Further thoughts on missionary monks

Reflecting on my most recent post, the question arising is: What did Gregory’s missionary monks do, what did they look like? According to the Venerable St Bede (672-735, saint of the week here):

As soon as they entered the dwelling-place assigned to them, they began to imitate the Apostolic manner of life in the primitive Church; applying themselves to constant prayer, watchings, and fastings; preaching the Word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as in nowise concerning them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living themselves in all respects conformably to what they taught, and being always ready to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In brief, some believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their blameless life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine. There was on the east side of the city, a church dedicated of old to the honour of St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, was wont to pray. In this they also first began to come together, to chant the Psalms, to pray, to celebrate Mass, to preach, and to baptize, till when the king had been converted to the faith, they obtained greater liberty to preach everywhere and build or repair churches.

When he, among the rest, believed and was baptized, attracted by the pure life of these holy men and their gracious promises, the truth of which they established by many miracles, greater numbers began daily to flock together to hear the Word, and, forsaking their heathen rites, to have fellowship, through faith, in the unity of Christ’s Holy Church. It is told that the king, while he rejoiced at their conversion and their faith, yet compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow citizens in the kingdom of Heaven. For he had learned from those who had instructed him and guided him to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion. Nor was it long before he gave his teachers a settled residence suited to their degree in his metropolis of Canterbury, with such possessions of divers sorts as were necessary for them. (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1.26 trans. Sellar)

These two paragraphs likely cover a longer period of time than it seems.1  Nonetheless, we see here the evangelistic or ‘missional’ outworkings of the contemplative life upon the Kentish court. The life of the missionary monks resembles in many ways that of a monastery whether we look to Benedict, Columbanus, Cassian, or Basil. It also looks a lot like Acts 2:

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 ESV)

It is typified, according to Bede by:

  • prayer
  • watchings (or vigils)
  • preaching to as many as they could
  • despising all worldly things
  • receiving only what they truly needed from the disciples
  • submitting themselves to suffering
  • gathering together
  • chanting the Psalms
  • celebrating Mass

If we are being inspired by the contemplative missionary, the two most controversial are likely to be despising worldly things and receiving from those they taught. Concerning the latter, I believe the idea is not that they are seeking material gain but rather the opposite. Unlike Jim and Tammy Bakker, Augustine and his companions accepted only what they needed to survive. This is in accord with what St Paul says of evangelists as well as The Didache. We pay our pastors, after all. But it does mean that this aspect does not apply to any of us laypersons who wish to start emulating the monastic mission in our own lives.

Despising worldly things has always been a hang-up for the affluent. I have no easy way around it, honestly. In our culture, especially, we should probably be seeking the Freedom of Simplicity and endeavouring to be Dethroning Mammon.

I hope and pray we can take their example seriously in our lives as individuals, families, and church communities. Perhaps we can see similar results, with the conversion not of kings but of colleagues, bosses, friends, parents, siblings, or — to look higher — CEOs, judges, politicians. Imagine true disciples of Jesus Christ being made in our midst at every turn by contemplative activists?


1. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World, argues that the process described by Bede may have taken years. I am not a Bede scholar, so I leave the question as to duration open. 

Christianity must change or die (right?)

Up front: I am not a supporter of J.S. Spong, nor have I read his Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Nonetheless, it’s a catchy title for a blog post.

The Tron Kirk: Empty (now a market, actually)

A few years ago, I wrote a post filled with images of local Edinburgh churches now abandoned or converted into cafés, flats, theatres, office space, events venues, etc. As most people in Scotland are aware, the statistics for the church in Scotland are not so hot — last year we learned that 52% of Scotland’s population in the ranks of the religious ‘nones’ and 66% almost never attend services. I do not have the numbers handy, but the latest census data showed Edinburgh (if I remember correctly) the most secular city in the nation.

Not that England and Wales are necessarily doing much better on this sceptred isle — 48.5% of them are religious ‘nones’. In January of last year, only 760,000 of England’s population were regular attendees of the Church of England. 53 million people live in England.

