongdoing. I wondered what would happen if the pastor gave time in a Sunday church service where I come from for people to confess their sins. My guess would be that there would be a long, uncomfortable silence. Maybe one or two brave souls would confess, and though we would all respect them for it, most of us wouldn’t dare to join them.

A neo-monastic community could provide the networks of relationships to allow confession in a safe and mutually supporting environment. One of the classic designs of monasticism, especially in its Celtic and Benedictine forms, was to have mature believers assigned as spiritual guides and counselors to every member of the community. Such a relationship provides a free place to speak and to be understood, and it is expected and acknowledged that everyone comes with sinful baggage. The counselor would provide guidance, wisdom, and practical accountability, and every counselor would in turn be accountable to another member for his or her own sins. Hopefully the community would also allow for public confessions during corporate worship, and from time to time a counselor might recommend that the mentoree confess in that venue. The counselors would also have some authority to prescribe methods of coming out of sin, plans of action, and perhaps even symbolic penitential acts to draw the mentoree away from a sinful lifestyle. There would be an expectation that specific sins are something that we can be freed from.

But sometimes our shallowness and superficiality extends even beyond the matter of sin. There are uncounted thousands of believers in American churches who are starving to death emotionally, constantly struggling with depression and loneliness. Brothers and sisters, it need not be this way! How many millions of dollars do Christians pay out to the psychiatry industry every year? I’m not saying that Christians shouldn’t see psychiatrists, but I am saying that we as believers could be doing so much more to utilize the gifts in our midst to reach out to the hurting ones among us. There is no good reason why any Christian should have to suffer from perpetual loneliness. We, as a church, are simply not doing a good enough job when it comes to authentic fellowship.

The level of confessional honesty required in a neo-monastic system, though, would be difficult for most Americans. However, I believe that its merits far outweigh the difficulties and discomfort of the system. We can’t expect the Christian life to be a comfortable thing all the time, and we have to learn to acknowledge that we are broken, sinful people, and stop painting the church in bright and beautiful colors. The American church is riddled with countless cancers of private sin because we are too afraid to tell anyone else that we aren’t perfect. Or if we do acknowledge weakness, we usually try to make sure it’s a fairly ‘small’ sin, like feeling slightly bitter against someone. Or if we do choose to speak openly about a ‘big’ sin, it tends to be one that no one really considers big, like gluttony, selfishness, or pride (because they’re tragically so common).

I believe we need to come to a place as Christians where we can speak honestly and openly about the sins that plague us—about gluttony, materialism, pornography, sexual infidelity, entertainment addiction, and so on. The list could go on for pages, and though we don’t see these things on the surface, they are everywhere in the church, including the clergy. We need to be able to speak openly about these things, to expect to find sin in the lives of our fellow believers and ourselves, and to have a system through which we can deal with that sin and work towards healing and holiness. The fellowship of a neo-monastic community could provide one paradigm for a solution.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Even the Wind Obeys Him

Greetings, all. This is another poetical hiatus from my neo-monastic pieces (though I do plan to add another in that series this weekend). Recently I've entered into an informal sort of debate/dialogue with one of my professors here, a senior faculty member who has taught theology and spiritual formation for many years. I respect him greatly, but we differ on our perspectives regarding the proper response to the global advance of Islam.
The tendency in many evangelical circles is to view radical Muslims as the enemy, and often this degenerates into a paranoid sort of worry that Islam will soon take over Western Europe, and eventually America itself. Many Christians fear that radical Muslims are at the heart of a conspiracy to turn the world into a global caliphate under sharia law. This sort of idle worry troubles me. Though I admit that radical Islam is an obstacle to the work of the church, Muslims are not our enemies. The church has no enemies but sin and Satan. I yearn for the day when we hear more about how to show love to Muslims than about how they're such a threat to us. This poem, called "Even the Wind Obeys Him," addresses that sense of worry and helplessness as we observe the growing influence of the Islamic faith.
(Charles Martel, referenced in lines 3 and 4, was the grandfather of Charlemagne who in 732 won the Battle of Tours, effectively halting the expansion of Muslim forces from Spain into Western Europe).


