Sunday, January 28, 2007

Third Degree Worms (Exiles 3)

We now continue with the Series of Worms, not to be confused with the Diet of Worms. I'm happily reading my way through Michael Frost's most excellent Exiles, but let me add a clarification that the Series of Worms is not written in reaction to Frost's book; it's more like espresso for the brain: provoking me to think. So, the Worms have been inspired by Frost, which is a sign of a good, thought-provoking, well-written book.

Okay, the obvious, blatant, not-even-thinly-disguised marketing of Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture will end now, except to say: GET THIS BOOK.

Frost spends part of chapter six on the place of the old monastic "rules" in creating missional communitas; the Rule of St. Benedict is one example among many. There are many examples in the emerging/missional church of groups who are attempting to arrange their community/communitas around some aspect of monastic order.

The "rule" is a commonly agreed-upon set of practices, values, and commitments. As Frost is quick to point out, each community that embraces this approach to communitas does so in creative, unique ways; there is no -- neither should there be -- one-size-fits-all, draconian and monolithic "my way or the highway" kind of attitude.

The function of "re-monking the church" -- a phrase Frost borrows from Stuart Murray's Post-Christendom -- is to have a standard that serves both as (pardon the term) a "vision/mission statement" that everyone who is part of the community agrees to when they identify with the community, and also as a more objective grid which serves as a reference when the group asks the necessary questions about whether or not they are accomplishing the purpose(s) that they claim to support.

The positives that immediately jump out at me would include:
  • the objectivity of the rule helps the "ownership" of the vision to reside in the community, rather than in a select few or in just one person

  • a clearly understood commitment to the rule can help people right from the get-go, because they know what they're "signing up for" when they choose to identify with the community

  • when life gets complicated -- as it inevitably does -- the rule provides both a foundational support and way of calling people back to the simplicity of the rule; grounding people in healthy dynamic from which to puzzle out the complications of life with imperfect people living imperfectly with other imperfect people in an imperfect world
But having done some research in recent years on the Shepherding Movement, which started as an attempt at discipleship and accountability but quickly degenerated into a system of control and spiritual abuse that wreaked havoc on literally thousands and thousands of Christians, I see some parallels that need to be thought carefully through, lest we see a similar train wreck.

Here's some sociological similarities that I've observed about the milieu that gave us the first Shepherding Movement, and the present ethos we find ourselves in (these are only slightly updated from my post Shepherding Movement: TNG? from 2005):
Then: Many anti-establishment hippies become followers of Jesus through the Jesus Movement, but hold a real distrust of "the man" (authority)
Now: Emerging generations are committed to being followers of Jesus, but have developed a suspicion and distrust of hierarchical, CEO-style leadership (authority)
Then: A genuine hunger for relationships; Christian communes with little or no connection to established churches/ministries spring up 
Now: A genuine hunger for relationships; destructured house groups/simple churches/monastic communitas with little or no connection to established churches/ministries spring up
Then: Cultural changes (the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate, and the 60's in general) creates anxiety in many, resulting in a felt need for stability and some level of certainty
Now: Cultural changes (post-modern cultural transition, "fatherless generation") creates anxiety and restlessness for many, resulting in a felt need for relational stability and some level of certainty
Then: Sincere, older believers seek to minister and disciple these "outside the box" followers of Jesus (books, cassettes, conferences, personal mentoring)
Now: Sincere, older believers seek to minister and disciple (spiritual formation) these "churchless faith" followers of Jesus (books, blogs, websites, cohorts, monastic orders/rules)
Then: The question of accountability and authority becomes problematic; the teaching on "covering" and "being under authority" (based largely on Watchman Nee's writings) is given prominence
Now: The question of accountability and authority continues to be problematic; despite the collapse of the Shepherding Movement, the concepts of "covering" and "under authority" have not gone away, and the potential of monastic rules to become rigid and censorious
Then: While not originally intended, hierarchical power structures eventually develop to safeguard conformity to accepted standards

Now: While not originally planned, community power -- with the spoken or implied threat of "shunning" -- develops to safeguard conformity to accepted standards, rules, or commitments.

I'm not suggesting by any means that this re-discovering of monastic rules is obligated historically to become another version of the Shepherding Movement, but if we naively assume it couldn't happen, I would suggest that we need to step back and think it through a little more carefully. What Frost is suggesting, and what numerous faith communities are already experimenting with, is GOOD; but it's not without the potential for disaster. So how 'bout it? What would y'all suggest as ways to pursue communitas, perhaps with a monastic-inspired order/rule, yet avoid the trap of manipulative coercion to conform?