Lesson 3: New Models

A change seems to have taken place in the relationship between church and society. Although it was long coming, most of us did not pay much attention until the recent presidential campaign. It was taken for granted that church and society had a congenial working relationship. Many even spoke of the church as the cutting edge of society, pioneering practices that would eventually become the law. Suddenly, things seemed to have turned completely around. Many churches now are afraid the government will force them to engage in practices they regard as the direct opposite of their beliefs.The catalyst for this disillusionment with society and government has been the performances of the candidates.

A telling example is the change in the Roman Catholic-Evangelical alliance that was formed to lobby the government for laws opposing abortion and same sex marriage. The alliance has pretty much given up thinking they can change societal law and now focuses on preserving religion’s freedom to practice their own values. Many others, including myself, are far more troubled by economic and political practices.

In response, many are asking the church to provide more guidance in leading a Christian lifestyle. They not interested in sermons offering therapy to cope with the anxiety of living in this society or asking for money to support experts doing specialized ministries. They have become cynical with parochial theologies that continue the divisions in the Body of Christ and self study projects that aim to change institutional programs, especially when they are touted as projects of the Holy Spirit. Thoughtful Christians are searching for ways they themselves can follow Christ in this fragmented society, and often they are forming new communities they hope will nourish, enrich, and inspire them.

In this situation, a servant ministry in which members share spiritual gifts seems far more appropriate than an authoritarian one in which a pastor dominates. The model since the 16th century has been an educated clergy teaching a congregation in which there were few other learned folk. Today many, if not most, of the laity are more highly educated than the pastor. Discussion shared between equals around a meal table offers more potential than lectures from experts. People want to hear the thoughts and experiences of laity as well as clergy.

A critical concern then becomes identifying the Christian principles that might define this kind of community. Every time that comes up, my thoughts return to a book written by Sister Joan Chittister many years ago. She very simply laid out the fundamentals of the Benedictine Rule that provided the foundation for Christian community in 6th century pagan society, describing it as “written by a layman for laymen” and “designed for ordinary people who live ordinary lives.” She recommended it for modern Christians who are attempting “to live calmly in the middle of chaos, productively in an arena of waste, lovingly in a maelstrom of individualism, and gently in a world full of violence.” I am going to review her ideas in the coming lessons. You can follow, if you want, in her book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today.*

*purchases benefit St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital

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  1. Paul Wildman says:

    This topic is again crucial and what we need are a few models for Christian community within suburbia. In the Australian bush 3 hrs drive from here there are dozens of intentional communities some of which I have worked in as an academic and one I bought into many decades ago. These are struggling now with the dual impact of the dope (drugs) and dole (unemployment payment from Govt) – the hope so evident in the 70’s has all but evaporated. So what we need, in answer to your challenge below, in my view as well as a reinvigorated bush communities as per these is the ability to establish communities in suburbia with disparate locations and even lifestyles.

    Finally re below re Sr Joan C as “written by a layman for laymen” and “designed for ordinary people who live ordinary lives.” We need to be cautions that we do not reinscribe the status quo meaning of ‘lay’. In my experience lay were considered lower than the clergy and this debate, which is utter rubbish for the reasons you say below esp. re. education levels of parishioners. In my work in Progressive Christianity with the State body of the UCA (Uniting Church in Australia) Queensland Synod, we have taken the ancient Greek meaning of the term that means all Christians are lay and some specialise in different areas there in e.g. clergy, pastoral work, youth work, community work and so forth all are RADICALLY equal all are laity.

    I would add a nuance to her ‘maelstrom of individualism’ such ‘maelstrom of dependent individualism’ i.e. the individualism we have now is only one sided ‘me, me, me’ that is I am a dependent consumer who no longer produces anything with our own hands and we rely on the macro capitalist system to provide everything. To my mind this is not what Sr is on about and nor were the first Christian communities.

    I very much look forward to hearing from you folks what all this means for you and in your application thereof in your day to day life.

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