Helping the Church Be the Church: Conclusion
Over the last couple months I’ve been reading a whole mess o’ books written by and about the new monasticism. (You can read the intro to the series here). I haven’t really set out to give a full synopsis of the books, but rather consider certain contributions they might make to different groups. In this final post I offer a few closing comments.
The Church is so much more than a powerful organization. In being joined to the Church we have the opportunity to receive a foretaste of the fulfillment of God’s intention for creation. Community, just as God is community. Interestingly the biblical images of Body of Christ and Church are not merely different ways of understanding ecclesiology. They are theology of the first order. Because the Church is the Body of Christ we catch a glimpse of the Trinitarian God we serve. God is one God and three persons. The Church is one body with many parts.
To function as an organization, club or loosely connected gathering of individuals is to be shortchanged in our experience of the Trinity…and the great beauty that is the Body of Christ. The new monastic movement, like the prophetic influence of previous monastics, reminds the church of the centrality of community in our theology. The purpose of community is much deeper than mere fellowship. We are community because God is Community and we are created in the image of God.
While the new monastics should not claim to have a monopoly on communal expressions of life and faith, there should be little legitimate debate that, in the West at least, the Church is in dire need of good models of community.
Not everyone will be called to experience community and express their faith in the same manner as the new monastics. Monastic orders throughout history, as several of our books have attested, have functioned with the understanding that theirs is a particular calling rather than a universal one. Yet to the established church, those who heed the call to monastic living offer hope that it is possible to begin experiencing greater tastes of heaven even now. It is possible to cultivate community that extends beyond transactional relationships and convenient circumstances. It is possible to make the difficult decision to align oneself with the poor, marginalized and overlooked. It is possible because Christ is already at work in these things.
The decisions made to live simply and to step out of the line to upward mobility; to reject coercive power and embrace life lived in connection and submission to others are decisions that carry both criticism and hope. They offer a prophetic call to everyone. As I recently said to a friend, “You may not be called to take the same risks for Christ that I have, but you are called to risk nonetheless. Whatever it looks like for you to follow Christ, you should embrace it wholeheartedly.”
This is a message that the new monastics offer the Church. You may not be called to live among the homeless in Philadelphia, or battle racism in deep south. You may not be called to form a ministry to street kids in Boulder or spend a season living in one of the slum communities across the globe, but I guarantee there is an aspect of God’s mission that you are called to embrace. The new monastics not only call the Church to hear and respond to the mission of God but also to do so in community rather than isolation.
If we take seriously the prayer that Jesus taught us, we will not be satisfied until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. If we aren’t making a conscious choice to live that way ourselves, at least among a small community of people, then our lives declare we are already satisfied.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove set the tone of this paper with his conviction that the role of new monasticism is to “help the church be the church.” If we expect the new monastics to offer something unique and novel to be considered substantive, then we are using a matrix that the new monastics themselves would reject. The value of the monastic contribution is not found in its creativity, per se, but in the simplicity of ancient wisdom which throughout human history has drawn people out for the benefit of us all. This movement is filled with monks and prophets that are putting flesh on issues of justice, reconciliation, freedom, community, whole-life discipleship, prayer, worship, evangelism and stewardship.
The value of this movement extends beyond its ability to bring about neighborhood renewal (as great as that is). The monastic rejection of passive consumer Christianity provides opportunity for each of us; for whole congregations and denominations, to examine our own complicity and respond in a way that is true to Christ’s claim on his Church.
The books that have been all too briefly addressed in this paper present a picture that transcends youthful rebellion or a postmodern reaction to the perceived ills of previous generations. They describe a commitment to whole life discipleship without ever claiming to be descriptions of THE commitment to such. There is little in this movement that strives to be truly novel or unique. Some of it feels such, given the typically individualistic experiences of faith in the West. Solidarity with the poor and oppressed is important. Connection to community is undeniably central, but there are certainly Christians of all stripes, found in all contexts who value such things.
Monastics are not the only ones reclaiming the values of prayer, scripture reading, worship, confession and spiritual disciplines outside of set religious gatherings. Unique or not, both historical monasticism and its contemporary expressions have a record of commitment to these values with a prophetic call for the Church to reclaim them as well.
Regardless of what “type” of church we find ourselves in, there are ways in which the new monasticism is poised to help that church be the Church.