Now, I’ll admit that perhaps things aren’t so dire in the USA as we like to think, but they aren’t exactly a ‘Christian nation’, either — 51% go to church or another worship between once a month and multiple times per week. Given that the same study gives 49% as the statistic of those who never go, obviously the data include other religious groups, which is fine if ‘religiosity’ is what you’re gauging. According to a Pew survey of 2013, only 37% attend weekly or more. And, according to a study a friend referenced in a sermon a decade ago, average attendance in real, live numbers, was 80.

This figure of 80 has stuck in my mind, and came home to me this evening as I was reading some research a friend and colleague has done into Joel Osteen and the Lakewood Church. Setting aside any theological concerns, Osteen’s church has around 50,000 members, and his big, traditional evangelistic rallies have had about 2,000,000 people come through them. Many of them would have been Christians, of course, just like at the old Billy Graham Crusades, or in enrollment on the Alpha Course. This is not to mention the millions and potential billions who can encounter Pastor Osteen on the Internet; his is one of the most popular YouTube channels out there.

Before moving to more thoughts, don’t worry — my homeland of Canada is surpassing the USA. As of 2012, only 27% of us were regular church attenders.

How does it work that so many people attend evangelistic events and listen to YouTube sermons, yet the numbers of professing Christians is decreasing across the Anglophone northern hemisphere? (I mean, I’ve not taken Ireland into account, but I doubt they’re much better.)

According to one of the many sites I’ve linked in the above, some people find it hard to get to church. Other people find the people at church or the preaching or the music or the décor distasteful, I’m pretty sure. I know I often do. But if we’re truly converted to Jesus Christ, shouldn’t we be seeking a community of people whom we can at least put up with and worship with and be encouraged by? Shouldn’t the Holy Spirit at work in us enable us to get over bad preaching, bad Bible translations, hymns with modified words, hymns with weird tunes, badly-tuned pianos, socially-awkward greeters at the door, socially-inept coffee hours? I mean, Jesus Christ is King of the Universe.

Being with people who also love Him should trump all the subjective realities of going to church.

And for a lot of us, it does.

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I enjoyed the sun by the Union Canal and had our first barbecue of the season with a friend from church. She noted that here in the West, Christianity is dying. We live our comfortable lives, have good jobs, go to church, lead morally upright lives, own a lot of stuff, buy a lot of stuff, and die, comfortable with the knowledge that faith in Jesus means we are ‘saved’. But we are not making more Christians.

When I commented that it seems like the theologically conservative churches of Edinburgh are growing — Morningside Baptist (now called Central), Charlotte Chapel, Elim Church, our own St Columba’s and its two church plants, and more, she noted that the only ones that seem to grow through evangelism are the Pentecostals; the evangelicals (such as we Wee Frees) just have a lot of babies.

Fun fact: At St Columba’s Free Church of Scotland, when the time for the kids to leave occurs, about half the sanctuary is emptied, mostly by the kids plus a few volunteers.

She may be onto something.

I do not know what I think, though.

More zeal in more of us? Deeper spiritual lives along with more zeal? Training our whole congregations in the theology and practice of evangelism? Richer theology in our thought lives (this hasn’t helped the Anglo-Catholics)? A greater number of outreach events?

I really do not know. How do you reach a world that actually simply seems not to care anymore? And how do you equip and energise the saints in a culture that is so polite and careful and inward that talking ‘religion’ with friends, colleagues, and strangers is a social no-go?

Mysticism, theology, evangelism, and social action

The Penitent Saint Francis by Annibale Caracci, Capitoline Museum
St Francis, a man who loved God and neighbour (my pic)

I sent an e-mail to my friend who’d given the talk spoken of in this post, outlining the same things I outlined here on the blog. His response included:

Thanks for this. … I am no Eastern Orthodox but Presbyterians need a good dose of EO and the EO could use a little Presbyterianism. I like to think of my theology as a Presby ressourcement. That sort of mystical theology is totally absent from the Free Church.

