Monastic Discipleship for a Missional Church?

Last fall, Mike Breen offered a course-corrective 2 part blog post called “Why the Missional Church will Fail.” The post provoked a fair bit of conversation within missional church circles about the tendency to overlook discipleship in our enthusiasm for engaging with our neighbors. Mike writes:

While the ‘missional’ conversation is imbued with the energy and vitality that comes with kingdom work, it seems to be missing some of the hallmark reality that those of us who have lived it over time have come to expect: Mission is messy. It’s humbling. There’s often no glory in it. It’s for the long haul. And it’s completely unsustainable without discipleship.

Discipleship, as Mike goes on to describe it, involves an ongoing process of growing into the character and competency of Jesus Christ. In discipleship we become progressively more and more like Jesus, integrating more fully who we are with how we live so that we live as Jesus would if he were us.

The question that follows from this emphasis is “how do we cultivate discipleship?”

Last week, I met with an elder in our congregation in part to hear about his recent trip to St. Gregory’s in Three Rivers, Michigan. He spent the better part of a week there, participating in the rhythms and routines of their monastic life. Daily rituals of prayers, silence, chanted Psalms, and rest, shaped his time with the Brothers and provided a framework for his research and writing. Our conversation started me thinking about what it might look like to cultivate discipleship through some of these intentional monastic rhythms on a congregation-wide level.

For a handful of people in our congregation, the monastic patterns and rhythms make sense. We have one member in our community who is about to become a lay oblate. There are a few others, like the elder I met with last week, who have rhythms of retreats into the monastic communities or who practice some rhythm of the daily office. But for the most part, we are unfamiliar with the accents and movements of discipleship nurtured through monastic rhythms.

Over the past year, we have invited our congregation into a rhythm of daily scripture readings. Each reading is loosely connected to the sermon theme from the previous Sunday. A few people have talked about how this rhythm has encouraged them to engage scripture more intentionally as a family. But I wonder how to introduce some of the other monastic rhythms into the life of the congregation.

A friend posted a link on Facebook last week to an article about a revival of monastic rhythms among young people. The article highlights a weekend gathering in Chicago facilitated by leaders of the Taize community. I am intrigued. Perhaps there is a pendulum swing here as people look for a form of discipleship that engages them with more than knowledge of doctrine or of wrote memorization of scripture verses (often detached from their biblical context).  To borrow a farming analogy, every few years crops need to be rotated in order to maintain the right balance of nutrients in the soil. Perhaps, every generation or two the forms of discipleship need to be rotated in order for the church to receive all the nutrients it needs. Could it be that the renewed interest in monasticism among young people is part of the Spirit’s work to provide some aspect of discipleship that the church (at least in North America) needs in order to flourish?

In some ways, I am wondering how to bring these two conversations together. How do we bring a missional church conversation together with a conversation on a the revival of monasticism as a means of cultivating discipleship? The conversations and work around fresh expressions (Anglican church) and new monasticism more broadly are helping us see how these two conversations can come together. But most of these communities are relatively small in number. As someone who is pastoring a congregation of 200+ people, I am left wondering how these two conversations can form us on a congregation-wide level? Is there a way to cultivate an environment that nurtures a missional identity with monastic/new monastic rhythms of discipleship from within an established congregation of our size? What do you think? Can it be done? Is anyone bringing these conversations together in larger scale communities (150+)?



Filed under missional church

3 responses to “Monastic Discipleship for a Missional Church?

  1. I’m part of a very small church that one could call missional (25 people approx.) and so I can’t comment exactly. I think you are so right in anchoring the monastic within the church rather than being an exclusive thing for those who are “more” spiritual ore more devoted. When we think of disciplines we think of mostly prayers- for us this has involved that but as well consciously inviting those who are challenging to ourselves (often the marginalized) into that rhythm as well. I’ve been discipled a lot through this type of service, but also long for more prayer and biblical learning. The more structured part can be a weakness of a missional style- and luckily, that’s what a large church can offer (and has experience), so perhaps it is a good match!

  2. chris, any further thinking on this? I’m doing my Dmin thesis on how a rule of life functions in congregations so I’m intrigued in anything you’ve learned or picked up.

    • I’ve been wrestling with this quite a bit, Phil. But no clear answers as of yet. A few things we’ve initiated that hopefully move us toward this synthesis of new monastic rhythms and discipleship.
      * scripture memorization group – we have a group of 7 now who are working our way through James 1 at the moment. We have a weekly email about the verses we are working on that week. Occassionally, we share thoughts about phrases or words that seem to be catching our attention – either because of how reassuring they are, or because of how confusing they are. We then meet once a month over lunch to share what we have been experiencing, recite the text together, and then pray for each other.
      * small group discussion guide – a little over half of our small groups (8 out of 12 groups, I think) utilize a discussion guide that engages further with the texts that the sermon for that week was based on. It’s a way of encouraging the congregation to see the sermon as an invitation to immerse themselves further into the scripture. The first three questions are one’s of learning to pay attention: what word or phrase caught your attention? anything from the passage before or after this one catch your attention? other scripture passages or images come to mind as you read this text?
      * daily scripture reading guide – we’re not using the lectionary readings, but are encouraging people to engage a passage of scripture that is usually related to the themes of the current sermon series.

      These are small steps toward more of a communal-monastic approach to discipleship. I am hoping to initiate more around communal prayer rhythms during this coming Lent. If you have other ideas on how to merge these two, Phil, I’d love to hear them.

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