School(s) For Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism edited by The Rutba House
This book is a compilation of essays on the “12 marks” which serve as guiding principles for many new monastic communities. The introduction, written by Jonathan R. Wilson addresses issues which I believe are essential for each of our three groups to consider.
Wilson claims that, in light of the failure of the enlightenment project to fulfill its lofty promises to bring about greater peace and prosperity through scientific, technological and logical development, New Monasticism is faced with the great temptation to focus on self-preservation. This temptation must be faced head on by NM communities, missional monastic church plantings and the established church. We must balance the temptation to be driven by the bottom line and the other extreme of understanding our existence merely for the sake of the world. But how?
Wilson urges the church to remember its eschatological identity; we live in anticipation of the reign of God, practicing the Kingdom ethos now and praying for its arrival in fullness. Regardless of the expression or form the church takes, if it forgets its mission to join with God in the ministry of reconciliation; if it functions and makes decisions solely out of internal self-interest or external activism; if it is driven by the bottom line, perhaps it has forgotten what it means to be church in the first place. This is not condemnation, it is exhortation. Church, remember your first love!
For New Monastic Communities: I spoke recently to students in a graduate church planting class. At one point someone asked me what difficult and painful lessons we’ve learned. I replied, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a Christian to reimagine the life of faith as something beyond attendance.” This realization has been costly, saddening and thoroughly exhausting. And yet, a wise friend encouraged me to remember how Jesus concluded his similar statement: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
For disciples forming a new monastic community, it is vital to pray for just such a transformation. Like Peter’s conversion when he visited the household of Cornelius in Acts 10, we must recognize that it is not only the uninitiated who need to be evangelized. We are all in need of the good news breaking in more fully.
Mark #6 discusses the value of being intentionally formed in the way of Christ and the Rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate. Author David Janzen notes that we often read Jesus telling people that in order to follow him they will have to leave some things behind. He points out that this “renunciation itself is not holiness, but it creates a necessary space where the holiness of God can dwell and can reorder the disciples’ lives.” We’re like the wealthy city dweller preparing to hike up a mountain with 6 suitcases, 2 backpacks and a computer bag. We just can’t carry it all where we’re going. Even if we could, we soon we realize that most of it doesn’t make sense in the new landscape anyway.
Like the rich young ruler, we will be called to give up things which seem precious to us so that we can take hold of that which has value beyond our ability to imagine. There is absolutely no substitute for considering this cost. Having a mature guide(s) capable of listening with novices is extremely valuable.
Let new monastic communities be warned, skipping or cheapening the process of discernment will result in pain and frustration for novice and community alike. More than a mere conversation, there needs to be a season where an individual is dedicated to prayer and service alongside the community; a chance to practice the community’s Rule as a context for discerning call and commitment.
Janzen is clear to point out that this call to a novitiate process with the assistance of a spiritual director must not become a cultic community isolated from the larger church - to do so is idolatrous and will lead to disaster. A proper connection to the historic church, the present church and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the local community can lead to a vibrant life of discipleship.
For Missional Monastic Church Planting: Leah (not her real name) is a single mom raising her 4 year-old daughter and 10 year old nephew. She is attempting to do so on the meager earnings available in food service and it is increasingly difficult. Leah is distrustful of the church, but as she spends time with our family, extending and receiving hospitality has begun to reveal the goodness of the gospel in her life.
Showing hospitality to our friends is not good enough. When it comes to the cultivation of missional monastic churches among non-Christians, we are finding great wisdom in this mark of showing hospitality to the stranger. It is inconvenient and sometimes a bit terrifying to invite people we hardly know into our homes and our lives and to also enter willingly into theirs, but this is essential.
Maria Russell Kenney is right, this hospitality is not a gifting, it is a discipline “in which we are called - and invited - to grow.” It is more than an occasional gifting because it is rooted in the very nature of God and the experience of our own lives. God is the one who has come near, the one who has chosen to tabernacle with creation. God is the one who calls strangers out of obscurity into a life of being known and then sends us out to see and know others.
The call to show hospitality to the stranger is one that we can immediately invite our new friends to live into also. Michelle (not her real name) lives across the street from our co-laborers, the Chappotins. Recently several close Christian friends essentially abandoned the Chappotins after they confessed that they were struggling financially. However, when Michelle, their very skeptical-of-Christianity neighbor, heard about their situation she barged into their living room and began making plans for their two families to share meals and other expenses. The stranger offering hospitality in return is indescribably beautiful.
For the Established Church: Several years ago I was a part of a conversation about small groups. Pastors from multiple congregations were attempting to help their congregations connect more deeply with one another through the venue of small group ministry. One of our primary questions was whether to organize small groups using the homogeneous unit principle or by geographical proximity. The conversation was incredibly frustrating because it seemed to be driven by a defeatist “just the way it is” attitude which was resigned to people ignoring their neighbors.
I was a little surprised to find this issue once again being discussed in the context of planting house churches. It seemed that our commitment to our neighborhoods would settle the dispute before it began. Yet for the Christian families who joined our movement, experience told them that they would enjoy house church best if they carefully selected those with whom they’d be sharing life.
School(s) for Conversion is most helpful in that it locates the significance of geographical proximity in a more healthy place than did our dialog several years ago. We were unable to come to any consensus in that conversation and I believe it was because we weren’t asking the right questions first.
It would have been incredibly beneficial if members of new monastic communities could have spoken to us about the need for proximity emerging as a result of commitments to communal disciplines; serving this higher more important goal. If we were first committed to “common prayer, common meals, mutual confession of sins, spiritual guidance, and celebration, then geographical proximity [could have been] a great catalyst.” Instead, we attempted to pursue proximity in hopes that common practices would result.
The author highlights that we, including the members of established churches, have already chosen to organize by proximity. Yet it is primarily our closeness to school, work and favorable living conditions that has driven us, more so than proximity to members of our community. It is difficult to imagine how we can live out the call of the “one-another” passages in scripture when we see each other once a week.
It is the people in proximity sharing a common rule that really makes this principle so powerful. Most of us live near other people. Many times we are even friendly to those people, but sharing neighborhood space and sharing life are not inherently synonymous. When we do choose to engage one another more intentionally, we hold each other up through shared meals, shared celebrations and struggles...shared life. This may happen spontaneously. Probably not.
Established churches that have chosen to commit more intentionally to spiritual formation in a small group ministry may well find that geographical proximity is incredibly helpful. It will be important for these churches to remember to maintain the proper focus. Being close to others enhances our opportunities to live out the “one another” passages of scripture, it is not itself the fulfillment of those things.