I, myself, am not a Presbyterian, but the call to mystical theology for low Protestants is important.

The image of people who are interested in evangelism and church-planting, who want to see their culture reached for Christ is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the mystics. Which is a shame.

Another tale.

A couple of my friends run a Greek theology reading group. A third friend joined them a few times (I went once for St Basil, ‘On the Holy Spirit’), but (I am given to understand) his general attitude towards the discussion was, ‘But what does all this have to do with the man on the street in Glasgow?’ (Why Glasgow?)

In my mind, ‘the man on the street in Glasgow’ — in this instance — is in need of social assistance. (This is not intended as a general statement on Glaswegians.) Why should we worry about St Gregory of Nazianzus and Trinitarian theology when there are starving people out there? In Glasgow?

The image of people who are interested in social action/activism, who want to see the poor clothed and the hungry fed is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the systematic theologians. Which is a shame.

Somewhere in his book The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton references St John of the Cross as teaching that one should spend more time in contemplation (used here in its mystical sense) than action — that actions ungirded in the contemplative life are prone to be willy-nilly and of less use. How do we know we are doing them for God’s glory? What is His will? That sort of thing.

That’s one approach to contemplation in a world of action (social/evangelistic).

The other is this: Good theologia and good theoria (contemplation), good thoughts about God and good thoughts in God, dogmatics and mysticism — these, in fact, lead to just behaviour and holy living and Gospel-telling.

Think on St Francis, who was a mystic if ever there was one. But his fervour for prayer, dispassion, contemplation was as tied to a fervour for preaching and for helping the poor.

Solid theology and ‘mystical’ practices give heart and soul to our activities in the world.

Perhaps it is our lack of deep thinking and deep praying that weaken our witness of love to a world eroded by hatred and false loves at every turning.

By looking upon God, whether through the intellectual truths of theology or through the noetic experience of mysticism, we can be suffused with His power, His light, and His love for a broken world.

Maybe then we’ll be worth listening to.

My deep, dark confession: Who cares?

Hare Krishna in Moscow

On Tuesday, I walked from the Parisian train station Gare du Nord to the Métro at Chappelle. This route takes you straight through the Indian section of town. I enjoy Indian parts of cities — such vibrant colours, combined with an abundance of people (which I can only handle in small doses), sometimes Indian music from shops or scents from restaurants, window displays full of multi-hued Hindu gods. All the usual stuff.

As I walked, I actually prayed, ‘Lord, help me to be Your light in someone’s life today.’ A nice prayer.

Soon there appeared a couple of white guys dressed in simple ‘Indian’ clothes with a dab of makeup on each forehead. And, of course, a satchel of books. Now, I’m not sure they were Hare Krishna, but that is a likely choice. They could have been western sympathisers to Hinduism*, I suppose.

The elder fellow wanted to know if I was interested in a copy of The Bhagavad Gita. I admitted I was. He held out an astonishingly large copy in French, extolling the virtues of the Sanskrit being present. I admitted that English would be better. So he called over the younger guy who had gone off, and he brought me an English version of the same edition.

But then I asked the price, and I’m not sure about buying a 10-euro copy of so large a book when it comes recommended only by the guy selling it — especially since I can get it out of the library when I get home. They tried selling me another book, but I said I was really only interested in The Bhagavad Gita.

Having extricated myself, I walked on to catch the Métro.

Do you notice anything about this story?

What stands out to me is the fact that I did not try engaging with these guys at any level beyond the possible purchase. Ten years ago or even five years ago, I would tried to share the thunderously good and life-changing truth that is Christ, the Incarnate God.

Instead, I stayed at the level of a business transaction and acted as unspiritual as anyone else. Then I moved on with my day.

Now, you may not fault me for this, even though I prayed that I could be God’s light to someone that day. After all, how do you ‘naturally’ bring Jesus up in a conversation with Hare Krishnas?

In Tuebingen, I was walking down the street one day and saw some Mormon Missionaries. Rather than engaging them, I extricated myself from the conversation as quickly as possible, quite nervous the whole time.

