Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Part VII: Why I Need Monasticism

Now to many, the idea of neo-monasticism which I’ve set forth might sound more than a little odd. The reason for this, besides a general reticence to try something so innovative (and, at the same time, so archaic), is that not everyone is cut out for monastic living. Though I think we’re often too comfortable in our American Christianity, for some people monasticism might bring an unhealthy level of discomfort to their spiritual lives. It’s not wise to try to revolutionize a deeply-ingrained culture of individualism in leaps and bounds. Or it might be the case that some Christians are more effective in their discipline and witness under current models of the church than they would be in a monastic community.

I would certainly like to suggest that neo-monasticism could be a spiritually healthy and powerful new way of doing church for most Western Christians, and it’s heartening to have heavyweight Christian thinkers like John Stott and Stanley Hauerwas backing me up in that assertion. But beyond any hopes of transforming the Western church, the real reason that drives my desire for neo-monasticism is that I need it. I said in one of my first posts on this subject that to join a neo-monastic community would in itself be a confession of weakness. And in my case, that would be wholly true.

I’m not very good at being consistent in the classic disciplines of the spiritual life. The power of a focused Christian community would help make up what I lack in accountability and drive. To have a communal schedule for entering the disciplines of prayer, worship, and study would be a powerful motivator. It would no longer rest solely on my own anemic self-discipline to pursue moments of intimate connection with God.

It’s too easy for me to get sucked away into temptations and sinful patterns of living, and the structure of the church as it is now, compounded with my own pride, keeps me from living out any genuine and consistent confessional repentance. I need a Christian community that allows for, expects, and encourages open and honest confession, as well as a community that rigorously and compassionately holds me accountable. Small groups are a step in the right direction for most churches, but even these fail to bring me to the heart of the matter. They often don’t address directly the deep brokenness and sin I bear in my heart. In most cases, the confessional accountability I have in mind would be out-of-place and uncomfortable in a small group setting, and the only place suitable would be a one-on-one friendship with a spiritual counselor. Unfortunately, in American churches we leave the prerogative for arranging such a relationship with the individual himself, and actively entering into such a relationship is so foreign and terrifying to my personality that I wouldn’t do it unless it’s forced on me. A monastic community would do just that—force me into one-on-one relationships with mentors who will expect me to be a broken and sinful man, and to walk with me in rearranging my actions and my heart. Denver Seminary does have a program which forces me into mentoring relationships, and though I have high hopes for the program, I get the sense that it’s often more of a practical mentoring, focusing on building up ministry skills and personal devotional habits, but not necessarily an open venue for heartfelt confession and spiritual direction. And unless my mentor directly guides me down that path of confession, I doubt I’ll have the courage to breach that level of relationship on my own initiative. I wish I did have that courage, though, and perhaps God in his mercy will provide me with it.

Further, I find myself largely unable to escape cultural influences that shape the use of my time. For many people, our culture generates a hectic and frenzied productivity in the chase to do and accomplish more. For me, though, I often find that the culture of individualism, consumerism, and constant entertainment makes me lazy and a poor steward of my time. Now everyone, including me, needs some ‘down time’ in the day, but given the choice, I often take far too much and spend it all on rather frivolous and unenlightening activities. I’m sure a lot of people consider me to be a fairly productive individual, especially when it comes to writing, but in all honesty, if I were to be even remotely conscientious in the use of my time, I could at least double that productivity. The schedule of a monastic community, which would regulate access to entertainment and hold members somewhat accountable for the use of their time, would be an incredible boon to me.

Though I’m passionate about evangelism and outreach, I’m miserable at it. I love to pray and speak about it, but I don’t very much like to do it. A large part of that is the natural tendency of my personality, and so I must continue to seek out ways to minister within the gifts and abilities God has given me. But my apathy and cowardice play a large part, too, and I’ve found from experience that when I have a community that consistently fosters a missionary mindset, I become a much better missionary. My fears, though still present and immense, are not nearly as crippling as they would normally be. I actually come to enjoy outreach. This power, for me at least, comes from the motivating influence of a community that has set its heart on reaching others for the sake of the Gospel. Moreover, a communal focus on evangelism allows us to work together, harnessing one another’s gifts and talents, so that the whole dreadful onus of being an outreaching witness doesn’t rest wholly on my shoulders alone, but on our shoulders together. As someone who both loves and fears outreach, that’s a blessing beyond measure.

Some of the richest times in my spiritual life have come in times of close, accountable community. This was especially true with my work in Angola this past year, in which we missionaries really did live as something of a neo-monastic community. For most of the time, there were just four of us there in Menongue—two Papua New Guineans, a South African, and me, living in voluntary poverty of a rather extreme nature. We shared devotions and prayers every day. We had our meals together. We worked together in building a mission house. We planned and carried out ministry trips together. We kept one another accountable for where we were and what we were doing every day. We were honest and loving enough to confront one another. We joined together to do outreach by harnessing our individual gifts in a concentrated, communal effort to run a discipleship course. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for us as a group, but I wouldn’t trade those times in Angola for anything.

This stark assessment of my own failings probably isn’t the best motive for advocating a new way of doing church, but at least it’s an honest one. Perhaps, though, it’s good for me in a way to learn some self-discipline on my own first. It’s not an easy battle, but I’m learning, and, by the grace of God, slowly getting better. In any case, I know that I for one would benefit greatly from deep, accountable Christian community, and I believe that it’s a model of the church that has great potential for our culture. I don’t know if I’ll ever really get the opportunity to be a part of an authentic neo-monastic community, but if I do, I’ll probably jump at the chance.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You said "onus"!

--Onus

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your honesty. It's hard for us in America to admit that we can't do it on our own as individuals. If the American church wants to be healthy, it has develop the habit of intentional accountability among American Christians, and neo-Monasticism can help in that direction. Just because we're uncomfortable with that doesn't mean that it's a bad idea.

--Josh