Preparing for a New Kind of Ministry in Strange Times: A note from Pastor Chris
You may know that I have been especially struck lately with the (I think) prophetic book by Rod Dreher titled The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. He says, better and more completely, what I have been saying for some time now: We are living in a post-Christian age that has far more in common with the times of the early church than the modern age that we just left behind. Our world is increasingly chaotic and anti-Christian (even militantly so), and many Christians are reeling with the changes.
I believe that many Christians’ faith will not survive the changes. So many evangelicals of our day are starving for Christocentric worship, are biblically impoverished, know very little of the essential tenets of our faith, are tragically unhooked from our Christian past, and have no meaningful Christian relationships that provide support and accountability.
It’d be tempting to say that our changing, chaotic times are unprecedented. They are, of course, to us, but in fact they are not unprecedented in Christian history.
Thank God for Scripture, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, and the witness of our Christian past to point the way ahead—especially in upside-down times.
I also thank God for Epiclesis, for I believe with all my being that this church was raised up for such a time as this. Sometime it seems like ours is the only voice calling folks to listen to our Christian past, though of course it’s not. And yet our increasingly bold call to return to essential tenets and practices of the faith seems unique in today’s climate.
That’s where Cloisters come in. It may very well be that Cloisters at Epiclesis will be for our region what Benedict’s communities were in his day: Quiet, vibrant, and powerful enclaves of the faith embedded in the community that not only helped Christianity survive, but also thrive, during the Dark Ages.
Unless the Holy Spirit builds these Cloisters, unless He is the one who forms and sustains them, they are destined to fail—or at least fall short of what they might be. Beloved, let’s work eagerly and prayerfully together to do what we can to build Cloisters of love and welcome and growth and hospitality. A new Dark Ages may be coming, and the world so desperately needs us.
Grace and Peace… and The Lord be with you!
What’s a Cloister?
Imagine a courtyard in a convent, monastery, college, or cathedral, with an arcaded walkway around each side. If you’ve ever visited a cloister, you know how beautiful, and even sacred, the space is. It is the heart of the community where people come together to talk and pray and learn and share.
That’s what came to mind when we sensed that God is encouraging us to build groups of Epiclesis folks, especially during these odd and challenging times: For us, our Cloisters are also sacred spaces– retreats– places to come for spiritual nourishment, and a time and place to be replenished.
Our Cloisters will be about people gathering to talk, share, learn, and spend time with true friends.
Why Cloisters? They are part of our Christian heritage, and our times cry out for their return.
Laying the Groundwork for a Rebirth of Christianity
Long ago, small monastic communities preserved and strengthened Christianity during what became the Dark Ages. The spread of those communities began in some ways with one man, Benedict of Nursia (left), born just about the time the last emperor of Rome was deposed (c. 480). Benedict’s first allegiance was to the Kingdom of God and he turned away from the crumbling Roman Empire and its once-great, now-decadent city of Rome. Benedict retreated to a cave east of Rome, earnestly praying and seeking God’s direction. After three years, he emerged and started a monastic community and wrote what we now call “The Rule of St. Benedict,” a kind of guide for living in Christian community.
When he died, twelve monasteries had been planted, but there’s more: People of the Western Roman Empire, who were living in times of chaos and despair, needed hope and something firm and stable to grasp. Consequently, both men and women flocked to the Benedictine Order and formed more and more Christian communities throughout Western Europe.
Consequently, over the next few centuries, they laid the groundwork for the rebirth of Christianity in the West and kept the faith alive during very, very difficult times.
Biblical and Historical Underpinning: Seeds, Yeast, and Preserving the Faith
Jesus once described the Kingdom of God as like a mustard seed or yeast. Think about that just a moment:
In Matthew 13, where Jesus talks about the Kingdom, He repeatedly draws distinctions between what the world sees as powerful and influential and what the Kingdom of God is really like: It seems foolish to the world. It’s small. Its work happens when it is embedded in its surroundings. It is quiet and hidden and modest. It is also a great treasure and is powerfully transformational.
