One of the persistent challenges to the ongoing discussion of the Benedict Option is the claim that the BenOp is primarily a retreat from public life and is, therefore, wrong-headed. Though they are presented under separate names, this seems to be the essential critique of both the “Jeremiah Option” and the “Patrick Option” as best I can tell. (In the mean time, can I propose a moratorium on all other “(Name) Option” formulations? And if a writer does insist on inventing a new option, can we at least have a bit of fun with it? I saw “Benedict Cumberbatch Option” on Twitter and like it enormously. And yes, the title of this post is an Eddie Izzard reference. Incidentally, hopefully the fact that I’ve referenced Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Izzard in back-to-back sentences should establish that one can be aware of popular culture and think the BenOp is a move in the right direction.)

In any case, the counsel of many people is that this is not a time for any sort of withdrawal from public life, but rather committing ourselves to a new level of “engagement,” although engagement, very like retreat, is a generally nebulous term in these conversations.

Assuming that “engagement” means living in the city, having your kids in the public schools, putting a strong emphasis on outreach and social justice work, and so on then I think we’re actually already doing that in many places. It’s certainly a popular line amongst younger reformed evangelicals in denominations like the PCA and Acts 29. But I also know of many Baptist churches with a similar focus on the city—indeed, you could argue that Bethlehem Baptist fits this model quite neatly given their downtown location and the fact that they’re planting other churches focused on specific regions of the Twin Cities. While there are many good things in this approach, there are four main issues that still need to be addressed:

  1. The BenOp is not primarily a strategy for the church’s interaction with popular culture. So there may not actually be any necessarily conflict between the BenOp and something like the city-church model so popular in the PCA right now.
  2. Doubling down on engagement when your previous attempts at engagement have failed will also fail unless you understand why those attempts failed.
  3. We probably shouldn’t make assumptions about how healthy our churches are.
  4. You cannot give what you do not have.

We’ll go through each one below.

First, as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove noted the other day in his conversation with Dreher, the BenOp isn’t primarily about strategies for engaging public life. Rather it is an attempt to recover a more robust understanding of church life and Christian piety so that we can simply be faithful, obedient Christians living out the ordinary vocational calls God has given to us.

What the BenOp is, or at least what it can be at its best, is an attempt to set our own house in order. That we need to do this should not be hard to discern—according to every study I know of, mainline Protestantism and Catholicism are much diminished in the United States. (Catholicism would be experiencing a comparable demographic decline to that of the mainline were it not for Catholic immigrants entering the US from Mexico and Central America.) The latest study to demonstrate this is this Pew report issued earlier this year. 

Evangelicalism, though on firmer footing than any other Christian tradition, is in a somewhat precarious place as well as we attempt to wrestle with thorny questions of sexual ethics and how to think about difficult questions concerning both sex ethics and religious liberty.

In addition, although there is some debate about how bad things actually are, there is reason to think that a considerable number of young people who grow up evangelical will leave the faith when they hit adulthood. If I’m reading the Pew study linked above correctly, 24% of Americans grow up evangelical and about 1/3 of them end up leaving. (If I’m misunderstanding that study, please let me know in the comments.) If that is the case, then it’s not out of line to suggest that something about our catechetical process is failing and needs to be addressed.

Turning to the second point, one of the ways in which cultural engagement can easily go wrong is if we enter into it naively without understanding how institutions work and what the terms of our engagement will be.

To take a practical example, let’s apply this to public education. As best I can tell (and correct me if I’m wrong in the comments), the Patrick Option as applied to the public schools would say that we need to demonstrate to educators that we care about education too, that we actually like the people in the public schools, and want to help them. And we do this by putting our children in the schools, volunteering in the schools, and so on. If we do this, then the problems in this particular arena will begin to be resolved.

Unfortunately, the issue between the church and the public schools was never the headline-grabbing issues connected to the classic talking points—teaching evolution, sex ed classes, prayer in schools, etc. The issue is in the curriculum broadly speaking and with, to borrow from James KA Smith, the sort of catechesis that Christian children will undergo in public schools that will shape them toward a sort of market-focused individualism. If we engage more in this arena without understanding that issue, then we may have more positive relationships with some people (and that is a good thing), but the net cultural effect is likely to be minimal.

This, as an aside, is also why the sort of anti-public school thinking that has often gone on in evangelicalism has often failed to produce a robust alternative to our public education. We have often withdrawn from these schools out of purely defensive concerns with minimal understanding of the good which we hope to obtain through a more properly Christian education. And so what we often end up with is our own version of the same sort of materialism that reigns in the public schools.

Moving to the third point, we need to think carefully about the preparation that goes into being an effective evangelist or being capable of engaging well in a given arena. For instance, if we had any sense at all, we generally would not throw a brand new believer into the pulpit of a church in a phenomenally challenging context.

