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Published on Friday, September 22, 2017

The Two Christian Movements

Some ten years ago I wrote a book called Why Should I Believe You? Among other things, I argued that from the 4th century onward two Christian movements developed simultaneously in collaborative but uneasy tension with each other. The first movement was based on membership. I called it the “diocesan” movement, because the primary activity was participation in an institution. The second movement was based on lifestyle. I called it the “monastic” movement, because the primary activity holistic spiritual discipline.


Those two movements have existed side-by-side in all Christian traditions. Protestants today may only think of “parish” or “church”, but if you look back to the roots of Protestantism, and if you look more closely at contemporary Protestant spirituality, you can readily see Christians leading an intentional Christian lifestyle as individuals or small groups, and committed more to “causes” than “churches”.


The first Christian alternative tends to separate faith from lifestyle because it intentionally contrasts the sacred from the secular. This space is sacred, that space is not. This person is sacred, that person is not. This time is sacred, that time is not. This thing is sacred, that thing is not. In order to participate in the Christian movement, one had to leave the daily routine and “go to church”. Spiritual leadership in this context was always tied to institutional life … what I describe as “Constant Visitors”, “Gardeners”, and “Builders”. These have been normative in North America, at least, since colonial days.


The second Christian alternative tends to merge faith and lifestyle because it intentionally breaks down any distinctions about “sacred” and “secular” space, time, or people. It’s all sacred. This makes participation in the Christian movement easier to do (in that faith is lived anytime, anywhere, in any company); and it also makes it harder to do because the Christian life requires far more self-discipline and concentration than is required by institutional membership.


This may seem counter-intuitive to seminary trained clergy. The seminary claimed that the monastic movement  was about leaving the world behind to participate in “other worldly” mystical experiences of God (in the desert, for example, rather than in the city). But remember the bias of the seminary! It trains people for “diocesan” or institional leadership.


If you look closely at the “monastic” movement, the goal was actually to merge or shape one’s entire lifestyle (e.g. habits, routines, fundamental attitudes, behavior dispositions, etc.) explicitly and solely around God’s presence. And while that took some Christians into solitude, in fact many Christians went to high accountability partnerships in any cultural context. And in fact, the outcome of this alternative Christian movement was to return these spiritual leaders into the world as visionaries, mentors, and pilgrims. They founded hospitals and hospices and social services; and guided ordinary people into deeper unity with God; and became role models for purposeful living. They may have participated in an institutional church, but were always at odds with the church, because they were perceived by the church as odd, independent, and extreme. And so I call these people “Extreme”: Relentless Futurists, Greek Interpreters, and Determined Travelers.


So in fact, it is the “diocesan” Christian movement, based on membership, and lead by “constant” leaders who serve the church, that is “other worldly”. And this separation between religion and culture baffles and offends many postmodern people (as it did pre-modern people). And it is the “monastic” movement, based on lifestyle, and lead by “extreme” leaders that brings religion and culture, faith and experience, together.


Today some theological colleges are encouraging and empowering this second alternative to the Christian movement more intentionally. They recognize that many students (usually younger) have not intention or desire to ever serve an institutional church, but purposefully and passionately want to merge lifestyle and faith to serve the world.


What about the “Organic” ministries of Faith Tutors (Disciplers) and Life Coaches (gurus)? Although they seem to be most popular today (mega-churches and motivational speakers, for example), I still see these leaders their followers as transitional. Many of the leaders ultimately make a choice whether to step toward, or away, from the institutional church. Many of the followers eventually make the same choice. And the trend is clearly to step away into what I call the “monastic” alternative rather than step toward the “diocesan” alternative. Christianity is a “way of life” rather than an “institutional membership”.

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