The Megachurch and the Monastery
Is "megachurch discipleship" an oxymoron? I'm a pastor at a suburban megachurch where 3,000 attend weekly, and we've been asking that question recently. Does our large program-driven structure actually create more obstacles and distractions to spiritual growth than it removes?
Although megachurches are now becoming giga-churches, and large church pastors have achieved celebrity status in our culture, we're having a hard time programming people into Christian maturity.
We are starting to see a subtle meltdown in the megachurch model. Research shows that young people are leaving the church in increasing numbers and never returning. And the Willow Creek Association's REVEAL study uncovered the limited impact of programs on spiritual growth.
So, should we sell the suburban ranch and redistribute ourselves into smaller communities throughout the city? Or is there a way to be large and not lose our souls? Surprisingly, the answer for churches both large and small might be found in an approach to spiritual formation associated with the monastery.
The new monasticism
I was first introduced to monasticism while taking a spiritual formation class taught by Dallas Willard. I began using fixed-hour prayer and the lectionary for my devotional time, and I introduced these practices to other leaders at Church of the Open Door. In time we found ourselves being influenced by the writings of the Desert Fathers, Augustine, Patrick, Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, and more modern writers like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. And apparently we're not alone.
In Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's book, New Monasticism, An Insider's Perspective: What it has to say to today's church (Brazos, 2008), he explains that "new monasticism" is not an organized movement but something God is doing across the American church. It is spontaneously springing forth from reexamination of the fragmented gospel that many churches model. He urges a more biblical understanding of the gospel, which leads to a quiet revolution of God's Kingdom.
Wilson-Hartgrove cites small monastic communities as examples of this revolution. These communities share certain traits. They often locate in the "abandoned places of Empire" like urban centers. They share resources, and they seek intentional formation through a "rule of life" and disciplined prayer. They also draw from monastic orders of the past by practicing hospitality for strangers, pursuing peacemaking and reconciliation, and by living in submission to Christ's body, the church. One example of such a monastic community is The Simple Way in Philadelphia (best known for one of its leaders, Shane Claiborne).
Our church is light years away from a group like The Simple Way. In many regards, Church of the Open Door looks like your average megachurch. It has a big building, a big staff, and a big budget. But we are also seeing many of the same traits outlined by Wilson-Hartgrove in our community.