Yesterday I presented a brief history of the soil which gave birth monasticism (Click to read Part 1). In short, the monastics chose a life self denial, isolation and rigorous spiritual disciples out of faithful devotion to Jesus. While the movement often withdrew from society (whether individually or communally) they offered a prophetic call to the low-committment Church of the Roman Empire. For the monastics, being a Christian wasn’t a transaction or a label, it was a way of life.
We have much to learn from the monastics, but how can we take what we have learned and shape communities that aren’t only focused on formation, but also mission?
The Missional Stream of Missional-Monastic Community
Although the monastery was—and to some degree still is—a place that is primarily focused on personal and communal formation through a withdrawal from culture, it largely served as the birthplace of the missional movement
The Celtic Cross in Knock, Ireland
within Church history. St. Patrick and his successors began to plant seeds of the missional DNA within the soil of monasticism and the Church in the fifth century. Having been kidnapped and enslaved by the Irish as a youth, Patrick returned home to Britain with a divine conviction to return to Ireland and invite his persecutors into the way of Jesus.
Not content to withdraw from society for the sake of personal formation, Patrick birthed a new form of monastery— what George G. Hunter III terms “monastic communities”. Unlike previous monasteries, Patrick’s weren’t “organized to protest and escape from the materialism of the Roman world and the corruption of the Church; the Celtic monasteries were organized to penetrate the pagan world and to extend the Church.” These communities were committed to spiritual formation—both individually and communally—and they were fueled by the missio dei to be good news in their new and extremely different context. They were what I see as missional-monastic communities.
Throughout our Christian history, the church often struggled to consistently produce missional-monastic communities, communities that were committed to internal formation that directly influenced their external extension and engagement. The institutions often calcified, the monasteries often withdrew at the expense of missional engagement, and missions turned to violent colonialism.
Obviously the news isn’t all bad as the Spirit faithfully led and guided the changing Church through its dysfunctions as it continues to do today. With that said, I think these paradigms remain a helpful critique and corrective for the Church. It is not enough to be purely focused on formation or purely focused on mission. There must be a dynamic interdependence that allows the Spirit to shape and fuel both individuals and communities as they seek to faithfully participate in the missio dei.
How often do our faith communities amount to little more than Bible studies? Can the Bible be faithfully “studied” if it isn’t put into practice in the “classroom” of our neighborhood, city, or world?
In contrast, how often do we go on mission trips where we don’t really have any relationship with the people we are seeking to serve or any understanding of the context in which they live? We have plenty of “outreach” programs, but our relationships with God and with neighborhoods are nothing more than a passing wave.
We can neither remain withdrawn from society in our monasteries nor advance on mission without being fueled by the Spirit. So what does it look like to be a missional-monastic community today in the unique soil of our context?
Tomorrow — Part 3: Embodied Missional-Monastic Community
Mission is the work of God that the church simply participates in, not the work of the church that we ask God to bless. Jesus commissioned his disciples to join this mission, and the early church sought to faithfully form faith communities that would embody and advance the missio dei. Two major movements in church history have sought to faithfully embody and participate in the missio dei. These monastic and missional movements make up the foundation for the community we have been called to form and are the roots of our particular faith community (NieuCommunities).
I want to take the next few days to explore the history (it will only be brief!) and modern practice of missional-monastic community (some may call this New Monasticism). In the Church today there is a building movement for missional community and a resurgence of interest in the monastics.
What would our faith community’s look like if we were to glean the insights of formation from the monastics, while embracing our vocation of shared mission?
I will begin by taking a brief look at the development of monasticism and its implications on the way we form and live out community today.
The Monastic Stream of Missional-Monastic Community
As a grassroots, Spirit-driven movement, the early Church thrived under the heavy hand of the Roman Empire during the first three hundred years following Jesus’s life and ministry on earth. It was a movement that didn’t offer allegiance to Rome and the “divinely” appointed Caesar, but instead offered allegiance to Jesus. However, as Christianity became more widely accepted (the majority of Roman citizens became “Christians” during the fourth-century-reign of Constantine), Christian nominalism began to pervade the Church. The unique soil that had given birth to a cruciform faith was reduced to a label that required less and less abandon to the self-sacrificing way of Jesus. Christianity became “the thing to do” rather than the high calling of one submitted to the way of the cross.
It was this context and ecclesial reality that gave birth to monasticism. Of Egyptian ancestry, Anthony was raised in a wealthy Christian family; after a unique conversion experience, he gave all he had to the poor while choosing to pursue a life of asceticism. Withdrawing from society, Anthony spent the next twenty years of his life in an old fort in the mountains, eating and drinking sparingly as he gave his life to devotion of the contemplative life. For him and for many of his contemporaries, the radical call of Jesus to selfless sacrifice had been lost by the majority the Church, and they saw their intentional way of life as a needed corrective.
