I’m trying to figure out what I should think about the current state of American evangelicalism. I’m sometimes asked what I think about the Church, how she’s doing, and what her future holds. Those are easy questions to answer because I’m not a prophet nor the son of a prophet. So I say, “I don’t know,” to the disappointment of my interviewer. But I still leave feeling like I need to know the Church world better, to be a better “world Christian,” as I think Carson puts it.
But “Evangelicalism” is a big “movement” with a lot of diversity making it difficult to generalize. The increasing number of affinity groups and fellowships across traditional denominational lines adds to the difficulty of assessment. It’s easier to say how a denomination with doctrinal standards is faring by taking a look at that family of church’s adherence (or lack thereof) to those standards. It’s not perfect by any means, but at least it’s a proxy for faithfulness to that tradition. But one problem with “evangelicalism” is that it’s pretty close to being atheological. For the most part methodological pragmatism and paper-thin unity carry the day. As with the first sighting of manna during the Exodus, we’re left asking “What is it?”
So, how to describe the thing at the moment, for it’s bound to shape shift before long. Perhaps we’re witnessing a kind of evangelical monasticism. Of course I’m using the idea of monasticism very loosely–but evangelicalism uses everything loosely!
What do I mean by “evangelical monasticism”?
First, hints of “evangelical monasticism” can be seen in the continuing evangelical emphasis on a rather privatized faith. I don’t think that’s as strong as it used to be, but it’s still there in large measure. A fair amount of popular Christian teaching and preaching seems to boil “mature” life with Christ down to frequent “quiet times” of Bible reading and prayer. “Quiet times” is an interesting phrase suggestive of monks and nuns cloistered in small personal chambers for enforced periods of silence. In the monastic community, there are sanctions for breaking the community’s discipline in this regard. In the evangelical monasticism there is the conscience that batters the saint with guilt and despair for “missing a quiet time.” Piety becomes performance. Law and guilt enforce the community’s insistence that “good Christians” do this–usually at precisely the same time and in precisely the same way.
In addition to an overly privatized piety, hints of “evangelical monasticism” might be seen in the way some evangelicals connect with the world around us. For example, in traditional Christian monasticism there is the “Desert Fathers” tradition. These are the reclusive hermit sorts that withdraw from the world. The retreat is about a “cleaner” and “untainted” spirituality and renewal with God. Of course, God doesn’t live in secluded deserts, not do we need to retreat from the world to find Him. He’s sovereignly placed us where we are in order that we might be near to Him and find Him (Acts 17:24-28). But I hear the echo of “desert fathers” as I listen to Christians bemoan the political state of the country and retreat from the front lines of “faithful presence” in the world. As if we weren’t already too ensconced in an evangelical sub-culture, some would seemingly have us move farther away from our “unclean” neighbors.
But lest we think the “bad guy” title belongs only to those retreating, we need to bear in mind that another monastic tradition requires its adherents to live in cities among the people. The 12th century saw the development of Augustinian and Franciscan orders, among others. These orders formed communities and enclaves among the poor to do good works. Among “evangelical” Protestants the most developed form of this approach is the New Monasticism (and there I was thinking I was clever with the title of this post). It’s a fairly Benedictine movement without the habits and the vows of poverty or celibacy. But perhaps there’s a softer version to be found in some “missional communities,” whether small groups or entire churches. A weak form of “missional communities” will fall into doing good without doing evangelism. The communities would still be inward focused in their piety; they’ll simply have good works to add to their resume.
Finally, we see hints of an “evangelical monasticism” with the rise of various “St. Benedicts” leading their respective orders. I am, of course, highlighting potentially negative aspects of leadership. We shouldn’t fail to give thanks for the tremendous blessings of faithful leadership and examples. The Lord gives leaders to His church. Praise God. But we do live in a church world where identification with “patron saints” figures prominently in our self-understanding. We live in a time of growing associations and networks–we trust ultimately and mostly for the good of the gospel and the local church. But we want to be wary of over-identification with Paul or Apollos or Cephas or even with a “Jesus clique” that somehow manages to embrace less than the whole of the church. See 1 Corinthians 1-3. We don’t want to organize our spiritual lives and associations according to monastic orders named for men. We want to be, in the final analysis, true churchmen who bear the burden of the entire church on our hearts, much as the apostle Paul did.
So, if I were asked today, “What do you see in evangelicalism today?” I’d say two things. “I don’t know.” And, “Maybe there’s an evolving monasticism we ought to watch out for.”
How would you answer that question?