I had zero spiritual conversations with my less-than-enjoyable flatmates in Germany. I do not bring up the Gospel with my unbelieving classmates in French class. Nor did I bring it up with the friends I made in Germany.

In my second year of university, I was ‘Outreach Coordinator’ at my uni’s IVCF group. In my third year, I led an evangelistic Bible study. In my fourth year, I was president, seeking ways of reaching an unreached campus. I had encounters on the street with Scientologists. I talked with my roommate and others in my dorm about Jesus in first-year uni. I ran two Alpha Courses during my time in undergrad. I spent a year after graduation as a missionary with IVCF/IFES in Cyprus, leading evangelistic Bible studies and engaging in spiritual conversations with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and agnostics.

Today, I start to sweat when I see a Mormon!!

This is my deep, dark secret.

When I talk to, say, a Hare Krishna, or a Jehovah’s Witness, or a Mormon Missionary, there is a part of me that thinks, ‘What is the use? This will just go until we are both tired and quit.’

When I talk to an unbelieving classmate, colleague, or friend, I think, ‘I don’t want to scare so-and-so off. I don’t even know what he/she believes.’

I believe in evangelism with my head.

But I no longer believe in it with my heart.

This is my dark, dark secret.

So what business do I have writing this blog at all?

*To be Hindu one must be born Hindu; conversion is not possible.

How does a religion survive when part of its morality is abhorrent to the culture around it?

Fact:
The majority of orthodox, tradition-minded Christians believe that for two persons of the same sex to have sexual intercourse is a sin. They also believe, for a variety of scriptural, philosophical, and traditional reasons, that true Christian marriage is the union of one woman to one man to the exclusion of all others.

Fact:
Based upon my own research, largely drawn from my Facebook feed and random news articles, a growing proportion of the population of ‘the West’* believes that such sex and such relationships are not sin and are even commendable.

The support, at least of clever, young, at times hip, and often socially-concerned young people, for gay marriage is a major roadblock for many people when they come face to face with traditional Christianity. This is not, of course, true of everyone. I know gay people in committed, monogamous relationships who are perfectly Chalcedonian and BCP in their orthodoxy — one in particular is very fond of St Augustine.

However, other people are not in such a position. Some people say that they could not believe in a God who would keep people from being involved in faithful, monogamous relationships with whom they love. Some people say that they find the traditional position on sexuality and marriage ‘morally abhorrent’. Other people probably say none of this, but sit there in the pew, week after week, uneasy as the Rev. G S gives us yet another sermon about homosexuality.

And those I think of are those raised in, reared by the Church. And some of them see those who choose to separate themselves from ecclesial bodies that approve of such actions as, in fact, ‘homophobic.’

The pastoral concern is evident. Often, these young people just stop going to church. Some switch churches. But for some, the cognitive dissonance is too much; they give up church and God and all. Because we live in a culture where there are lots of visible gay people, and a lot of them are fantastically brilliant people who are really nice (and so are their partners) who are good at their jobs and sometimes put orthodox heterosexuals to shame in their capacity for love, the insistence on the sinfulness of gay sex is jarring to many people’s ears. Rob Bell observes that this is the way the world is, and we should accept it. (That’s not his full argument; watch the video to do him justice.)

There is a competing pressure between preachers and pews, and often the preachers are disconnected from the pews. So why should the pews even care?

Beyond the pew, people dismiss the traditional marriage lobby. The best response of many is, at the end of it all, mockery. Very often, the arguments put forward by traditional Christians are ignored and slogans are put forward as something to counter them. Supporters of traditional marriage have even had invective directed at them from Wendell Berry, of all people.

So here we are. How on earth can we bring the drifting young back to our churches, be they Anglican or Lutheran, Baptist or Brethren, Orthodox or Roman Catholic, when they find the Church’s response to this issue, one so at the heart of public debate and consciousness right now, risible and abhorrent?

And what about those who have never heard the Gospel? For many people, this is one of the first questions they ask when they meet representatives of churches or Christian organisations. If they abhorr the traditional answer as unloving and immoral, what is to be done?

