A time to flee:
In the times when we feel most threatened by a hostile world, retreat is a natural, even necessary, response. We seek a place of safety: a place where we can think, speak and live in accordance with our beliefs. We may even conclude that this can only be done by removing ourselves from, and shutting out, the hostility of the culture around us. So we surround ourselves with those things and people that are healthful to us. This website is, in a sense, such a place.
There is no doubt that we need Christian community. There is no doubt that we need to be surrounded by music and stories that grow and strengthen and encourage us in our faith. And I should point out that scripture tells us there is a time to resist, to withdraw, and even to flee. We are, after all, called to be “set apart.”
An ancient solution to a perpetual problem
The monastic movement grew out of just such concerns. Back in the early church period (around the third century) there were those who recognized that the noise and temptation of city life under the Roman empire were getting in the way of their efforts to live holy lives. This became even more pronounced when Christendom gained widespread acceptance… then wealth, prestige and power. Not only were the cities making it hard for thoughtful believers to follow Christ, but even the culture of the church seemed to be getting in the way.
Now, without getting caught up in canvasing all that was right and wrong with the monastic movement over the centuries, I want to point out a few things. Monasteries began as a kind of in-house reformation. They were like a magnet for those who wished to study the scriptures and live holy lives. Monasteries were “missional.” They sprang up across the known world, acting as missionary outposts, serving the local communities in practical ways, and spreading the Gospel. Monasteries were instrumental in preserving the faith during dark periods. Literacy, music, and herbal medicine were practiced and taught. Monastic movements evolved and remained relevant over many centuries. When the old orders began to manifest the corruptions of “establishment,” new orders would spring up in response.
Subculture is not the solution
Today’s believers often retreat into subculture, rather than a physical enclave. Yet even though these retreats are (in some ways) less removed from the secular world than ancient monasteries, they can fail us in two key ways. First, they can fail to provide us with refreshment, authentic community and equipping. Instead they can lull us into a state of spiritual slumber. And second, but related, Christian subculture can be guilty of failing to help us keep in view the fact that we’re here for a reason: with a job to do and a message to proclaim.
However we may surround ourselves with Christian subculture, the temptations and distractions of this world will still find us. Even in our churches, we carry smartphones that connect us to a world of content: both good and bad. Even among our own, we find error and sin. The problem is in our homes, our hands, and our hearts.
There are a lot of deficiencies in Christian subculture. No doubt you’re aware of some that you’ve encountered and could share about. But there’s not time to explore them all here. What I’d like to consider instead is the fact that the community of faith was never intended to remove us from the world. Rather, the Church is there to disciple the believing, not merely so that they might survive, but so that they can be drawn nearer to God, and by that means become effective in living and preaching the Gospel.
However tempted, this we must not do: huddle together in a spiritual bunker, with doors barricaded against the hostile world. No, if we take our mission here seriously then we must be brave. We must keep seeking to build bridges. We must open the doors, meet strangers, compel them to come in, and most importantly, introduce them to the one who loves them more than they (or we) could possibly imagine.
who by thy Son Jesus Christ
didst give commandment to the Apostles
that they should go into all the world,
and preach the Gospel to every creature:
Grant to us whom thou hast called into thy Church,
a ready will to obey thy Word;
and fill us with a hearty desire
to make thy way known upon earth,
thy saving health among all nations;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Prayer for the Extension of the Church from the Book of Common Prayer)