NOTE: If you are a reader in the DC area interested in further discussion about the BenOp, consider attending an event this Saturday at Georgetown University featuring Rod Dreher and Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio. You can learn more about the event here. It begins at 10am.

Brian Gumm has a new post up at his blog that is hitting on something that I suspect many of us will relate to:

After a year and a half of making small, episodic attempts at doing “church planting stuff,” sometime this summer it just clicked: This. Is. Not. Working.

Maybe it was that I have multiple jobs, including a small business startup, and my wife works her tail off as a mental health professional in our struggling rural community. Maybe it’s because we have a teenage daughter that we’re trying to raise into the great woman that she’s already becoming. Maybe it’s because the friends we were connecting with for church stuff were just as busy or busier than us, working our tails off just to get by. Maybe it’s because other than mailings from denominational offices that I couldn’t use (we don’t have a church bulletin board, or mailboxes, or a treasurer, OR a pastor!!), I got nothin’. I missed our denomination’s semi-annual church planting conference last year, maybe that hindered the work, but I doubt it; I had plenty of big ideas in my head already and that tends to be what conferences traffic in.

The problem Gumm is getting at is a sort of awful cycle that many middle-class Christians will likely understand: We feel the absence of a spiritual rootedness in our lives that exists not only in our hearts and minds, but in the stuff of daily life. We feel a sense of aimlessness or purposelessness in our work; we feel frustrated by the lack of intimate relationships in our church; we feel isolated in our attempts to raise and educate our children. Thus we conclude that we need to attempt something new to address the problem.

In Gumm’s case, it is planting a church in his small Iowa town. In other cases it might be starting a parish group within your church for church members in your neighborhood. For parents with school-age children looking for something better than public education it may be a home-school coop or starting a school. Or it may be something even more radical, like banding together with several other families to start some sort of agrarian commune. But the main idea is the same—we attempt to begin a new work to resolve this feeling of impoverishment at the center of our lives.

The sad thing is that, anecdotally at least, these works often fail due to a lack of time, energy, or resources (either physical or mental).

This, I suspect, will continue to be one of the chief practical problems facing the Benedict Option: How can we recover a way of life shaped more like that of the historic church while generally not having access to the sorts of cultural and social capital that have historically nurtured and sustained that way of life?

Put another way—many of us lack the spiritual, social, familial, and economic resources that held church communities together in the past. This is where the felt need for BenOp-type communities comes from. And yet it is precisely the lack of those resources that makes acquiring even a proxy for them so incredibly difficult.

And the problem does not exist on a purely practical or logistical level, although the problems there are considerable. There is also an academic problem here as well. The sort of social critique that the BenOp rests on is reliant upon categories and ways of thinking that are not native to most contemporary Americans and thus require some amount of work to understand.

There is thus a teaching work that needs to happen so that lay Christians who do not have the gifts or resources of a Rod Dreher or Brian Gumm can also latch onto the basic ideas of the BenOp and why we must work now to revitalize the life of the Christian church in contemporary America. But given the lack of robust theological reflection in many of our churches, I’m not sure where that sort of teaching work will happen.

None of this is meant to downplay the necessity of the BenOp. If you are an orthodox believer in the United States in 2015 and you decide to raise your kids in a typical suburban evangelical church and send them to a typical suburban public school the likelihood that they end up leaving the faith is greater (perhaps even far greater in many places) than the likelihood of them staying in the church. That is, perhaps in its simplest form, why some sort of reconsideration of the church’s relationship to public life in the United States is needed. And Dreher is leading the charge on it and for that I am grateful.

But my question, and reading things like Gumm’s latest blog post make me feel this question more strongly, is what the first steps toward revitalizing the American church and Christian piety (which seems to be the heart of the BenOp) ought to be.

Starting BenOp communities or parish groups or new churches or new schools are all great works. But for most of us they are not feasible because the demands of life leave little time for such ambitious projects. From my conversations with other Christians, I am not unique in this. (To be sure, these bigger, more ambitious works become more manageable if we can share them with a group of like-minded people. But, then, if such groups were easy to find we likely would not be having this conversation in the first place.)

We need a way of talking about smaller, simpler steps that individual Christians and churches can take to address these problems. In the long run, starting rural communes, new churches, new schools, and the like is the way forward. But in the short-term we need smaller ideas in order to build a bridge between where we are today and where we want to be.

