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.