A reader sent me an e-mail on Wednesday night, saying he wanted to tell me about his efforts to convince the leadership of his Evangelical church to approve a congregational study of The Benedict Option when it comes out on March 14. I publish his e-mail below with his permission. I have only very slightly edited it to remove the name of the church:
I explained that I long thought that [name of church] did an outstanding job of teaching kids Scripture and a Christian worldview from Nursery through Senior High through a variety of classes, small groups, and preaching. But the campaign of 2016 revealed that a lot of late teens and 20s aged young people sought out influences and ideas that are corrosive and possibly even inimical to a true Biblical worldview.
We went through some of the gay marriage stuff, the Jen Hatmakers of the world, and so on. And I talked about how, even at our own church, the experience of worship was becoming atomized – plenty of people just “take what they need and leave the rest behind”. We don’t pray any common prayers, recite any creeds, or participate in truly unified things (other than singing and listening to preaching) besides once-per-month Communion. And I recommended The BenOp book study as a way of reconnecting people to our ancient faith and the modern world and thinking about how the Church moves forward in this culture.
To make a long story short, they simply didn’t buy it. They waved away a lot of the articles and ideas of scholars, writers and philosophers – “we already do those things”. They dismissed the “likes” and “shares” and affirmations of untrained and destructive Christian bloggers and speakers as just “young people finding their way”, and “making the mistakes youth make”. Despite all of the research and observations to the contrary, they just don’t think its anything to worry about.
I tried to patiently explain that although many people hold the right beliefs (orthodoxy), absent any pressure to hold on to them, they will eventually succumb to the cultural pressures to abandon many of those beliefs, especially surrounding sex and the family. We’re seeing that happen. And perhaps the answer is to consider more orthopraxy to strengthen the orthodoxy. Perhaps some common prayers, hymns that everyone knows, Communion more often, celebrating some of the ancient Christian practices like Ash Wednesday and so on. No, no, and no. And they have no interest in a class featuring a book written with such an Orthodox and Catholic focus. I suggested they listen to what Al Mohler has to say in his podcast, but I don’t expect that to go anywhere.
[This church] believes in and encourages people to fast and pray. So why do we not “do” Ash Wednesday? It’s simply because they look at anything even remotely “traditional” as the dead hand of the past and nothing more. There is a refusal to even consider that what sustained the church for thousands of years, practices that great men and women of the faith recommended, are still useful. They won’t even look.
And for all of the instruction to kids and youth and adults, the same pattern will happen: as soon as they achieve some measure of independence, they’ll drift to a church or ideas that allow them to live in peace with the culture, not their faith — the latter will be jetsam.
I hold out hope that my church’s leaders may be right, but I don’t believe that they are. All the Scripture knowledge in the world is not going to do any good unless people know how it fits together and they are truly “prepared to give an answer for the hope they have.” Not in an apologetics sense, but in a Grand Narrative sense.
This morning my wife and I attended a small Ash Wednesday service at an Anglican church and it was lovely. The priest marked me with ashes and I felt what I can only describe as the joy of the Spirit.
I brought this reader’s e-mail up with a well-connected and knowledgeable Evangelical friend, who responded:
My own experience mimics this. Offer anything beyond a middle school level argument, and 90% of people will tune you out. This isn’t an Evangelical problem, it’s an American problem. We are far more American than Christian.
He’s right about that. This isn’t an Evangelical problem. It’s an American Catholic problem too. It’s an American Orthodox problem. It’s an American problem, period. If the American churches are doing everything right, how do we explain sociologist Christian Smith’s shocking findings? How, for example, do we account for the fact that, according to Smith’s research, 60 percent of American Christians aged 18 to 23 say they have no problem whatsoever with materialism and consumerism, and 31 percent say that they have some qualms about these things, but they can’t do anything about it, so … whatever? How do we explain the fact that religion is collapsing among younger Americans — especially young men — at a rate never before recorded? How do we account for research indicating that the percentage of Americans who pray or believe in God has “reached an all-time low”?
These things aren’t just happening. They’re happening for a series of reasons. The churches who continue to behave as if these are normal times are going to die. Look at Europe. We used to think we were immune to that in the United States. We can no longer say that.
The Benedict Option is for Christians to whom it is more important to be a faithful and obedient follower of Jesus Christ than it is to be a good 21st-century American. There doesn’t necessarily have to be a conflict, but when there is, we have not only to know which one to choose, but also to have the strength of heart to choose it.
I would only offer to the leaders of this reader’s church — and maybe your church too — these lines from The Benedict Option:
How do we take Benedictine wisdom out of the monastery and apply it to the challenges of worldly life in the twenty-first century? It is to this question that we now turn. The way of Saint Benedict is not an escape from the real world but a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is. Benedictine spirituality teaches us to bear with the world in love and to transform it as the Holy Spirit transforms us. The Benedict Option draws on the virtues in the Rule to change the way Christians approach politics, church, family, community, education, our jobs, sexuality, and technology.
And it does so with urgency. When I first told Father Cassian about the Benedict Option, he mulled my words and replied gravely, “Those who don’t do some form of what you’re talking about, they’re not going to make it through what’s coming.”
Readers, I’m going to be away from the keys for much of today. I have scheduled a few posts to automatically publish throughout the day. You’ll have fresh reading, but approving comments is going to be slow. Thanks for your patience.