Towers smoke in the distance
And slowly, slowly
The feat of Charles Martel,
The Hammer of the West,
Is undone.
They come, unstoppable now,
With quiet words
And prayers
And violent mobs
With guns and bombs.
The shadow of the minaret
Falls upon the West,
The Christian West,
Upon America itself,
The bright city on a hill.
In churches we gather,
Bewildered and afraid,
And speak of the rage of nations
And the clash of civilizations.
Our words have not stopped
This wild, violent mob,
Nor have our prayers
Or our songs
Or our armor-plated tanks.
We tremble and cry aloud
As the Last Day dawns for us,
The fall of everything we treasure
To the sword of the Arab Prophet.
Vainly we fight against the storm,
Vainly we hope to survive.
We cry aloud to the God of our hope,
And wonder why he sleeps,
Why he allows us to tread
So near the brink
Of utter decimation.

And the Savior wakes
To the frantic cries of his friends,
His chosen followers.
The sea rages around them,
Tossing them on waves of terror,
Driven by winds so fierce
That hope itself
Has been blown away.
All that remains
Is the stubborn inclination
To fight, to beat at the water
With a lashing oar,
To conquer the tempest
With the strength of their arms.
And then he rises among them,
The Desire of all Nations,
His eyes ablaze with furious peace,
And they all fall silent.
He stretches out his hands
And speaks one breath to the sea,
And the chaos of the deep obeys him.
The waves are calmed,
The violence ended,
As he stills the world
With a single word.
Turning then, he regards his friends
And softly shakes his head.
“Where is your faith?”

Monday, October 23, 2006

Part IV: Living Generously

Okay, back to monasticism. The point of cultural contact discussed here, which could be called simplicity, is fairly straightforward, but I believe that it’s one of most important benefits that neo-monasticism can bring to American Christianity.

From the genesis of the very first Christian monastic movements, a renouncement of all worldly wealth was central. Poverty was one of the three basic vows which all monks took upon entering the monastic life. This voluntary surrender of wealth is not necessary for a healthy Christian life, but it is certainly helpful. Of all the things that now threaten Western Christianity, materialism probably tops the list. It is our narcotic against the normal, healthy pains of life.

I’m not trying to idealize poverty as spiritually meritorious, nor am I saying that wealth is a sin. The point here is that within wealth and materialism lie the dangerous barbs of a spiritual trap that can blind us to the fullness of Christian life. It is simply too easy to run away from the convicting voice of God, surround ourselves with new comforts and luxuries, and let the world pass us by.

Voluntary poverty has no spiritual merit in and of itself, but it is helpful to the spiritual life. It takes our eyes and hearts off of the ‘stuff’ that surrounds us, and sets our treasure in heaven. Unattached to material things, we are free to focus on the work of God in our lives and in the world. We in America have become a culture of consumers, but the church must learn how to be a culture of radical givers.

My main objection to wealth, though, is not merely that it softens us to temptation and dulls our spiritual senses. Rather, the global economic inequity we see in comparing America and Western Europe to the rest of the world is horrifying. Many Americans are incredibly charitable and give a great deal to development projects across the world. But it obviously isn’t enough, because the inequities continue to loom larger than ever. I am convinced that nothing will do more to promote peace in the world than to raise the standard of living in the Two-Thirds World. It is largely (though not completely) from the economically disenfranchised that most militant movements, regardless of faith, draw their followers. And even beyond mere political incentives, the Bible is replete with commands to give to the poor and the outcast. It is an integral part of Christian discipleship.

C.S. Lewis, in his classic Mere Christianity, advises us concerning wealth and giving: “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small.”