Anthony is now known as the Father of Monasticism because his way of life attracted disciples and sparked a new movement that served as a critique to a calcifying Church structure and commitment-less Christianity. Anthony’s fame spread throughout the Empire, and Emperor Constantine and his two sons even took the time and effort to seek out his counsel and prayer.
As the movement developed, it sparked a renewed submission to the radical call of Jesus and took a variety of forms—some much more extreme than others. For example, Simon the Stylite lived on top of a pillar east of Antioch for thirty-six years as he and others like him became known as “athletes of God” through their selfless sacrifice and devotion. In contrast, Pachomus, a fourth-century monastic, thought it best to pursue the monastic life in the context of community and pioneered the development of the monastery. His monastery became so popular that many others were started, and by the end of the fourth century, a developed Pachomian system had been established for the operation of the community.
Along the way, buildings were erected as a way to keep the world away from the cloistered community or monastery. For these monks, the ideal Christian life was not one of direct engagement with the world for the extension of the kingdom, but one of withdrawal out of a desire to be better formed into devoted, self-sacrificing followers of Jesus. Their witness was not through missions or evangelism, but by offering to the rest of the world a countercultural example of devotion.
It was in this context that the monastery became—and largely still remains—primarily an image of spiritual and communal formation rather than missional advancement and engagement. Although there is much more to the early monastic movement, it is this image of the monastery that I want to come back to and build upon for the sake of our conversation.
The monastics intentionally embarked on this way of life with a specific purpose of calling the Church back to its radical vocation to be a community rooted in the way of self sacrifice and obedience to Jesus. Have our churches become monasteries removed from missional engagement as a prophetic presence like the monastics or out of pious isolation? How might we create communities of formation and prophetic presence as a way of advancing our participation in the missio dei?
Tomorrow -- Part Two: Missional Stream of Missional-Monastic Community
While I have been at work on the development and writing of Thin Places: Six Postures for Creating and Practicing Missional Community for over a year, the contents are the culmination of over 10 years of lived theology, story and practice. While I love to write, this project has been uniquely fulfilling as it is the story of the life calling I (and my family!) have given ourselves to. It is not abstract theology or philosophy, but rooted in real relationships and experiences from a band of Jesus followers who are seeking to embody the Church everyday through communion with God, community with one another and deep engagement in our neighborhood.
Further, it is not my book. It is a book about community that was birthed and formed out of community. With the wise and seasoned partnership of Rob Yackley, I am simply stepping back and doing my best to share what God has been and continues to do among those apart NieuCommunities. We hope this sparks the imagination and practice of Jesus’ communities all over the globe.
There is both a book and a DVD small group curriculum (which I must say our publisher -- The House Studio -- did an INCREDIBLE job producing) that would be ideal for communities and churches to experience together. The small group videos were captured right here on the streets and in the homes of our NieuCommunites’ site here in Golden Hill (San Diego).
I appreciate your interest, am looking forward to hearing your stories of community transformation and would be grateful for any support in passing the word about this!
Thin Places releases June 12th. Huge thanks to Jon Hall and Peter Schrock for putting together this video.
Forward by Mark Scandrette, Author of Practicing the Way of Jesus and Executive Director at ReIMAGINE
There is currently an abundance of conversation and resources advocating for the Church to move from her congregational and attractional models towards more holistic, missional embodiments of the Church that submerge deep into the neighborhood. While conversations and resources are often valuable, it is essential that we move from conversation to tangible practices and practical application that enlivens our kingdom imagination for shared mission that is rooted in community and place.
NieuCommunities is a collective of missional-monastic communities scattered around the globe that have been living this out for the past 10 years. In this book, we share our “field notes” — through theology, story and experience – as a way to offer a tangible framework of rooted practices that develop apprentices of Jesus to live on mission in the unique soil of their local context.
While standing on a hill overlooking his community on the Island of Iona, the Celtic monk St. Columba began to pray. He described his experience as a thin place, a place where heaven and earth were only thinly separated. We hope this book sparks the imagination and practice of individuals and communities across the globe to cocreate their own unique thin places that aren’t simply a dream, but a daily and transforming reality.