I ask this because this is not the usual situation. People inevitably find giving up alcohol and drugs difficult. Or reining in heterosexual passions. Or going to church on Sundays. They may find piety silly. But now they find this particular piece of traditional Christian piety abhorrent and morally defective.

How can the traditional churches win the hearts and minds of this generation?

*North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand …

St Francis and the Monastic Impulse

St Francis and Brother Rufus, by El Greco

Today is the feast of St Francis of Assisi. I have been a fan of St Francis since ever I learned of him, and have read The Little Flowers of St Francis, G K Chesterton’s St Francis of Assisi, John Michael Talbot’s The Lessons of St Francis, and Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis (my wee review here).*

Last night after Bible study, I was talking about my tutorial for tomorrow with one of the guys, a tutorial about the Desert Father St Antony of Egypt (saint of the week here). Like many evangelicals, my friend sees no appeal in monasticism, rightly (I believe) criticising the all-too-frequent tendency in monastic or eremitic circles to cut oneself off from the rest of the world that the commandments of Christ to make disciples cannot be fulfilled.

I, however, tend to find the monastic call somewhat appealing — certainly the ascetic/mystical call. When we look at St Francis (as at Antony), we see someone who took up the ascetic life out of a desire to live in radical obedience to Jesus. He gave away his very clothes so as not to be beholden to his earthly father, declaring to his local bishop that he now had only God for his Father!

And what does Francis do? He goes and rebuilds a local church. And then he gathers a band of fellow jongleurs de Dieu. And what do they do? They go around getting into all sorts of trouble and preaching the Good News of Christ.

This is the monastic impulse as it should be, I think. The single-minded devotion to Christ that we find in ascetics from Antony of Egypt to Benedict of Nursia (saint of the week here and here) to Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here) is present in St Francis of Assisi. He abandons the life of a warrior or of a middle-class merchant with wealth. Rather than giving the regulated, required tithe to the poor, he gives all to the poor and joins their ranks, out of obedience to Christ’s call to give all your possessions to the poor.

St Francis spent hours and days and months in prayer, once going off to an island spontaneously and spending all of Lent on it praying. This is the monastic impulse at work. But St Francis takes this single-mindedness and turns it outward to the suffering world around him.

Francis doesn’t shut himself away in a cave or the thick walls of an Italian monastery. He goes out into the world, preaching the Gospel of Christ, working to save souls. This is the monastic impulse as it should be directed, I think. He engages in the usual ascetic practices of dietary restriction, prayer, and poverty, but he spends his days in the marketplaces of Italy, telling people the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, calling them to repentance.

The Franciscan friary — their equivalent of a monastery — is meant to be a stop along the way, a place for refreshment both physical and spiritual before going back out into the hostile world and engaging in the true mission of Francis: winning souls for Christ.

It all sounds terribly evangelical, doesn’t it?

*Also, I’ve written these blog posts: St Francis and Why You Like Him; The San Damiano Crucifix; Saint of the Week: St Francis; St. Francis of Assisi; What to Do with the Canticle of Brother Sun; and St Clare’s Laudable Exchange.

Empty Churches

When we first moved to the beautiful city of Edinburgh, one of the first churches we encountered was St. John’s “Tollbooth” Highland Kirk. Except, actually, we didn’t. Instead, we met the Hub, a cafe, art space, event venue, and headquarters for the Edinburgh Festival.