Lewis is right on the mark. The great benefit of voluntary poverty is that the church will have so much more to give away. In the new monasticism as I envision it, poverty wouldn’t be primarily for our own spiritual nurture, it would be for enabling us to live generously. If all American Christians, even for just one year, decided to live in voluntary poverty and give away all excess resources, we could change the world so resoundingly that it would shift the very course of history and bless every nation on earth. In my opinion, that’s something worth shooting for, and I’m more than willing to give up my excess comforts toward that end. As Rick Warren notes, “It’s not a sin to be rich. But it is a sin to die rich.” God endows us with blessings so that we can bless others, and the American church, while not totally complacent in this area, could be doing so much more. Our economic vitality is an incredible window of potential blessing and witness to the world, and neo-monastic poverty could help us harness and direct that blessing for the good of the nations.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Sacrament of the First Snowfall

For those of you who aren't as wild about monasticism as I am, here's a little poetic intermission from my monastic treatises. Today we had our first snowfall of the season in Littleton, and I had forgotten how much I missed it. So, delighted fool that I am, I went out for a long walk on the trails behind the seminary. Here's a poem I wrote about it:

I wander wearily out of class today

And am greeted by gentle joy

That floats down, soft and white,

From the heavens.

I cannot stay too long

In the warmth of my apartment;

The wildness of the day calls me out

To embrace it,

To laugh in the wonder of its beauty.

I don my red hooded sweatshirt

And venture out into the cold.

My nose and cheeks begin to numb

Almost instantly,

But I stop and fill my exultant lungs.

I love the biting freshness of the air

And the gentle fury of the snow.

I am the only one on the trails today,

So I wander alone,

Hands tucked in my sweatshirt pouch,

Like a vermillion monk from a bygone age.

An otherworldly mist hangs over the pond

And over the rushing creek,

Swirling in the chill breezes

Where the water meets the wind.

Four geese fly overhead in formation,

Then break off, two to the east and two to the west,

Opening the curtain of the world’s stage before me.

The stolid heron regards me strangely

As I greet him at the water’s edge,

His long neck pulled back

Against the warmth of his breast.

But he wants no visitors today,

So I wander on, into the little wooded strip

That graces the banks of the stream.

And there I pause,

And watch as the busy, raucous world

Is blanketed in the quiet peace

Of the winter’s first snow.

There is laughter in each snowflake,

A silent delight in the turning of the days,

As God welcomes me home again.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Part III: Mutually Empowered Evangelism

This post will represent my greatest passion for neo-monasticism, and at the same time will make a stand against the greatest misrepresentation of the system. Perhaps the most resounding criticism of traditional monasticism is that it generally does not allow Christians to be ‘salt and light’ in the world in a very effective way. Traditional forms of monasticism have often been separatist and isolationist. But those forms are not the model for neo-monasticism. Rather, neo-monasticism will exist to make the Christian presence and witness in the world more effective.

These observations won’t be true for all American Christians, but they are certainly true for me. In general, though, I’ve found that most evangelical Christians (myself included) aren’t doing a fantastic job when it comes to evangelism of any kind. As the church, one of our greatest duties, privileges, and joys is to reach out to those around us with the love of Christ. But, cumbered by fears of offending others, we seldom if ever speak the message that is closest to our hearts. For my part, as an introvert, the idea of evangelism in the traditional Western form of door-to-door witnessing frightens me more than almost anything else in the world. I’ve witnessed to strangers before, in moments when I felt the Lord was calling me to that witness, but those were some of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I’ve run away from that call far more times than I’ve obeyed it.

First of all, I should make clear that I believe evangelism to be of preeminent importance to all Christians in their contacts with the world. Many Christians nowadays either don’t believe that or choose not to think about it. We’ve stopped preaching the truth about eternal destiny, and so it becomes easy to forget that many of those we meet are moving swiftly on their way to hell. If we could experience just one glimpse, just one taste of how much the Lord loves these people, we would sell away our lives and journey to the ends of the earth if only to have a single chance to tell them about Christ.

