I was guest preacher at a little country church. There are thousands like it. They looked to be teetering on the brink of the abyss, hardly able to muster the leadership and funding to survive.
My wife was chatting with one of the members — someone with a lot of complaints about their denomination’s influence on the congregation:
“What I don’t like is that they want to turn us into a mission church.”
My wife thought this meant the denomination would be providing funding, making this congregation a part of its shared mission support. Sounded like a pretty good way to go, actually.
“No, they want us to do mission work. They want us to reach out. I think our focus should be right here, taking care of each other.”
Well, what can you say to that?
This church member was pointing to her bedrock understanding of what that Christian community is about. She seemed to aspire to having her church be a family or social club; or maybe a hospital with the members as patients. These are common understandings in churches — despite the formal mission statements in which we claim higher aims. I suspect her fellow members shared the same vision.
Our understanding of very important things often comes out most clearly in passing comments like these — little metaphors or points of complaint show us what we hold most dear. And when it comes to the nature of a congregation or other community these can reveal what we actually aspire to be.
By way of contrast, consider the Rule of St. Benedict, the document that has provided the shape for Western monastic communities from the sixth century to the present day. Benedict lets his sense of what Christian community is really about slip in along with passing metaphors.
First, the monastery is
“a school of the Lord’s service”
The underlying purpose of being in Benedict’s community was to get an education — an education that taught them how to serve Christ. They certainly learned the Scriptures, and the life of prayer. They learned the kind of life that pleases God. They learned Christian character. They served Christ in personal devotion and community life, and it led them to serve in the world.
- If your church saw its identity as “a school for Christ’s service” what courses would need to be in the curriculum?
Second, when it comes to learning to live as Christ teaches, the monastery is
“the workshop in which we perform all these works”
Benedict has a lot to say about “good works.” To many Protestants it can sound like he is leaving behind salvation by grace through faith. Actually he’s just taking seriously the Bible’s teaching on our behavior. A mature disciple isn’t just someone who believes or someone who avoids sins. Life in Christ leads to Christ-like life. That’s what is made in Benedict’s workshop.
- If your community is a “workshop” what would you say it is producing?
Third, the monastery is the place
“to do battle for Christ the Lord”
In Benedict’s sixth century point of view we also do battle for our King — battle with the devil. It isn’t quite the “spiritual warfare” discussed in some parts of Christianity today. We do battle for Christ as we defeat our old nature and live according to Christ’s instruction — the devil is behind every temptation to do otherwise. As we fight these inner battles we realize there are other outward battles to fight. That is, as our hearts and minds are formed to Christ’s will, we become aware of the needs of the world he loves. When monks fought for Christ they were strengthened and equipped to participate in his work in the world.
- If your community is called to “do battle for Christ” what are you fighting against, and how do you fight it?
- (And if you have heard passing comments that define your community’s identity I’d love to hear about them too!)
Why not celebrate Benedict’s feast day by sharing this post on Facebook?
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