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.