That said, I don’t think all evangelism has to be done by the traditional forms of witnessing to strangers. If some Christians are gifted for that ministry, they should do it with all their hearts. For those Christians who aren’t gifted in that way, it would still be a valuable spiritual discipline to undertake from time to time, and we should always be openly and actively watching for the possibility. However, the most effective evangelism will harness the individual’s specific spiritual gifts, and not all of us are gifted for evangelism in the traditional sense. This is why I think the most effective Christian witness is a witnessing church. As John Stott said in a recent Christianity Today article, “I believe that evangelism is specially through the local church, through the community, rather than through the individual. That the church should be an alternative society, a visible sign of the kingdom. And the tragedy is that our local churches often don’t seem to manifest community.”

The local body of believers should be arranged so that we can work together in the task of evangelism. In a neo-monastic community, the members would plan out ways to employ their gifts to that end. They would set up public seminars where those gifted to teach could teach. They would serve public meals in which those gifted with hospitality could minister their outreach. They would encourage and uphold those gifted specifically for evangelism, helping to foster relationships with the outside world.

The neo-monastic community would not be a closed system intended to keep the world out. Some areas of life might be regulated by the community, but members would be encouraged to continue their jobs and relationships outside the community. Children, upon the discretion of their parents, would be encouraged to go to public schools. The life of the community itself would be geared towards renewing and recharging the members daily for their mission in the world. Outreach would be constantly set forward as the goal of the community, making it an unforgettable part of daily life.

I know that for me, witness is much easier when it is constantly emphasized and encouraged by those around me. It is far easier for me to live a bold and consistent outward witness on the mission field in Africa than it is for me here at home. Why is that? I’m the same person in both places. The difference is merely one of mindset. On the mission field, I know I’m a missionary. Witness is what I’m there for, so that’s what I do, and the other members of the mission team remind me of that and encourage me in it. So that’s what I think we need to do here in America. We need to develop a communal system of mutual support and encouragement that will help us build conscious identities as missionaries. And then I think we’ll find to our surprise that witness and evangelism are much easier than we supposed them to be. More than that, outreach will become our constant aim and our highest joy. There is no greater delight in the world than being used as an active witness for the sake of Christ.

The missional neo-monastic community would also seek to model the consistent love of Christ to a watching world. It’s been said that the best gift a father can give to his children is to love their mother well. I would say the same of the church—the best gift that we can give to a watching world is to love one another well. The best witness of all is the love of the church, a redeemed community that, despite all its struggles and differences, works to live together in harmony for the good of all people. As the old song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” That is a picture of the church that is rarely seen in our culture, and I think it’s one we need to pursue. We settle too often for so much less than we could be as the Body of Christ, and that is one of the great tragedies of every church in every age.

Finally, this focus on evangelism as a part of every believer’s life would also help to correct another unconscious error of contemporary Christianity—that ‘ministry’ is just what pastors do. This is a dangerous misconception. Ministry is what every Christian does. Ministry is a word that should characterize every aspect of our relational lives. The pastor is a specially-appointed servant of the Body of Christ, a leader and guide for a community of ministers. All believers must be engaged in the tasks of ministry, using their gifts to the glory of God and the good of those around them. If we close ourselves off from this incredible mandate, we are missing out on the greatest adventure of all. Ministry and outreach might frighten us from time to time, as they certainly do me, but in the end I wouldn’t trade the privilege of ministry for anything else in the world. In the words of Paul Tournier, “If something isn’t fearful, it probably isn’t worth doing.” Ministry is fearful, but there is almost nothing else worth doing more than this.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Part II: The Family of God

One of the benefits of a neo-monastic system of organizing groups of local Christians would be the contrast it formed with the Western culture of radical individualism. As Americans, the primary lens through which we view our identity is that of the individual. If we were asked to describe ourselves, we would all probably begin by talking about our occupations, our personal preferences, and so on. Even if we spoke about our participation in church, it would probably come out as individually-focused—this is the church I attend, and this is what I like about it…

But the biblical picture, coming from a very different cultural perspective, insists that the basis of our identity does not rest in ourselves, but in Christ and in the church. The biblical view of life is as much communal as it is individual, and here in America we have largely missed out on the communal aspects of Christianity.

