Third Degree Worms (Exiles #3)

We now continue with the Series of Worms, not to be confused with the Diet of Worms.

I’m part way through reading  Michael Frost's excellent Exiles, but I thought I’d add me add a little disclaimer. This is neither a review nor a rebuttal of Exiles. It’s more like espresso for the brain, provoking me to thought and reflection.

So, yeah, Exiles is the inspiration for my wormy series – a sure sign of a well-written book.

Frost spends part of chapter six on the place of monastic “rules” in creating what he calls “missional communitas.” The Rule of St. Benedict is one example among many. A number of emerging/missional groups are already their wagons around a monastic order.

The “monastic rule” is a mutally agreed-upon set of practices, values, and commitments. As Frost is quick to point out, individual communities embracing this approach do so in creative, unique ways. “Re-monking the church” – a phrase Frost borrows from Stuart Murray’s Post-Christendom – helps everyone to know what they’re signing up for. I’ll resist calling it a “vision statement,” although that’s basically what it is. The monastic rule(s) also function as a community litmus test: are we actually doing what we said we were going to do?

Positive outcomes that come immediately to mind:

  • The rule’s objectivity helps instill “ownership” of the vision within the community
  • A clear commitment to the rule helps newcomers hit the ground running
  • When life gets complicated – as it inevitably does – the rule provides an objective standard to measure against, and a vision to call the group back to.

On the other side of the coin, however …

The now-infamous Shepherding Movement began in the 1970s as a way of providing discipleship and accountability, but quickly degenerated into a system of control and spiritual abuse, wreaking havoc on thousands of Christians.

I see some parallels in the adoption of monastic rules that require careful thought, lest we see a similar train wreck. The sociological milieu that fostered a climate where the Shepherding Movement could flourish share an uncanny resemblance with the early 21st century.

Then: Many anti-establishment hippies become followers of Jesus through the Jesus Movement, but harbor an ingrained distrust of "the man" (authority)
Now: Emerging generations of Jesus-followers harbor an ingrained suspicion and distrust of hierarchical, CEO-style leadership (authority)

Then: A genuine hunger for relationships; communes with little or no connection to established churches sprang up
Now: A genuine hunger for relationships; destructured house groups/simple churches/monastic <i>communitas</i> with little or no connection to established churches spring up

Then: Cultural changes (the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate, and the 1960s in general) created anxiety in many, resulting in a felt need for stability and some level of certainty
Now: Cultural changes (post-modern cultural transition, “fatherless generation”) create anxiety and restlessness, resulting in a felt need for relational stability and some level of certainty

Then: Sincere, older believers seek to disciple “outside the box” Jesus-followers through books, cassettes, conferences, and personal mentoring
Now: Sincere, older believers seek to disciple “churchless faith” Jesus-followers thourgh books, blogs, websites, cohorts, and monastic orders/rules (Note: discipleship rebranded as “spiritual formation”)

Then: The question of accountability and authority becomes problematic; “covering” and being “under authority” teachings are given prominence
Now: The question of accountability and authority continues to be problematic; despite the Shepherding Movement’s collapse, “covering and authority” teachings have not gone away, and monastic rules risk becoming rigid and censorious under pressure.

Then: While not originally intended, hierarchical power structures evolve to safeguard conformity to accepted standards
Now: While not originally planned, community power – with the spoken or implied threat of “shunning” – evolves to safeguard conformity to accepted standards, rules, and/or commitments.

I’m not suggesting it’s inevitable that monastic communitas (what’s the plural of that?) will devolve into Shepherding Movement: TNG. But if we naively assume that it couldn't possibly happen, I’d suggest taking a step back to invest some careful, community-wide thought into building safeguards into the monastic rule.

The potential for good all but demands it.

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