Walking as Jesus Walked

Having the Mind of Christ

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The New Monasticism & New Methodists

Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community, Elaine A. Heath and Scott T. Kisker, Forward by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2010), 104 pp.

It was amidst the ruins of World War II that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the need to practice “a new kind of monasticism” in the church. With the churches in Germany seriously comprised Bonhoeffer realized how the church had lost the capacity to view “history from the underside” and the ability to speak in defense of the voiceless victims of terror. There was a need, he wrote, to find creative ways of practicing “life together” in community.

That need still persists. In Longing for Spring professors of evangelism Elaine Heath (Perkins) and Scott Kisker (Wesley) write about the importance of the new monasticism in the church today. Writing within the Wesleyan tradition, Heath and Kisker speak to how the church must not simply strive to ride the turbulent waters of change and strive for self-preservation but must also find meaningful ways to embody the good news to share with the world. The new monastic movement must develop imaginative ways of navigating these waters and explore new avenues of sharing a robust vision for Christian discipleship. Heath and Kisker want to engage the church in how the new monasticism may contribute to this ongoing conversation in the church and how the new monasticism may deepen life among what they call the “New Methodists.” Their work grows out of ongoing contact with this movement, along with a deep desire for renewal in the church.

Heath and Kisker divide their work into six chapters. They begin by sharing their own stories of faith (Chapter 1) and then move to offer two helpful chapters on Intentional Community and Renewal (Chapter 2) and Protestant Models of Intentional Community (Chapter 3). Persons familiar with the new monasticism will pick up on the Rule of Faith developed by Saint Benedict and the other forms of intentional community practiced throughout the church’s history – e.g., the Beguines, the Brethren of the Common, the Pietists, and the Methodists, to name a few. The next major section of the book deals with “What the New Methodists Want” and the need to develop a “Rule of Life” within the Wesleyan community (Chapters 4 & 5). Here, the focus is on the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition and the resources this tradition can provide for renewal in the church. With honesty and integrity, Heath and Kisker address what the “New Methodists” want and what they will mean to The United Methodist Church. Nothing less than developing a new monastic order is at stake, along with the concrete examples of what this order may entail for the future (Chapter 6). Heath and Kisker provide three helpful appendices and bibliography at the end that groups and churches can utilize.

Heath and Kisker’s Longing for Spring raises several issues that persons involved in the teaching of evangelism will want to note. First, with a great deal of resources now available with respect to the missional and emergent church movements, professors and practioners of evangelism will want to learn how the new monastic movement converges and diverges with these current streams of renewal in the church. Here, the notion of trend or fad comes to mind: Is the new monasticism something that will “stick” or will it come and go along with other forms of spiritual formation? Time will tell. Second, how may those within the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition converse with those who are part of the “New Methodists”? Heath and Kisker’s work opens up several doors for further discussion. The question now is, “How may this discussion continue in the days ahead?” Their ideas about the role of “anchor congregations,” their re-appropriation of the General Rules, their focus on the “marks of conversion,” their stress on integrating the new monasticism into theological education – all point to a promising venture. We can only hope others will hear what they are saying.

It is at this juncture, however, that an observation arises with respect to Heath and Kisker’s proposal: Longing for Spring reflects a deep yearning in the church for the retrieval of those treasures or practices that will assist in renewal. There is a sense in which they want the church to rummage in the attic to retrieve what has been lost. And yet, what is striking, at least with respect to the listings in the bibliography, is the advocacy of Phyllis Tickle’s metaphor in her The Great Emergence of the church having a “rummage sale” every five hundred years as new forms of church emerge (p. 82). Not to go down the road of total disregard of Tickle’s argument with respect to her underlying Gnostic assumptions regarding history, but a concern does arise over how the church wants to situate itself along the ancient-future paradigm: What are the governing metaphors that can assist us today in the work of renewal? That is, might we not want to have a moment when we clean out the attic to discover what we have lost rather than have a sale to sell off what we need? It would be a shame if the church put out signs saying “closed” or “half-priced” before seriously realizing what treasures are there to salvage and use.

Heath and Kisker’s work needs to be read in local churches and seminaries. It is part of the ongoing journey toward renewal that the church longs to see.

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