I should qualify the issue, though, by saying that individualistic Christianity isn’t all bad. It’s an authentic shape of the faith, contextualized to the culture around us. Because the surrounding culture is individualistic, people will probably feel more comfortable (at least at first) in an individualistic church-setting than in a communal one. And in some measure, the New Testament does take the almost wholly communal view of the Old Testament (focused on the entire people of God) and move it in a much more individualistic direction.

My argument, though, is that by ignoring the communal aspects of the biblical view of life, we are missing out on some of the richest depths of the Christian experience. Even our view of Scripture becomes skewed. Letters that were written for a communal audience are taken and applied almost solely to individual circumstances. We begin to view church as something that we attend, not as something we belong to, body and soul. Church becomes more of a social club and less of a family.

Though much of the evangelical Christian community recognizes and works against these cultural influences, we have not carried it far enough. Many Christian groups do emphasize a communal basis to the Christian life—that of the nuclear family. The ideal type of the family is presented as the lifelong husband-and-wife partnership and the children they raise. Whether or not this represents the ideal base unit of family, it is not the base unit of communal living as presented in the Bible. Rather, the New Testament continually presents the church as the communal basis for Christian life. There are a few references to family relationships sprinkled here and there in the apostolic letters, but the larger focus of the Scriptures is unceasingly on the communal life of the church. In fact, the traditional family-type in the ancient world—the ‘household’—would have been much more flexible than our present ideal, since it included extended family, servants (and possibly slaves), as well as friends and guests. Though it’s good to hold up the ideal of the Christian nuclear family, if we focus on that one ideal to the detriment of understanding the true nature of the church, our communal life as Christians will suffer. Numerous groups of people will begin to feel a bit estranged because they don’t fit into the ideal paradigm. The unmarried, the divorced, and single parents will all be made to feel uncomfortable in evangelical churches. If, however, we present the local church as the communal base of Christian living, fortified in the practice of mutual love and grace, all people will be able to find rest and fruitfulness within its embrace.

Neo-monasticism could help correct some of the cultural errors of the American church. By living communally and drawing one another into the intimate embrace of our daily spiritual lives, we would come to a greater understanding of what it truly means to be the Body of Christ.

Supposing that such a movement could attract a wide age-range, neo-monasticism would offer a way to garner from the wisdom and experience of those further down the road of life. In many (but certainly not all) of our churches, we split apart by age-groups and tend to function as nothing more than a once-a-week convention of smaller, more isolated churches. It’s certainly easier to make connections with our own age-group, and no doubt there would still be a place for that within neo-monasticism. But living in constant community would also lead us into engaging with those who are very different from us, whether we want to or not. Teens and young adults could be raised up to minister to the whole body with their gifts, no longer being treated as a separate species. And they could, in return, receive the ministry of the elderly, a depth of resource I’ve been blessed to receive, humbled and rejoicing, in my own life. Traditional nuclear families would also receive the added support of community. Children and teens would, in most cases, benefit from being raised by the monastic village as a whole. Adolescents going through crises of identity and rebellion against parental authority would be given a broader social foundation for growth and maturation.

It should also be said that communal living will not always be pleasant. In fact, it might be unpleasant more often than not. We can probably all think of a fair number of people (or at least types of personalities) that we would not want to be engaged with on a day-to-day basis. But if we come into such a community knowing the difficulties and believing that the rewards are greater than the struggles, I think we will come to the place of discovering a deeper and richer expression of the faith than we could have thought possible. In an individualistic society, it's too easy for us to run away from those Christians we don't like. We seldom have the chance to push through our rifts and grudges to discover the stretching blessings of authentic community.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Part I: The Neo-Monastic Vision

At the outset, I want to give a brief outline for the pattern of my discourses on ‘the new monasticism’, to be written over the next few weeks. I’ll begin in this post by describing my somewhat shadowy conception of what an actual community might look like. The following blogs, which are the heart of the argument, will address areas of current tension between American culture and the church as it should be. I’ll attempt to show that monastic-patterned communities would allow for greater depth of fellowship, strength in evangelism, power to walk in personal holiness, and a God-glorifying use of wealth. After that, I’ll attempt to answer potential questions that skeptics would raise, as well as pondering the practical outworkings of this system, especially in American culture. Then I’ll examine Scriptural and historical precedents, and conclude with a somewhat more personal application—gleaning from my own experiences to show why this is so attractive to me.