So, how do we grow personally? And how, together, do we expand the borders of God’s Kingdom in this ever-changing, upside-down, and increasingly hostile world? The answer is by being like mustard seeds and yeast: small, humble, working together, thoroughly mixed in our surroundings, and energized by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
And how do we grow together? Ephesians 2:19-22; 4:11-13 talks about attaining unity and maturity in the body of Christ, and also gives another important metaphor for the community of faith that we are to be: “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Christian friend, this building up of God’s holy temple doesn’t just happen on its own—it happens in intimate, Christian community where soul friends call one another to accountability and growth, and where iron sharpens iron. We fellow citizens are, together, building this holy temple. The building is on a solid foundation. And while we are building it together, we are also growing in our maturity and fullness in Christ.
The third century church leader Cyprian of Carthage faced times much like Benedict’s and ours– conflicts in and outside the church, plagues, persecution. He encouraged his church to be called out and different from the world with these words: “Beloved, we are philosophers, not in words but in deeds. We exhibit our wisdom not by our dress, but by our truth. We know virtues by their practice, rather than through boasting of them. And we do not speak great things, but live great things.”
Cyprian believed that the true Christian bears Christ in his or her own deeds, practice, and living.
But beloved, this kind of living requires training. It requires encouragement. It requires deep friendships. And it requires accountability.
Author Rod Dreher, writing about the fall of the Roman world, suggests that the empire was far too gone to be saved, and that Benedict had sized up the situation well: “He acted wisely by leaving society and starting a new community whose practices would preserve the faith through the trials ahead.” Our doing a similar thing at Epiclesis is not just about our own, personal survival.
Dreher goes on: “If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have.”
We will be for the world as Christ meant if we live as tiny seeds in the ground and as bits of yeast in the dough of our culture. But we can’t do this work on our own. We must live in meaningful Christian community centered on the worship of God and the telling of His story.
Cloisters Will Be an Important Part of This Kind of Living
Epiclesis is now at work on organizing Cloisters, and we’ve already had several folks ask to host one in their home. Here is current description and overview of how we see the Cloisters coming to be:
About Epiclesis Cloisters:
- Will be an expression of the Epiclesis community and its gathered worshiping body. They will not take the place of corporate worship— for we want our Cloisters to be centered on the communal worship of God as is our Christian history and heritage— but rather be a natural, nurturing outgrowth of the gathered, worshiping body.
- Will consist of a small group of people— something like 6-12 people— and be hosted in the home of an Epiclesis member.
- Cloisters are open to non-Epiclesis members/attenders, and we’d love to see them be a natural and winsome entry point for people to worship with us.
- Hosts do not necessarily have to be the leader of the Cloister.
- Cloister leaders should be a member of Epiclesis, or on the path to membership, via “Journey to Jesus.” They do not have to be elders of the church.
- Cloisters would be appropriately accountable to the pastor and leadership of the church, and the relationship would be one of flexibility and collaboration.
- We imagine that Cloisters would be like mini-flocks of the larger body and that members will minister to, encourage, pray for, support, love one another, sharpen one another as iron does to iron, and be appropriately accountable to one another. We see Cloister members forming deep friendships similar to the “Anam Cara” (Soul Friends) in the Celtic tradition.
- Cloisters could meet as often as they like, though we envision once or twice a month.
- They would not have to be geographically oriented in their membership makeup, but rather grow up organically according to natural affinities and connections.
- We imagine that regular Cloister meetings might include a simple meal, a Eucharistic element, and some litanies/prayers/blessings. Pastors and elders will suggest themes from time to time and provide sample materials, but the Cloister might also want to explore other materials, which we would welcome. For example, our pastors and elders think it’s important to emphasize the theme of unity in the Body right now. Along those lines, we might suggest a chapter from Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option, or a section on friendship from The Common Rule, or perhaps a section on community from Bonhoeffer. The Cloister leader might want to use a complimentary resource, say, from the “Bible Project” and would confer with the pastor.
- There will be brief times during the year, most especially in the fall and Lent, that we want the entire church body to be exploring the same themes, materials, and Scripture and will ask Cloisters to support and adopt those key focus points. Seasonal small groups during those times will also be formed for those who are not part of a Cloister.
An Additional Foundational Element for Cloisters:
We imagine that the central features of Benedict’s Rule will be a unifying element in our Cloisters. Toward that end, we think it will be useful for Cloisters to do some selected reading of “The Rule” and explore how these seven features might shape life together (inspired in part by Dennis Okholm’s Monk Habits):
Listen: Our world is increasingly filled with noise. “If we want to grow in grace,” says author Dennis Okholm, “we must learn to talk less and listen more.”
