Helping the Church Be the Church: Part VII – Inhabiting the Church
If you are new to this series, you can read the intro here. This is an excerpt from my essay which takes a look at what Inhabiting the Church has to offer Christian communities of different kinds. I’ve included a passage from the intro and church planting sections.
I haven’t been asked to take many vows in my life as a (non Roman Catholic) Christian in the US. I exchanged vows with a beautiful young lady in 2000. A decade before that I heard a call to enter into a most incredible covenant through baptism. I understood that certain things were expected of me…but mostly I was just asked if I believed. I have signed conduct agreements with universities and accountability contracts with small groups, but outside of my baptism and marriage I can’t recall any relationships that have adequately carried the weight of the word “vow.”
Inhabiting the Church addresses this somewhat common (lack of) experience by examining the value and implications of the Benedictine vows, particularly as they have been implemented within new monastic communities comprised primarily of free church Protestants.
Even setting aside momentarily our issues with the taking of vows, the three Benedictine promises of conversion, obedience and stability are perhaps themselves somewhat foreign among many Christian groups. The values of individualism and autonomy which cause us to cringe at the thought of being held down by vows also react to any claims of authority which expect obedience or the subjection of our personal freedoms. Yet, the authors claim, this is precisely what Jesus and indeed the whole corpus of Scripture demand.
At first glance conversion doesn’t appear too radical…until we consider that both internal AND external changes are expected. Many Protestants, especially those from more biblicist traditions, are used to the idea of obedience…until it is revealed that for the Benedictines this includes declaring our intent to be obedient to a community and even a human leader. Stability is fine as long as we’re referring to financial stability and our friends accepting the tough decisions we’ll have to make to do what’s best for our family…we’re not? Oh, then we all agree that’s ridiculous.
For Church Planting: One aspect of the Benedictine vows that struck me while reading this book was their positive and constructive nature. Those who feel called to a life that is dissimilar to the prevalent culture are often tempted to understand their identity in negative terms; they’re tempted to define themselves by what they are rejecting. It is easy for those setting out to cultivate community and plant new faith communities to think in terms of what they’ve left behind and how they are different from traditional churches.
While there is certainly a place for thinking through and critiquing the status quo, this is not a sufficient expression of identity, nor does it provide a compelling vision for the community. The vows of obedience, conversion and stability provide positive landmarks for the path forward. These vows cultivate an expectation that to be the people of God in a certain place is not merely about abstaining, it is about embracing; embracing community, rhythm, a new economy, the presence of Christ. It is about embodying hope and announcing the new kingdom.
The authors state that, “Conversion is a way of life that must be practiced.” This vision for our community is one that inspires excitement. We are learning to expect God to break into our lives and transform each of us regularly. We expect to see miracles in the lives of our friends and we anticipate ways in which God will allow us to witness glimpses of the kingdom even in the lives of our non-Christian neighbors.
Within my own community, we are becoming increasingly convinced that long periods without such experiences should be considered aberrations that can often occur when, 1) we’re not regularly seeking the kingdom and the presence of the King for our own continued transformation and 2) we aren’t praying specifically for the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.
We are not creating a counter-culture merely for the sake of being counter-cultural, we are inviting people to join us on a journey into new life. Yet the reality is that the essence of this journey does run counter to the systems of this world. Those who would invite others to follow the Way of Christ are wise to consider the role of vows taken in community. The life of church planting is incredibly hectic and unpredictable. Our network is convinced that no one should plant alone, but this conviction alone is insufficient. The Benedictine vows represent some very specific areas of struggle and temptation for church planters and provide equally specific tools for combatting these trials.
The book opens with an essay on the legitimacy of vows in general and confesses that, “if vows are applicable for new monasticism, they can only be such in a setting where face-to-face encounter is a daily reality. I suspect that vows, ultimately, are only as true as the life together that they represent.” Upholding a commitment to whole life discipleship in community is imbedded in the very nature of these vows.