When Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c. 550) set out to form a new Christian community — a monastery — he did it all wrong. If he’d been a member of my denomination we would have set him straight. He should, of course, have started with a “mission study.” We want our communities — typically local congregations — to be all about participation in mission.
So, guided by the regional office he would gather with his leadership team.
- They would look at all the demographic data, finding out how many people, in what age groups, and social strata were around to reach out to.
- They would survey those people: What kind of unmet needs did they feel? What kinds of activities did they like to engage in? How many might be interested in joining a monastic community? Just what kind of monastery might they find appealing?
- And the team would study themselves: What did this little band of monks feel their gifts were? What might they have to offer their potential target market?
Oops. Did I slip into marketing language? In the mission study we try to keep that at the subliminal level.
No, Benedict did it a very different way. No mission study. No mission statement. He had trained in the monastic life as a hermit, and studied all the available models of monastic community. He wrote his Rule adapting it to what he thought was wise and helpful.
He did not run the idea through focus groups. He had his Rule and then he allowed some of those who were interested to join. And to join they had to agree to his conditions. Among other things this would mean
- they would give up all their possessions
- they would obey their superiors in the monastery
- they would be celibate
- they would commit to staying for the rest of their lives
- and by the way, they would have to get up in the middle of the night for prayer, every single night
You can see how appealing that would be.
But, Benedict’s plan, as we say, went viral. Within his lifetime he founded something like a dozen separate monasteries. His Rule became the norm for monastic life throughout the middle ages. Even today, when monasticism is having a pretty hard go of it, there are somewhere around 1500 monasteries in Benedict’s tradition worldwide.
And the result?
- A world changed by Christ’s disciples.
When you do the roll call of medieval missionaries and other leaders, the people who spread discipleship to the far ends of Europe, you will find a stellar list who were, in fact, monks. They were formed as disciples and equipped for service by living in the kind of communities Benedict designed.
Compare this with the churches of my denomination and their mission studies.
Why was that so? What is it about the nature of Benedictine community that made it such a catalyst for mission?
I want to explore this kind of question in a series of posts over the next while (alongside my other ongoing series on prayer in the Heidelberg Catechism).
Some of you know from Chad Allen’s blog that I’m working on a book about ways Christians have shaped their community life in a variety of movements. I’m thinking a lot about Benedictine monasticism just now, but I will be looking at quite a number of other movements too. I imagine there are some you will be more drawn to and some you’ll frankly dislike. That’s all good: wisdom about ourselves, our communities, and our place in God’s mission can come from both reactions.
I’m hoping that people starting Christian communities, or seeking renewal in Christian communities, can explore these movements along with me. There is wisdom to be mined in people like Benedict, and movements like monasticism. After all: They changed the world for Christ. I’d like my community to do that too.
What draws you or repels you about monasticism?
What Christian movements do you think of as having a rich and distinctive way of being community?
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