Poverty: We live in culture that consumes to the extent that greed is no longer a vice but nearly a virtue. Taking on the discipline of poverty means, in part, to live more simply, sharing more, hold lightly, and remember our mortality.
Obedience: Contemporary Christians often wince at the word, but learning to surrender our will appropriately to godly instruction and accountability to trusted soul friends is a must.
Humility: Dennis Okholm writes, “Humility breaks down our egoistic fantasies and our need to be in control—our need to be the exception. When we are humble, we understand that we are not the exception.” Humility requires “radical self-honesty,” as Columba Stewart call it. Letting go of the mask and allowing God to form us in close Christian community is transformative.
Hospitality: Benedict describes hospitality as one of the primary ways in which the world and monastery meet. Theologian Robert Webber once said that a sure sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit in a community of faith is hospitality. Cloisters should be a place where gracious, giving hospitality is practiced.
Stability: These days many Christians have no allegiance to a particular church. Many are willing to say that they attend a particular church, but not that they belong to particular church. Pastor Scott Sauls writes, “Jesus never looked for more of God by having less of the church. Instead, he married her. The church is the chosen, beloved Bride of Christ. What does it say about us if the church is good enough for the Father to adopt, for the Spirit to inhabit, and for Jesus to marry… but not good enough for us to join?” Cloisters should be a place where folks remain in committed stability. Dennis Okholm writes, “You have to stay put in order to get somewhere.”
Balance: Benedict insisted that his monks live in a balanced way, and the motto he adopted was “Ora et Labora,” or “Prayer and Work.” He saw the wisdom of a balance between body, mind, and spirit. Again Dennis Okholm: “The point is that there is no aspect of life that is outside the restoration of creation that God is accomplishing. Everything is part of God’s gracious regime in the salvation of his people. Benedict’s is no dis-incarnate spirituality. It is aimed at the conversion of the whole person.
What We Do Not Want Cloisters to Be or to Become:
While we want to focus on the positive— what we desire and hope Cloisters to be— it may also be useful to come at the issue from the negative side of things— what we do not want Cloisters to be or to become. Here are some places that we do not yet have all the answers and that will require prayer and discernment and trust:
- While Cloisters will be, in effect, closed groups (in that we want them to remain at a size that fosters deep relationships), we do not want a Cloister door to be shut tightly and locked. How can we build groups that are essentially closed but also open at the same time? Frankly, we’re not sure, but know that there must be a Holy Spirit-guided balance between finding the right number and also being open to others.
- We do not want Epiclesis Cloisters to be closed to people who don’t normally worship with us. Of course, our hope is that folks who develop deep relationships with others in a Cloister would want to worship with and be drawn to the gathered body, but the Cloister is not meant to be an outreach or church growth tool.
- We do not want church members to be “left out” of Cloisters, especially during the initial stages of populating them. So how do we strongly encourage everyone (even those who are not especially interested) find the right Cloister? Again, we’re just not sure about this important step, but we’re trusting the Lord to bring to fruition what we believe He is prompting.
- While we want folks to find the right “fit” in a Cloister, we do not want people to bounce from group to group and never land.
- We do not want Cloisters to become autonomous groups that are not meaningfully and appropriately accountable to the church and its leadership. Cloisters must not become para-church organizations that run on a separate and disconnected track from the entire worshiping community.
- We do not want the Cloisters to become a substitute for the worshiping body of Epiclesis, but, again, want them to be centered on the communal worship of God as is our Christian history and heritage. Cloisters should be a natural, nurturing outgrowth of the gathered, worshiping body
- We do not want Cloisters to be disconnected from other Cloisters, or certainly not to become rivals or cliques. We will want to work earnestly to foster love and communication between the Cloisters and, again, encourage a love for worship and being together in the larger community where the whole church body gathers.
A selected bibliography:
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Rod Dreher. Penguin/Random House, New York, NY, 2017.
The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction. Justin Earley. IVP Books, Downers Grove, IL, 2019.
Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants. Dennis Okholm. Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI, 2007.
The Rule of St. Benedict. Benedict of Nursia. Edited by J. Conor Gallagher. St. Benedict Press, Charlotte, NC, 2007.