In his most recent post on the subject in which he gave many (helpful) examples of BenOp communities there was only one work that to me seemed like a feasible first step for the average church or family—and that was the example of the congregation at Trinity Presbyterian in Charlottesville attempting to adopt, as a congregation, a modified Rule of St Benedict. Now we just need more intermediary ideas like that which can help us move from where we are now to the long-term vision of new churches, schools, and parishes which are certainly needed. Thus this problem, rightly understood, need not be a cause for pessimism about the prospects for revitalizing the American church.

Like Dreher, I think there is actually reason for great hope for orthodox believers right now. And this problem should help us in developing that hope by pushing us to focus our immediate work not on lofty ideas that will take years to execute (though we do need to be dedicating some thought, time, and money toward those ideas), but in simply finding ordinary ways of shaping our lives so that they conform more to the truths of the faith. To be sure, there is a problem, but it is a problem whose solution will call for a kind of creativity and ingenuity that is enjoyable, dignifying, and adaptable to many different families, churches, and places.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador 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, and son Wendell. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • I love that we now have a two year running conversation on this topic, Jake. Thanks for taking the contextual bits of my post and extending to the broader discussion of #BenOp stuff, which continues to fascinate me as an Anabaptist. I loved seeing the Dreher/Wilson Hartgove dialogue on it yesterday! I didn’t get a chance to wade deeply into it, but that those conversations are happening is heartening to me…

  • erbks

    Jake,

    Thanks for this great reflection. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’ve been arguing for the last couple of years that Slow Church can be understood as a different sort of Benedict option that does not split the church in monastic and non-monastic but rather is rooted in ordinary church communities. Here’s a post that I did a year ago, which explains in further detail:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slowchurch/2014/10/02/options-for-the-coming-age-benedict-jeremiah-both-or-neither/

    Chris Smith

  • erbks

    One more thought…
    Jake, you ask: “But my question, and reading things like Gumm’s latest blog post make me feel this question more strongly, is what the first steps toward revitalizing the American church and Christian piety (which really seems to be the heart of the BenOp) ought to be.”

    IMO, the first step is creating space in ordinary church communities for open conversation, where we can unlearn our cultural formation that has made us resistant to conversation, and as we recover the habits of conversation, learning to imagine and embody new and deeper forms of life together in Christ that stand in contrast to the speed, empire, etc, of the larger culture. This, without question, is long, slow and precarious work, but our church has been on this journey for almost 30 years now and it has radically transformed us. We’ve been able to move forward as a whole community (with a consensus), minimizing the economic and emotional risk that would have been involved if only a few of us undertook on our own to be a more radical community.

    • We are not resistant to conversation; I participate in all manner of conversations. There are no habits to recover. A conversation people desire will make a space for itself – which is especially easy in the 21st century west. The greatest barrier to conversation is that people are not interested in having it.

  • I think this is a good insight– it certainly reflects our own experiences in Baltimore (although medical residency is a somewhat unique timesuck). I am heartened that (going to lots of churches lately to fundraise) more church leaders are at least thinking about and openly encouraging members to live close and think about the communities they’re in, taking the sort of small steps that you speak of. However (again), the thing that I think Dreher has yet to really deal with (unless he wrote a response to the posts that you and I have written and I missed it) is how the American cultural consensus on race and class are going to erode the BenOp from the inside just like they’ve eroded a number of Christian movements. You ask, “How can we recover a way of life shaped more like that of the historic church while generally not having access to the sorts of cultural and social capital that have historically nurtured and sustained that way of life?” I say: we have to put in the blood, sweat, and tears– particularly in the abandoned country towns, decaying suburbs, and redlined neighborhoods– to build up our stores of that capital.

    • I am pretty bummed there has been no response to this comment. This gets at the tragic flaw of BenOp – is it just another way to excuse the creation of exclusive – if not actually gated – communities? We already have those. Is BenOp for the people who want that lifestyle but cannot quite afford to buy into the ones that exist? Given the history of urban America and American land-use policies this is an entirely fair question.

      • whitemice – I actually think this is a fair question and one I’m not sure I have an answer too, but I am thinking about it. I’d be curious to hear Dreher’s thoughts on it as well.

  • Isn’t the BenOp still a withdrawal from society and the world where we are to preach the Gospel? And the reason for that withdrawing is not for the benefit of others and their world where we could do our part to carry out the Great Commission, but chiefly for the benefit of ourselves where the Great Commission is carried out in a much more limited fashion?