The vision for these monastic-patterned communities is fairly simple: a group of Christians who live together for the purpose of spurring one another on to love and good deeds. This is probably most easily done in urban situations, where Christian families can buy or rent an apartment complex together and minister to the immediately surrounding areas. But there’s no reason why it couldn’t also be applied in a rural situation, in which Christian families would buy or build houses near one another and create a 'monastic village'.

Obviously, I’m not using ‘monasticism’ here to imply that only unmarried, celibate men can be a part. There’s no reason why that more traditional form of monasticism couldn’t also be carried over into evangelical circles, but for now I’m interested in a system that would be able to integrate anyone who is a part of the larger Christian community. This movement should be able to embrace families and singles, young and old alike. In a word, it should simply be a deep expression of what it means to be the church.

These communities would share life together—fellowshipping through some common meals during the week, regular worship together, and discipling-relationships within the group. There would have to be an organized system and a code of conduct to be followed (a valuable benchmark of every monastic order throughout the history of the church). The focus would be to know and love one another in a deep and meaningful way, as well as to know and love God in a much deeper way—through prayer, worship, and mutual service.

The aim of this community would also be wholeheartedly outward—to bring the light of Christ into the immediate areas. Members would still have jobs and relationships outside the community, and the togetherness of communal life would serve as a constant reminder and encouragement to use those times of contact with non-Christians in a missional way. This is one of the main reasons the church exists, and I believe that the encouragement that could come from having a mission-focused community would empower many Christians to be much more outreaching in their individual witness. Not only so--having a community of love would also make witnessing itself easier, because it would not simply be a matter of forcing everyone into the mold of an evangelizing witness (door-to-door style), but of utilizing everyone’s spiritual gifts in order to be an evangelizing community. It would be a joyfully synergistic outpouring of proclamation, witness, and service to the world.

The system would require the sacrifice of a great deal of personal liberty, which is why it will be such a tough sell here in America. Members and their families would have to give up some significant say in how to order their lives, turning that prerogative over to the church. Such communities might, in order to pursue their goals more fully, limit the amount and content of mass media entertainment members can view. They might directly oversee the use of finances of the individual members and families. Some such communities might even decide to completely pool their finances.

In any case, there would have to be some sort of authority structure to which members voluntarily submit. This was another benchmark practice of traditional monasticism, and a good one. It doesn’t sit well with our fiercely independent Americanism, but I believe that conscientious, God-glorifying leadership of this type may well be what the American evangelical church is lacking. In many churches today, there is no real authority to correct or guide in the manner that was practiced in the early church. This authority might be wielded by a single individual, such as an abbot, or by a council of leaders (or, better yet, by a cooperation of the two). In either case, the system might stand or fall on the grace and skill of these leaders—to be able to lead in a way that inspires and nurtures the members, not in narrow legalism. Discipline and communal self-denial need not lead to a lessening of grace, and we would need leaders who understood that. From that hub of communal leadership would extend a hierarchy of mutually accountable disciplers, who would manage and nourish relationships in small groups.

This paradigm, roughly-sketched as it is, probably wouldn’t work with large groups of people. It might be more effective if it was kept to the size of a small rural congregation, and after it exceeded that limit, it could split off and plant a sister community somewhere nearby.

A final important point is that this system would be voluntarily entered into by its participants. If such a neo-monastic system were ever put in place, it would be intended as a complement to the local church, not a replacement. Members would be humbly expressing their spiritual need by joining the community, not their spiritual superiority. Many Christians, probably most, would elect not to join such a community, and it would have to be stressed that in no way would they be ‘lesser Christians’ for doing so. These monastic orders would be for the building up of local church members and for extending witness to the world in a powerful way. Again, it would simply be a deep expression of what it means to be the church.