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 façade 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.