Of course, we actually did do that and it didn’t end well. For a challenging pastoral position, you don’t want a new Christian. You want someone who is experienced and mature. For example, you might compare Tim Keller’s time at Redeemer to Driscoll’s at Mars Hill. Prior to starting Redeemer Keller had been a Christian for many years. He had received extensive pastoral training. He had been a pastor in a church before. He had a good group of supporters around him both relationally and institutionally. 26 years later there hasn’t been even a whiff of scandal as far as the general public is concerned—a remarkable thing given the prominence of Keller’s ministry.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all acts of evangelism, neighborliness, and outreach need to be put on hold until we reach some sort of magical maturity level. But no one is suggesting that. Dreher himself, it is worth noting, is heavily involved in what evangelicals would call a church plant. The problem is that evangelicals often have a hero complex and so we can easily bite off far more than we can chew. The spiritual fruit of this is almost always ruinous, as should be obvious to anyone who has read any of the young evangelical memoirs that are currently so popular.

It is telling, I think, that of the fad writers that many evangelicals were reading 10 years ago the only ones that still seem to be in a spiritually healthy place are the ones who built up their ministries quite slowly over many years. Those who saw too much success too fast typically burned out as quickly as they surged to life. And given that this critique applies as much to Rob Bell as it does Mark Driscoll it is worth noting that this problem will not magically be solved by simply having the right theological ideas in one’s head. What is needed is the thing Eugene Peterson was calling for 30 years ago in the book that, somewhat ironically, made him famous—a long obedience in the same direction. Or, to borrow from another theologian of that generation with a similarly harsh critiques of evangelicalism, we need maturity.

Finally, the church’s great gift to the world is the proclamation of the love offered to us in the Gospel by Christ. It is this love, embodied in the life of the church and of individual Christians, that can be “the final apologetic.” In our efforts to showcase this love in recent times, evangelicalism has often failed quite spectacularly.

It’s striking that one of the few areas where evangelicals have been more successful in recent years is the pro-life movement, which is a place where we generally have shown this love in beautiful and sacrificial ways through providing adoptive homes, counsel and medical treatment for expectant mothers, and a place of support and encouragement for mothers who choose to keep their babies. That said, the pro-life movement may turn out to be an exception to the rule with 90s and 2000s-era evangelicalism. Certainly the number of people leaving, per the Pew Report, suggests institutional sickness, as does the horror stories that many who have left are able to tell. (This story comes from the church that I grew up in.)

At its best, the BenOp is simply a call for repentance and renewal, a call to turn away from fads and buzzwords, and to set aside our never-ending quest for relevance. It is a reformational movement, one that ought to be deeply familiar to evangelical Protestants whose own roots, after all, can be traced back to previous eras of decadence in the church. It is a call to be transformed by the love of Christ and to take up the virtues of charity, fidelity, and perseverance rather than chasing short-term success. It is a call we desperately need to hear.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • So… the Benedict Option is ecclesiology and missiology?

    (if so, may I save everyone a lot of blog posts and recommend the Perspectives course?)

  • “At its best, the BenOp is simply a call for repentance and renewal….” – I think this speak volumes on what is needed. I think those who approach the BenOp as withdrawal from society miss the point. Although I am by no mends a Benedict expert I think they miss what he was all about. Even though Benedict did try to live as a hermit he was sought out by disciples. It was most often the Monasteries (Not just Benedict’s) that started some of the first orphanages, schools and hospitals for their communities. Our focus should be learning to truly live in a way that we take up our cross daily and become a living sacrifice. And learn to do this while still fully engaged with tour communities. Sadly we have made the Gospel about us and Jesus is no more than our fix-it man. For this we need repentance and renewal.

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  • John Hawthorne

    Honestly, I feel like you put a lot of words in my mouth as the author of The Patrick Option. Nowhere did I talk about putting our children in public school (although we did) or collaborating with educators (but we did that too).

    The real impetus of my post was to positively point us to a means of engaging those with whom we disagree. It’s another part of the puzzle I’ve been trying to figure out since JD Hunter’s To Change the World (especially his helpful but overly vague reference to “faithful presence”.

    It’s possible that I misunderstood Dreher or didn’t pay enough attention to the development of his argument over time. Or perhaps I saw too many people making use of BenOp as if it was about withdrawal from society.

    When I wrote the piece, I had recently read Jamie Arpin-Ricci’s book on Patrick which prompted me to re-read George Hunter’s earlier book. I thought (and think) that St. Patrick and his followers in Ireland offer an intriguing perspective on life in a pre-Christian (or post-Christian society).

    As it happens, I generally agree with points 1, 3, and 4 and have written on 1 ( and 3 ( myself.

    I’d be glad to discuss further. Drop me a note.

    • Dr. Hawthorne – Thanks for stopping by! Few brief responses: a) I’m not at all surprised that we agree on 1, 3, and 4. One of the things I’m trying to do in these BenOp posts is highlight how the BenOp is in many ways just a call to basic Christian living.

      b) Also, w/r/t the schools point, that’s fair. I go to the schools example b/c it is a very easy, obvious, and practical case study for talking about these issues, but I did not mean to put words in your mouth. Rather, I was just trying to say “OK, I think we’re talking past each other 99% of the time when we use the words “withdraw” and “engage” but if we take a very practical example where we can actually see some disagreement, let’s talk school choice.”