    Didn’t Francis Schaeffer warn us against the pursuit of personal peace? Perhaps instead of teaching the BenOp, we should teach the BonOp–the Bonhoeffer option.

    • One thing we definitely do *not* need is another “Option.” I’ve seen Benedict, Jeremiah, Daniel, and about 30 more I’m forgetting….

      • But Matthew, you’re forgetting an age-old saying:


        The more, the merrier

    • Holden

      It’s not an exclusive thing: either being totally integrated with the world or being totally apart from it. No one, and I mean no one, is advocating ceasing evangelization. The Benedict Option (as far as I understand it) is all about how to establish healthy communities that assist us in living out our faith as well as transmitting that faith to our children and grandchildren, especially as we now live society that is becoming increasingly hostile to traditional Christianity. What that looks like is what those who promote the Benedict Option are trying to discover. It’s a conversation in progress.

      But no, it is not a mere withdrawal from society.

      • Holden
        The question I have regarding the Benedict Option is whether those communities you were referring to are Christian communities. Because if they are, that is a significant withdrawing from society.

  • Andy McGuire

    Hi Jake. Thanks for another thoughtful article. I’m not opposed to Benedict Option solutions, and certainly the greatest supporting argument for them is your claim that orthodox parents raising kids under normal suburban conditions have a greater than 50% chance of seeing their kids leave the faith. That is terrifying! But is it true? Maybe not. See Dr. Vern Bengtson’s “Families and Faith,” published by Oxford University Press and Christian Smith’s massive “National Study of Youth and Religion.” Both claim that parents are hugely influential in their children’s faith, and that if you (as a parent) are faithful, it is extremely likely your kids will be too (Smith’s numbers are in the 85% range).
    I’m no sociologist–I just wanted you to be aware of the counterarguments out there. I’m inclined to believe them. In the orthodox churches I’ve attended, kids that leave the faith are the painful exception, not the rule. My guess is that a lot of the “kids leaving the faith in droves” stats are largely a mainline problem and suffer from the same malady as the reports that Christianity in the U.S. is in a major decline. That may be true in certain circles of Christendom, but not among those you would likely categorize as “orthodox.”
    Keep up the great writing!

    • Exactly what Andy said, Jake. Evidence! We need evidence. If the BenOp is going to save Christianity for America, we might want to base the need for it on something more than anecdotes.

      • Brief response–I think your argument just backs the problem up one level, Andy. I actually am inclined to agree that the children of orthodox parents who are engaged in church life are more likely to stay Christian themselves. That certainly fits my observations and it also fits well with the social science I’m aware of. But then we have to ask about the formation of Christian parents and Christian families. So all we’ve done is backed the problem up one level.

        That being said, on the evidence point–the latest Pew report says 24% of the population grows up evangelical, but 8.4% end up leaving. That’s a departure rate that is better than the mainline or Catholic rates, but is still not good. We make up for the loss with adult converts which means that demographically the percentage of people who grow up evangelical and the percentage of people who are currently evangelical is the same, but according to Pew about 1/3 of the people who grow up evangelical leave evangelicalism. (Granted that could mean they become Catholic or Orthodox–it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all leaving Christianity entirely.)

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  • hoosier_bob

    Loftus makes a good point re: social capital.

    As a somewhat reluctant denizen of the cognitive elite, I face a somewhat different issue. I move in an environment that is fairly dense with social capital; it simply has no nexus to the church. Over the past 2-3 decades, elites have quietly undertaken a project somewhat akin to a BenOp: They have gradually withdrawn into their own bubble that is largely disconnected from society at large.

    I eat lunch at Potbelly 4-5 days a week. Potbelly is basically a Subway, but with: higher prices, an artist belting out Son Volt tunes, and college-educated employees. If I’m honest with myself, I probably like Potbelly because it caters to my tribe and is somewhat off-putting to other tribes (basically, anyone who is not white/Asian with a college degree). It’s the dining equivalent of J Crew. I’m especially intrigued by the role that the music plays in the marketing scheme. After all, higher prices alone aren’t enough to keep blacks, Hispanics, and blue-collar folks out of the store. But what will keep them out? A singer who plays nothing but 1990s alt country tunes over and over again. You may as well set up a small Patagonia outerwear store in the back corner.

