Help your church survive the future by rediscovering the past

Chapter 5 of The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher is ‘A Church for All Seasons’. In this chapter, Dreher takes on the fact that not only is our culture around us shifting and changing and rejecting Christianity, but our churches are shrinking and have, frankly, something of a limp witness to the Triune God Who made all the things.

This chapter is in many ways perfectly in tune with the spirit of St Benedict’s Rule, and some of the recommendations are definitely from the Rule. Others, I think, are simply the way pre-modern Christians did things. I don’t think they are special to Benedict, and sometimes he wouldn’t even have thought there was a question about doing church this way.

The sub-headings are: ‘Rediscover the Past’, ‘Recover Liturgical Worship’, ‘Tighten Church Discipline’, ‘Evangelize with Goodness and Beauty’, ‘Embrace Exile and the Possibility of Martyrdom’. He doesn’t actually argue that any living American Christian is going to be martyred, but he does recommend preaching, teaching, and living the path of suffering in our churches rather than self-fulfillment.

I am broadly in agreement with all of this. It’s basically what this entire blog is about. By rooting ourselves in the Great Tradition, by seeking beauty and God wherever we can, by learning the history of theology, by singing old hymns and praying old prayers and engaging in ancient disciplines, we forge an identity that is connected to that of our forebears in the faith and radically different from the world around us.

Last week, a friend and I were talking about how we need to communicate historic Christian truth afresh to each generation. For the Roman Catholic to say, ‘Ah, we have St Thomas for that,’ simply isn’t enough. Yes, read St Thomas Aquinas. Get filled up with him. And then express him, urgently, beautifully, winsomely, in a way that will communicate the best of Scholastic theology for today’s Christian.

I admit to being the sort of person who thinks, ‘Well, the best book about the Council of Chalcedon is the translation of the acts by Richard Price and Michael Gaddis.’ I mean, it is — but what normal Christian is going to put up with three volumes of arguing bishops? Better even a 6-page pamphlet that someone will actually read and which gives Leo in a nutshell, Cyril in a nutshell, who Eutyches was, why Nestorianism was rejected, who dissented the results of the council and why as far as the life of the local church and normal human Christian is concerned.

Of course, of course, of course — we should challenge our brothers and sisters to read, if not conciliar acta, at least books like St Augustine’s City of God or an abridgement of St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae or St Athanasius On the Incarnation or the Rule of St Benedict or Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer or Bellarmine/Luther/Lancelot Andrewes/Calvin (depending on your tradition).

But perhaps we academics should also help the local church get plugged into the Great Tradition, through book studies or lectures or our own writings or, I dunno, blogs?

Anyway, rooting ourselves in the tradition through beautiful worship and rich theology and the pursuit of holiness will help keep us moored in the midst of liquid modernity.

8 thoughts on “Help your church survive the future by rediscovering the past

  1. The operative word is “rooted.” Our roots have to be active, nourishing, and strong. And, I would add, personal. Roots also work from the ground up, not from the sky down; think about that when it comes to faith community.

    • I like your extension of the roots analogy. Indeed, just because a church has some liturgy and hymns does not mean it is drawing life from the historic faith. And I suspect the concern about the personal is why a lot of well-intentioned moves to bring historic practices and historic faith into the lives of our congregations have failed.

  2. Thank you for this post and for your thoughtful commentary on the “Benedict Option.”

    I had a question/comment about one thing you wrote and the follow up. You wrote, “Last week, a friend and I were talking about how we need to communicate historic Christian truth afresh to each generation. For the Roman Catholic to say, ‘Ah, we have St Thomas for that,’ simply isn’t enough. Yes, read St Thomas Aquinas. Get filled up with him. And then express him, urgently, beautifully, winsomely, in a way that will communicate the best of Scholastic theology for today’s Christian.”

    But then I perceive that your solution was just a different set of scholastic and academic theologians (Augustine, Athanasius, etc) to use in forming parishioners in the great tradition. And the six-page pamphlet idea, while attractive, sort of assumes away the problem, too – what does one actually put in such a concise space that will effectively disciple its readers? That is the million dollar question, I think. Everyone seems to be making the same suggestion but comes up somewhat short as to what precisely that means and why today is any different than the milieu in the first century after Christ.

    I am a seminarian and have repeatedly been told to retell the Gospel in modern or po-mo parlance but while receiving no real guidance in how to do that. My classmates and I find that very frustrating, especially since the pre-Christians who wander into our churches do not seem to be seeking just another post-modern experience and seem to like wrestling with the classical greats in a meaningful parish education program.

    I would be interested in your thoughts. Thank you for your effort on this blog.

    • Hi William! Thanks for your thoughts. I advocate both approaches. That is, my advocacy of reading the Fathers and the medieval writers themselves is to be done alongside things more attuned to the contemporary ear. In fact, I think for a lot of this, introductory volumes would work — Christopher A. Hall’s three books, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Learning Theology with the CFs, and Worshiping with the CFs (from IVP) are great entry points that teach a lot about the Church Fathers and what they taught, likewise Boniface Ramsay’s Beginning to Read the Fathers (Roman Catholic) — which comes with a(n ambitious) reading plan at the end. Robert E. Webber tried applying patristics (mostly Irenaeus) to postmodern concerns in his book Ancient-Future Faith, so that’s one example. These books helped me start to get into the Fathers, but it helps to have the lay of the land, even if you want to revise the roadmap later (if you will).

      I would say that an informational pamphlet about, say Chalcedon or the Ecumenical Councils should be an entryway that could end up with people reading St Cyril of Alexandria or Leo the Great or the Acts of the council itself. I don’t know what the ‘modern idiom’ actually is, but we should at least communicate classical content or apply it to contemporary issues.

      My endgame would always be driving people to pre-modern Christianity and to the Bible as formative influences in discipleship — the modern packaging is more to help us frame it in ways that make sense. But there are times when throwing something like City of God or conciliar acta is not going to help. I learned that the hard way through recommending books that people never read because of how foreign or difficult or boring they were.

      I think that if you can get people into a meaningful parish education program, that’s the best place for this sort of thing because there they can sink their teeth into the texts and apply them to themselves.

      Or, to speak more confessionally, I greatly enjoy Blunt’s Annotated Book of Common Prayer and Brooke’s Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, but we still need 21st century books on the same things, such as O’Donovan on the Articles and the recent books by the Prayer Book Society on the BCP. Again though — these are to help Anglicans use the BCP and actually interact with the 39 Articles.

      Yours is a good question, and hopefully more of us can start coming up with good answers. 😉

    • Glad you like my thoughts, Jono! I hope you find the book inspiring, regardless of how much Dreher’s advice you take on. Certainly what he says about strong church communities rooted in the historic teachings and practices of the faith are worth prayerfully thinking over. I once looked at Renovare years ago, and it didn’t seem like they were up to much. I’ll take a second glance!

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