      That said, I certainly did not mean to misrepresent your view so if you feel I did that at any point I’ll happily post a correction.

  • “24% of Americans grow up evangelical and about 1/3 of them end up leaving” – could not this also be read that 2/3 of them stay? I am puzzled that Evangelicals find this statistic so alarming; 2/3 is a super-majority. Given what Evangelicals claim about the condition of the human spirit and the insidious evil of the world… isn’t 2/3 a roaring success? Is there historical evidence that this retention rate was ever that much higher than this?

  • While I an no longer an Evangelical, and I am skeptical of the viability of the BenOp approach, I certainly recognize your skepticism of “Engagement”. It is a much touted meme in recent currents… but is a very nebulous concept in many cases. Often I feel ‘we’ are talking past one another, using the same terms with differing meanings. I certainly believe citizens should be vitally engaged in their communities – through affiliation, membership, voting, and active neighboring. But I feel that many religious bloggers are using Engagement to mean something else or something ‘more’ [sort of]… and I am not sure what that thing is. Engagement is, for me, a fairly straight-forward concept – you are engaged if you are regularly participate in conversations, if you regular attend something, if you maintain memberships [like paying dues], it involves interaction around a topic or hopefully topicS [lest we all become silos]. I struggle to understand what the other meanings up Engagement are, meanwhile I am certain they are different than mine. When reading religious BLOGS [not yours] it is very easy for us on the outside of Evangelicalism to often read this “Engagement” as old-school “Witnessing” at best or just some kind of quasi-slacktivism. Recognition of the confusing use of this term is appreciated.

  • hoosier_bob

    In the 15 years I spent in the PCA, I found evangelicals to remarkably inept at connecting with people outside of the evangelical subculture. That wouldn’t be an issue if the evangelical subcultural proffered a winsome way of life. But it doesn’t.

    Contrast that with Mormons. I’ve just returned from running a 200-mile relay race on a mostly-Mormon team. I’ve done similar races in the past, also on mostly-Mormon teams. You couldn’t pick a better group of people with whom to spend 26 straight hours while traversing 200 miles of terrain. I love hanging out with Mormons. I just wish that I felt the same way about evangelicals.

    I think evangelicals would do a better job of transforming the culture if they concerned themselves less with politics and focused more on demonstrating Christ’s self-sacrificial love in their relationships with each other. If evangelical culture were more like Mormon culture, I think we’d have a much better opportunity to make a positive impact on the culture. As it is, the evangelical subculture if pretty off-putting to the outside world.

  • Except for the arena, the BenOp seems to be a very individualistic approach to engagement. Even the NeoCalvinists are dealing with racism so why is there no mention of social problems and injustice, with the exception of the traditional concern for pro-life views on abortion? And with that highly individualistic approach comes a withdrawal from society. There are not enough joint issues outside of what one consumes from society to make the BenOp an option that fully engages society. Here I would add that the 2KT approach, though allowing individual Christians to enter in joint issues with society, does not allow the Church as an institution to join society on shared issues.

    At the same time we need to note those public issues the Conservative Church has taken an against the grain of society stand on to see how it affects our evangelistic efforts. In particular, the same-sex marriage stand where much of the Conservative Church sought to force its religious view of marriage on the lives of nonbelievers in society and thus violating their religious and other liberties while making great efforts to talk about the religious liberties of its own. Such an effort shows a leaning to defining justice and rights by how they contribute to building some level and sort of ideal society rather than basing justice and rights on individual rights. We should note where many in society stand on both the narrow issue of same-sex marriage and on what we should base justice on individual rights. Thus, e should note how that conflict could affect our evangelism especially should we continue in our current direction.

    Finally, any Penn Stater, either fan, student, or faculty member, can tell those who crow about Keller’s 26 years without a scandal that the past implies nothing about the future. And that, just perhaps, using such ministries as a scandal-free trophy does not help those who live and work in those trophy ministries to handle potentially scandalous issues correctly and that can lead to a fall. Yes, we should be glad for any ministry that has no scandal. But yet, we should always be ready to stand with any ministry that does suffer scandal so that it can endure the efforts to purge itself from the scandal. Quite simply, any of us can fall so we should regard and treat each other with that reality in mind.

  • Steve_Winnipeg_Canada

    There’s a link to nowhere in this piece.

    This one: “(This story comes from the church that I grew up in.)”

    • The post was taken down at the request of the woman whose story was told in it. (Short version: It was written by the ex-wife of the church’s associate pastor and the son of the senior pastor and was about how her ex-husband was unfaithful for 20+ years before she finally filed for divorce, only to have the church turn against her and turn her kids against her. She requested that the post be taken down b/c it was having an adverse effect on her relationship with her kids.)