Faithful & Joyful in the Secular West
Despite regular scare-stories the likelihood of outright persecution of Christians in Europe or the US seems unlikely. More broadly the challenge is one of moral coercion, which occasionally morphs into legal coercion. The reality is that for so long it has been so comfortable being a Christian in the west that we can easily overstate real or perceived opposition to our faith. What the rising tide of secularism demands of us is not panic, but increased focus on discipleship.
In his excellent book, Disappearing Church, Mark Sayers describes the need to make extremophile disciples. Extremophiles are organisms that exist where no living creature has the right to exist, for example, on an oceanic volcanic vent where the pressure is too great, the temperature too high, and the darkness too total for anything to live: yet live in such places extremophiles do.
Sayers’ contention is that we need to be making disciples who are able to live in culturally hostile places – that if we just mirror the culture we will die. This is a challenge. In my experience most church members don’t even come to a prayer meeting – so how are we going to produce extremophiles?!
Perhaps we should explore the Benedict Option.
I haven’t read Rod Dreher’s book of that title but I have read Benedict and there are characteristics of his monastic movement which might serve us well in the task of disciple making. Benedict lived in the 6th century, a time of flux and confusion. Rome had fallen and the old certainties had gone. Christianity had risen but there was a resurgent paganism at play and Benedict faced the question of how to live in a pagan, immoral world. His answer of the monastic life was intended as a witness to and against the world and might help inform how we can live faithfully and joyfully in the secular west.
Three characteristics define Benedict’s vision of the monastery:
1. Common life
The community of the monastery is to be a true community, practicing fellowship, work and accountability together. This is hard for us in the secular west and not only because we do not live in monasteries. Our society is far more mobile than that of the 6th century, and less naturally communitarian – for one thing, our survival does not depend on working the fields with our neighbours. But if we are to create extremophile disciples we need to give attention to ways by which our responses to the gospel are community ones.
Benedict drew on the Augustinian understanding that pride is the original sin. The earthly city was founded on the fratricide of Cain: it is a society born of envy and pride. It is pride that ends peace, while humility is the virtue of the heavenly city. This means that in order to live in peace we need to embrace humility. This is hard to do in the secular west when everyone considers their opinion as valid as everyone else’s (in no generation has Proverbs 18:2 been more true) and everyone lies on Facebook and virtue signalling is de rigueur. If we are to create extremophile disciples we need to develop practices that help us embrace humility.
For Benedict true worship is only possible in community, with humility. Rather than an emphasis on ‘my walk with God’ or ‘personal quiet times’ or ‘my type of worship’ the expectation of monastic life was that the divisions caused by pride are healed as together and humbly the community worships God. This is hard to do in the secular west where we place so much emphasis on individualism and self-expression. If we are to be extremophile disciples we need to learn the disciplines of corporate worship.
As well as speaking of the need for extremophile disciples Sayers makes an appeal that we strengthen the institution of the church. Contemporary charismatics tend to rail against the notion of the church as an institution because we are so anti-institutional. But it is institutionalization that is the problem, not institutions! Healthy institutions nourish life and human flourishing. The regions of the world where there is the most chaos and human suffering are those where institutions are weak: where there is no rule of law, or effective healthcare system, or robust political process.
Institutions are beliefs enfleshed: without them values wither and die. If our churches are to survive the pressures of the secular west they need to be institutionally strong, with solid ‘habits’ being cultivated by extremophile disciples. This isn’t something that can be done online, or half-heartedly. For the church to be the church it must be embodied. It is the institutionally strong church that is able to nurture extremophile disciples, as well as being composed of them.
If we Christians in the secular west are going to maintain our identity, live our faith and contribute to the common good we need to be extremophile disciples in churches with real – institutional – strength, putting into practice common life, humility and worship. As the apostle Peter puts it, we must, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12)