    It struck me that I’m unconsciously becoming a member of my own BenOp community–a community of 20/30/40-something, highly educated (PhD & JD), information-based professional whose entire social world includes almost no one who isn’t a 20/30/40-something, highly educated, information-based professional. One day at lunch, a colleague asked, “Who’s Ronald Coase?” In my world, that question is as stupid as asking, “Who’s Barack Obama?” I haven’t invited her to lunch since.

    For a BenOp to be successful, its worldview has to make sense to its members at an intuitive level. The class defined by the BenOp has to be the class that most centrally defines how people see themselves. That’s a tough task to accomplish in our society, where, admittedly, race and class are what people primarily define themselves by. In fact, our commitments to race and class are so fierce that they are indistinguishable from instinctive responses. You don’t need a sign that reads “Educated Whites and Asians Only” when you can pay a guy $20/hour to belt out one Jay Farrar tune after another. The LDS church has pulled it off to a degree. Even so, I doubt that they could achieve the same task if they started today.

    • “””I move in an environment that is fairly dense with social capital; it simply has no nexus to the church”””

      I experience much the same thing. My day-to-day world seems one in which it is the church that has no interest in entering it, not really vice-versa. It is very difficult to imagine how the church relates to the conversations I have every day.

      Maybe that is a good thing, I’m not sure what the church would say. A church decidedly apolitical or a church libertarian – which seems the two major currents we have – are both poorly equipped to sit at the table. A kind of lesser BenOp seems to be the defacto configuration.

      • hoosier_bob

        I agree. I don’t see the church–the evangelical church, at least–as having any interest in entering into the world I inhabit (corporate attorney for a PE firm). It’s more than happy to stand at a distance and decry the alleged hedonism of elites. Never mind that most elites are far from hedonistic in any aspect of their lives. But trying to understand what elites actually do? No way.

        I probably tend to favor an apolitical church, such as that promoted by DG Hart, as I have no confidence that a political church understands world events well enough to do anything but issue uninformed populist jeremiads. In fact, I doubt that the evangelical church aspires to do much more than that.

        • I work in IT, for an industrial services company. I do not expect any Church presence in my field. IT is a complex field and many issues are very esoteric. Aside from privacy and security issues it does not overlap with much of the civic space. The same for industrial services and material handling.

          However I am also active in advocacy regarding transportation and mobility issues. These are topics will an enormous overlap with the civic space, and decisions have large impacts on quality of life and are – IMO – very values oriented choices. Culturally the white middle-class suburban populations are distant from and isolated from these issues [or so they believe… an entire other topic]. We have had once church volunteer as a meeting space – their population is older [demographically normal] and to an ageing population transportation issues rise is importance. And there is a Catholic priest on the city’s transit advisor board. But otherwise one experiences complete disinterest. I do not expect churches to dive in on any issue, but there are numerous ways they could be helpful and they certainly could do more to educate their parish on the challenges faced by those in their midst with mobility challenges; that is without even considering environmental values. This is no small thing, ~12% of our population has some kind of disability, and more than 27% cannot drive.

          In terms of housing affordability, safety, etc… there is a bit more engagement. But almost exclusively from those churches which most MO readers would consider far-Left.

          These are the issues I mean by “political”. It is the engagement in the civic space, locally. The church, especially those considered Evangelical or Conservative, just aren’t there. And I think that says a great deal about them. If discipleship is just a big deal, where are the disciples? At bible study? Yay, thanks. If Love Your Neighbour is a prime directive – where are they? How many even know their neighbour’s first names? Or do they furious drive home, close the garage door, and live in isolation? Most days it seems like a whole lot of completely meaningless posturing.

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  • everymark

    The easiest way to start is homeschooling. Toddlers/PreK are already being taught at home and it’s more of a hassle to send them to school. The less disruptive way is to simply keep them at age 5, 6, 7 and ramp up the time/difficulty. We did this as young parents with no real intent of leading a “BenOpt” sort of life. Over time, the beauty and simplicity of homeschooling led us to question other facets. We began to explore home church (with other believers, of course), home business, etc. 20 years later we find ourselves several years down the path of an agrarian type village with multiple families working together. Still much to do but the desire for our family’s sanctification naturally led to sensible separation from the world, a yearning for meaningful work, true community, and a desire to get back in touch with the ‘real’ – nature, animals, etc.

    Trying to add something or radically change an entrenched lifestyle habit mid-course rarely works. Better to look at the next life transition coming up and try to alter course there (college, career start, marriage, children, schooling, marrying kids off, retirement).