This article was first published August 12, 1988
John R.W. Stott, the elder statesman of British evangelicalism, has stated recently that if he were young and beginning his Christian discipleship over, he would establish a kind of evangelical monastic order. Joining it would be men vowed to celibacy, poverty, and peaceableness.
Senate Chaplain Richard Halverson, speaking last April to the Anabaptist Hutterian Brethren, said something "cataclysmic" is in the air. Perhaps it is the return of Christ or, less dramatically, a "mighty visitation of God upon the Earth, upon the church." When it happens, "people in the evangelical community will have to move a lot more in the direction you [the Hutterians] are, more toward the simplicity, away from the materialism that I believe now has really infected badly the whole evangelical community."
Fuller Seminary philosopher Richard Mouw, speaking a few months back at Wheaton College, suggested that the church, and its evangelical sector in particular, would benefit from "remonasticization"—the clear and radical witness of a smaller body within the church, calling the entire church to a clearer and more radical witness.
Talk of monasticism from three thoroughly Reformed Christians is striking, and perhaps only coincidental. But perhaps it is not so coincidental. North American evangelicals are now acutely awake to the fact that they live in a post—Christian culture. There is much talk against violence, sensuality, and materialism. Yet even the most casual observer can see that the evangelical church is "infected badly" by all three.
The faint but (we hope) growing call for remonasticization is provoked by the recognition that our situation will not change merely with continuing talk. American mass culture presents the church with a challenge unique to its history. It is a culture dominated by the mechanisms and mentality of consumerism, and facilitated by mass media that penetrate every nook and cranny of the country.
In this milieu individual Christians, and the church as a collective body, cannot easily maintain their distinctive identity as a people killed and raised with Christ (Rom. 6:4‑10). The dominant ethos is all pervasive, able to assume milder, less offensive forms for those who will not embrace it with its mask off. So if the church dislikes coarse "worldly" celebrities, let it create its own celebrities. If it is cautious about the worldly mania for numbers (stocks sold on Wall Street), let it develop its own mania for numbers (souls saved by the megachurch).
Thus the church must not only recognize its plight, it must imagine new and truer ways to address that plight. It is in this context that we issue a formal call for remonasticization in the church.
The remonasticization we would support would not be as tightly defined as traditional monasticism. It would not, for example, mean the stereotypical cluster of people retiring to desert solitude. Rather, it would look to the biblical antecedents for a select group of holy persons set apart to call all persons to holiness, such as the Old Testament Nazirites, Israel's witness as a light to all nations, and Jesus' calling of disciples to train and teach with the goal of drawing all Israel to the same discipleship. And, of course, there is the church itself which is supposed to be no more than it hopes the world will someday be. In this context, remonasticization might take several forms, all oriented toward service in and to the world.
For example, young, unmarried Christians might find a "mission field" within the United States (in this case), settling here with the long-term vision of living together simply, agreeing on the radical witness of life together lived nonviolently, in poverty and celibacy.
Adopting a less radical but still crucial form of witness, families might gradually buy up homes in the same neighborhood, enabling them to meet daily for common worship and mutual discipleship.
Given increased longevity, Christians at retirement might form their own communities, devoting themselves to intensive worship and study of the Scripture, and to service in the world.
The main objections to remonasticization are clear and serious, but, we believe, surmountable. One major objection is that, if taken too seriously, remonasticization will render the church ineffective in the world. It is irresistible to reply that if the church is effective now, ineffectiveness must be impossible to achieve. But a more sober response is that the objective is to be distinctive, not distant. The church has nothing to offer the world if it loses the distinctiveness bestowed on it by its genuine living under the gospel.
A second objection is that remonasticization will lead to spiritual pride and snobbery, to an obsession with personal purity at the expense of being responsible in the world. This, too, is a serious objection. But remonasticization as we understand it has as its aim witness to Christ rather than personal purity. "Remonks," if you will, intend centrally to point beyond themselves, not draw attention to themselves.
What remonks will do
What, then, will remonks do? We can only introduce the idea; it will take others to expand on it and make it live. But we would suggest two endeavors as central for evangelical remonks.
First, they must learn and then teach others how to live our world into line with that of the Bible. Evangelicals heartily agree with Erich Auerbach's observation that, "Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, [biblical narrative] seeks to overcome our reality; we are to fit our own life into its world … " Yet it is far easier to read our world and our ways into the Bible than to truly understand the Bible and gradually live our world into congruence with its world. A friend tells us of his experience, meeting regularly with the same small group of highly committed Christians to read Scripture and then work at living by what they had read. It took four years, he reports, before that group could even begin to agree on where the Bible was taking them. How much harder it is, then, for suburban Christians who often move to a new city—and so a new church—every two years. Increasingly divided doctrinally and in our social and political visions, we evangelicals desperately need some among us who will patiently and enduringly attend together to Scripture, then begin to show us ways to live more faithfully to its story.
Second, remonks must recover the life of prayer. The pace of our society, with its intense and demanding variety of endeavors and diversions, disallows a life patiently and steadily centered on the one thing that really matters—the worship of God. Quiet times and morning devotions are simply added items on overcrowded agendas. We suspect a life of prayer will mean radically abandoning the busyness and fragmentariness of contemporary life. Once again we need communities that will model and point the way to this bold abandonment. Given the deep importance of freneticism and variety to the current ethos, genuinely living into prayer may be the church's most subversive act.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The New Monasticism | A fresh crop of Christian communities is blossoming among the urban poor.
A More Demanding Faith | Christian history is full of attempts to lead a more radical faith.
Drop Out and Tune in to Jesus | Today's communities are very different, and very similar to, those that formed in the 70s.
Alisdair McIntyre called for a "new Benedict" in his bookAfter Virtue.
More about the Camden House and the Simple Way are available from their websites.
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