By Craig McElvain
Why “Benedict” ?
Being a student of history, I find myself in total harmony with author Rod Dreher’s sense that the church must pull back from our current cultural milieu if it is to survive in post-modern America. This isn’t the first time that the church has been swallowed up into the culture (the first being the Constantinian church of the 4th century). Constantine was the Roman emperor who not only “tolerated” Christianity, but actually facilitated its move from a persecuted minority to a state-sanctioned majority. For all the benefits this bestowed upon the Christian church, it came at a ghastly cost. The early purity and fervor of the church got replaced with a thin veneer of cultural respectability which created a new problem: NOMINALISM (in “name only” faith). Constantine seized pagan temples and donated them to the church as well as appropriated “Roman” governmental organization for church usage. We still fight against these “Roman” aspects in the church today (read “Pagan Christianity” – Viola/Barna for an extensive discussion). This “Roman” swallowing of the church brought about a “Monastic” response from those who took faith seriously. These early monks took to the deserts and the mountains in an effort to maintain spiritual purity, and it began a long process of separating “nominal christianity” from true discipleship. Dreher suggests that the same thing is needed today—a purifying of the saints, which would distinguish “true disciples” from “nominal christians.”
I agree—we are being crushed by this “nominalism” in the western church today, a thin veneer of spirituality, choc full of American appropriations: individualism (i.e., I don’t need church…just me and Jesus) and western materialism (i.e., if I love God I’ll get my Mercedes).
The question is, “how do we respond?” Is the “Benedict Option” the next step? Here is where I would like to challenge a few of Dreher’s assumptions. Please understand, I humbly ask these questions as one in fundamental agreement with Dreher’s thesis. He is far more knowledgeable than I, and I am guessing he has carefully thought through my questions…and yet, I still want to ask a simple one: WHY BENEDICT?
I have nothing against Benedict. In fact, I see him as one of history’s great saints. His contribution to Western Spirituality has changed the practice of Christianity from the 6th century on. BUT…Benedict was part of the “contemplative” monastic tradition as opposed to other monastic communities like the Franciscans,who were know for an “activist” orientation. Please do not misunderstand me here. I realize that in the best of all monastic traditions there was a balance between WORK (activism) & PRAYER (contemplation). I am simply pointing out that the Benedictines structure their lives for “contemplation” as the dominant discipline, whereas Franciscans structure life around preaching & radical poverty. The difference could be clumsily summarized in the phrases SEPARATIONAL vs. INCARNATIONAL. Franciscans attempted to maintain monastic purity and contemplation WHILE REMAINING INTEGRATED WITH THE CULTURE. Their differences were determined by the dominant trends of the culture.
If, indeed, what is needed today is a monastic style re-ordering of Western Christianity, I might suggest that Francis’ model of reform might be a better fit for our current situation. I see the dominant challenges of our current conflict in both INDIVIDUALISM (both Francis and Benedict have a remedy for such a confrontation), but also in MATERIALISM (an accommodation that seems to me far more relevant to Francis’ model than Benedict’s). Is it not more likely that the needed changes in Western Christianity could be fostered in a FRANCIS OPTION?
In an era of “mega-church” celebrities, where Pastors have become paid representatives of the faith and “church” has become big business, Francis’ model of mendicant friars (mendicant=beggars/ friars= preachers) might carry the remedy for what ails us. In a day when the average “mega-church” pastor makes $147,000.00 a year, maybe it’s time for us to head away from the paid clergy model back to a more “mendicant” approach. If we don’t address this systemic issue, the church’s ability to be salt and light in our culture may continue on its current path to darkness. I would be interested in the thoughts of others far more learned than I.
Craig (Mac) grew up in Kansas City and became a Christian in High School. He attended Texas Christian University and received a degree in Theater, before going on to Fuller Theological Seminary where he received a Masters of Divinity degree. He has been married to his amazing wife Laurel for over 30 years and they have three sons: Scott, Cory, and Kevin. Craig started Heartland Community Church in Kansas City where he served for 18 years as Senior Pastor. He is currently the Executive director of REACH (regional evangelical alliance of churches). This ministry is focused on 2 objectives: 1.) Creating a viral church planting movement that can survive the upcoming seismic changes in the western church and 2.) Training leaders who can effectively plant those churches (this is done through the alternative seminary he leads called MAP SEMINARY -Ministry Apprenticeship Program). Mac has planted several dozen churches with his students over the past 30 years. His most recent church plants have occurred in Kansas City through the R.V. Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. After enduring a summer of medical issues in 2015, Mac and Laurel decided to move to Spokane, Missouri to be closer to their grandchildren.