The Hub's doors

Since then, we have seen many “empty” churches. Some are actually empty, such as the Tron Kirk:

The Tron Kirk: Empty

or that church on Lauriston Place:

The Paint-peeling Door of an Empty Church

Others have found second lives as nightclubs such as Sin:

Note: Not my photo of Sin Nightclub

or as theatres, such as the Bedlam Theatre:

Note: Not my photo of the Bedlam Theatre

or as street-health clinics:

Church reborn as hospice

or as the brass-rubbing centre:

Me at the Brass Rubbing Centre, formerly Trinity College Chapel

or as beautiful venues, such as the Mansfield Traquair Centre:

The Mansfield Traquair Centre, Chancel

St. John’s Highland Kirk is probably the highest spire in the city, in part due to its location on the same hill as the Castle — it’s the spire to the left of Edinburgh Castle if a friend ever sends you a postcard. Yet it and the Tron Church are not churches anymore, and they are two out of the three notable spires in this view:

The Royal Mile

The explanation for the abandonment of two of the Royal Mile’s churches is the fact that the Old Town of Edinburgh, which boasted 52 400 people in the late 1800’s has but 4000 residents today. Most of its space is shops, restaurants/bars, and offices with the odd tourist attraction thrown in for good measure.

Thus, St. Giles’ (the “crown spire” visible between St. John’s and the Tron Kirk) together with Carubber’s Church, Old St. Paul’s Scottish Episcopal, and Canongate Kirk along the Royal Mile are able to serve the Old Town, along with St. Columba’s Free Church and St. Columba’s by the Castle Scottish Episcopal on Johnson Terrace, St. Augustine’s United on George IV Bridge, and Greyfriars Kirk. There is also St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church down on Cowgate.

That’s a lot of churches for the Old Town.

Yet if you tally the worshippers on any given Sunday in the churches of Edinburgh’s Old Town, I doubt you will get anything near 4000 congregants assembled.

The dome of West Register House, Charlotte Square

Charlotte Square, home of a beautiful old parish kirk that is now West Register Office, along with the rest of the New Town, has suffered a similar fate as the Old Town. People just don’t live there anymore. The churches have very few congregants, although Charlotte Baptist Chapel is able to pack ’em in like sardines.

Another cause of un-kirking in this city is the death or amalgamation of some denominations. This was the case for Mansfield Place Catholic Apostolic Church, now the Mansfield Traquair Centre. The Catholic Apostolics thought the Second Coming was due in the 1920’s, so they made no plans for succession for their Apostles. By the 1950’s, Mansfield Place Church was closed.

When the bulk of the Free Church of Scotland reunited with the Church of Scotland, the Free Church’s “High Kirk” become the library at New College, which means that students of New College get to study amidst some lovely stained glass!

However, when we recall my statement that even with so many churches in the Old Town, the 4000 inhabitants still don’t fill them, we return to the main cause of un-kirking, and it is that people are no longer warming or filling pews.

Mansfield Traquair Centre Wall Painting

At a certain level, this makes Phoebe Traquair’s angel cry.

People’s butts keeping pews warm as they did ever since they put the first pews in European churches in the centuries following the Reformation is not really what Christianity is about. Getting lots of people into your church doesn’t mean a thing in some ways.

Yet those butts warming those pews are human butts. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to become one of them. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to die for them. They are the butts of people who need to hear and know the message of the greatness of the glory of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

At least if they are at kirk each Sunday, they stand a chance of hearing this message and being transformed by it.

The un-kirking of Edinburgh and Europe is a phenomenon that, I understand, has been going on since at some point in the 1960’s. People just stopped going to church. Fewer and fewer people go to church every year. Even in the USA, which is imagined by many to be a “Christian” nation, the average Sunday attendance in 2005 was 80 persons — the megachurches are not offsetting the exodus.

My friend Rick, pastor of an international, multicultural, “evangelical” church in Cyprus, says that the European church has entered a phase of exile. Our mission and ministry have different needs than ministry in places where the church is exploding in size, as in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Our churches are dwindling, and people need the Gospel.

Maybe we don’t need David Wilkersons per se in Europe. But we do need people who are willing to invest in these cities and the people who populate them. People willing to walk past the empty spires and remember the One Whose Cross is raised high above.

People who are willing to love their unkirked friends to the bitter end.

People who are willing to live across from drunks and junkies and love them ceaselessly and endlessly.

People who are willing to truly befriend atheists and agnostics and take them seriously as people, not projects, not simply arguments with bodies.

We need Columbas and Ninians. (Too many reservations to want another Knox, really.)