Friday, March 31, 2017

Missional challenges of the modern world

By J. West

Tonight I was meeting with local Anglican church planters for a social event. At the end our host asked us to articulate our major frustration or challenge.

One theme was the challenge of creating and maintaining relationships with future members of our flocks. This included the challenges of maintaining ties in a highly mobile society, and losing members passing on in aging congregations.

We also discussed other challenges in modern urban and suburban society here in Southern California. One is — reminiscent of Western Europe — the ever-smaller proportion of Christians in our communities. The other is the tendency of Americans to drive past many other churches for the denomination, program, preaching or whatever features they demand as church consumers. Together, this means that we don’t have the sense of community — and ongoing ties between Sundays — that one might have seen in small town America or a medieval England village.

As it turns out, this ties back to an email conversation I had today with the clergy at my own church, sharing a few of the many recent articles written in response to Rod Dreher’s publication earlier this month of The Benedict Option.   (An excerpt was reprinted in Christianity Today and Dreher had a great interview with Dr. Al Mohler). The clergy and I have been discussing the book and its critiques, because this parallels our own shared vision of using Mission Communities as the path to forming deeper Christians and the nucleus of future churches.

One of these articles, called “Benedict in the Suburbs,” was by Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest on the Ancient Faith website, who questions whether Benedictine communities can be constructed in consumerist American communities. A few excerpts from his important arguments:
The origin of the Benedict Option (Rod’s creative title for all of this) comes from the final paragraph in Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic, After Virtue (1981). Having analyzed and detailed the collapse of modern society in terms of its ability to produce virtuous people, MacIntyre likens our time to that of post-Roman Western Europe. With the end of empire and the dominance of barbarity, small enclaves of monastics (primarily Benedictines) began what would become the seeds of civilization’s return to virtue.

We are a consumer economy, highly individualistic with a deep regard for sentiment. The landscape of our world has evolved in response to these fundamental realities. Values and practices that fall outside of that model are difficult to nurture and sustain. Human beings are largely creatures of habit. If the structures of our world support a certain form of virtue, then that is the most likely path we will follow. We do so because it is the most natural way to live.

It is here that most aspects of a modern “Benedict Option” flounder. An American suburb is not a European village of Late Antiquity. Every aspect of a suburb’s existence is designed to serve and nurture consumers.

Religious institutions that thrive have adapted themselves to these (and other) suburban virtues.  The evangelical mega-church is, by far, the fastest growing religious phenomenon in our area (I think my Episcopal neighbor is now attending a mega-church). It is said that such Churches are popular because they require so little commitment. They flourish for the same reason as the big-box stores. Their gospel is tailored for quick consumption. “Holy Days” are generally designed to mimic cultural holidays without the dissonance of an ancient calendar.

Traditional Churches (such as the Orthodox) are also strongly marked by a suburban mentality. Sundays are well-attended, and the major feasts, with the exception of Christmas and Pascha, much less so. There is constant pressure to create “program” and various strategies to nurture piety. The integration between hearth, home and Church is quite minimal. Of course, the very structure of suburban life is constantly at war with the traditional notion of parish. I have families who travel over an hour-and-a-half to attend Church. It is only natural that their attendance is sporadic. My own family is probably the only one who lives in comfortable walking distance to the Church. I once calculated that the parish uses over 100-200 gallons of gasoline on any given Sunday.

St. Benedict’s communities “worked,” because what grew up around them were very natural, villages and towns, integrated in the life of parish and monastery. Of necessity, the economies were small, as though E.F. Schumacher himself had served as economic advisor to St. Benedict. Benedict’s entire work presumes poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. The villages of Benedictine Europe embodied these virtues in large measure in accordance with their circumstances.
The other related article was in the Catholic journal of letters, First Things. Bethany Mandel, a writer for the century-old Jewish newspaper the Forward, offers “Going Benedict, Orthodox Jewish”; a few excerpts:
Readers of a new book by Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, may decide to “go Benedict,” dropping out of society in some fashion, for religious and moral reasons.

Dreher’s subtitle is A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. A fascinating component of the book, however, is the overlap between what Dreher proposes and what already exists within the Orthodox Jewish community, in North America and across the world. The communal makeup of the Orthodox Jewish community was built not in response to cultural upheaval, but from a desire to maintain the continuity of the Jewish people.

Thanks to the need for homes to be within walking distance of the community’s synagogue, Orthodox Jewish families often live in close proximity to one another—another recommendation Dreher makes in The Benedict Option. He acknowledges: “Geography is one secret to the strength and resilience of the Orthodox Jewish communities. … Christians don’t have the geographical requirement that Orthodox Jews do, but many of those who choose to live in proximity have found it a blessing. … Why be close? Because the church can’t just be the place you go on Sundays—it must become the center of your life.”
In addition to the Orthodox believers creating the sense of community and belonging, Mandel notes two other practices that conform to the goals articulated by the (Eastern Orthodox) Dreher: separating from the corrupting effects of modern mass media (at least on the Sabbath), and replacing secular public schools with local private schools controlled by the believers. For the latter, she confirms the risk identified by Dreher — that with the high price of private secondary schools, Dreher says the result is a “materialistic, status-conscious culture within the schools.”

Dreher, Mandel and my colleagues point back to fundamental challenge we face in building strong churches in post-Christian American society. How do we create communities that transform people’s lives by prayer and fellowship with their fellow believers — not just two hours a week, but seven days a week? I believe this is a crucial (and as yet unanswered) question for the church in 21st century America.