Here’s what comes with the small group edition: -- DVD containing 6 video sessions with Jon Huckins and Rob Yackley -- 1 copy of Thin Places -- In-depth discussion questions to help you explore each topic -- Video Sessions
“I thoroughly loved this book and found myself saying ‘Amen’ at every page. A primer in incarnational mission by those who have lived it and taught it for well over a decade.” ~ Michael Frost, Author of The Shaping of Things to Come and The Road to Missional
“As God continues to call the church to it’s most powerful essence of missional communities, Thin Places offers an inspirational look into practices and postures that forge God’s people together and propel them outward.” ~ Hugh Halter, Author of The Tangible Kingdom, AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church, and Sacrilege
“Over the past decade interest in community life and neighborhood engagement have emerged as significant themes for a new generation of Christ followers who yearn for embodied and holistic spirituality. To thrive, this world-wild movement needs practical resources, born from historical awareness, thoughtful reflection and most importantly lived experience. Thin Places by Jon Huckins, is precisely this kind of storied resource, a tool that can equip groups to practice the way of Jesus and make a life together in their local contexts for the good of the world.” ~ Mark Scandrette, Author of Practicing the Way of Jesus and Executive Director at ReIMAGINE
“The terms ‘missional’ and ‘monastic’ are all too often tossed around by Christians as buzz words, an unfortunate reality given the importance of both terms. That is why ‘Thin Places’ is such a gift to the church! Not only do the authors understand and protect the integrity of both concepts, but bring them together in a way that points us towards an exciting future as God’s people actively living into His kingdom” ~ Jamie Arpin-Ricci, Pastor and Author of The Cost of Community:Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom
“The call of faith has always included living in community. The thing is, it is really hard. And there are not enough places where gritty community meets possibility. But, that is what I found in my time with NieuCommunities. These are people who welcomed me in, as a stranger and not only treated me as an honored guest, they made me part of the family. In short, these are people who know what they are doing in creating Christian community and Thin Places not only chronicles their experiences, but invites other communities to imagine how to do the same.” ~ Doug Pagitt, Pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, Author of Preaching Re-Imagined and Church Re-Imagined
“In the modern world of exponential speed and individual mobility, there is a growing hunger for a faith that can be lived out together… where we can be present… where there is an embodied practice… where the gospel becomes tangible in a particular place. NieuCommunities extends the rare gift of a transformative discipleship process that is full-bodied and place-based. Their longevity and fixity is in rich contrast to a world of quick-fix and fast-track! ~ Paul Sparks, Founding Co-Director Parish Collective
“It has become painfully obvious to many that the religious atmosphere of the West has drastically changed. Are we Christians still to be a people animated by the Gospel? If so, than more than ever, we need small bands of people like NieuCommunities that move into neighborhoods with the Gospel in their hearts and shaping how the live to change our communities for the sake of the Kingdom.” ~ Jason Evans, founder of the Ecclesia Collective
“You do not get to clarity alone. Gaining new understanding of what God desires of his followers comes only in the context of community. No one does community better than the NieuCommunities tribe who value both authentic life change as well as missional impact. For over ten years NieuCommunities has formed people who look, love, act, and live like Jesus. This new book chronicles their journey and gives those passionate to live different, for Christ, hope. I highly recommend this read.” ~ Terry Walling, President of Leader Breakthru and Author of Stuck!
There is a “come and see” authenticity about NieuCommunities that is so reminiscent of Jesus calling the disciples out of fishing boats on the shore of Lake Galilee I can almost taste the salt air. At the same time, the “come and see” community is balanced by a “go and do” mission that gives me hope for inside-out change in neighborhoods in the global city. At a time when many are talking about missional communities, NieuCommunities quietly and expertly goes about doing it—forming young men and women and transforming neighborhoods. The vitality of NieuCommunities is less about what is being said than what is being lived. You’ll want to read this book and listen to their story. ~ John Hayes, founder of innerCHANGE and Author of Submerge and Living Deep in a Shallow World.
“As the Church is rediscovering its missional ethos within a post-Christian culture that has been saturated with religious consumerism and nominal commitment, we have needed communities that could model a new path forward for us. NieuCommunities has done just that and I excitedly anticipate a book that captures their journey.” ~ Kyle Osland, Pastor at Icon Church, San Diego.
”I have had the privilege of seeing the NieuCommunities mentoring year up close as a pastor of a church community in which both mentors and apprentices have participated. I can witness to the transforming impact their mentoring has had on people. In an age when we are so often (de)formed by default by the forces of consumerism and individualism, NieuCommunities offers an alternative formation: intentional mentoring relationships shaped by kingdom practices of community, service, cultural engagement, scripture and prayer. Surely this way of mentoring is a vital pathway for re-forming the church to participate in the mission of God.” ~ Tim Dickau, Pastor of Grandview Church, Vancouver, B.C. and Author of Plunging Into the Kingdom Way: Practicing the Shared Strokes of Community, Hospitality, Justice, and Confession
“The Christian Scriptures tells us that in the present life we will receive hundredfold in houses and for many of us that’s hard to believe but at NieuCommunities you get to experience this reality come true. Where there is a NieuCommunities there you will find people with houses ready to share with all who come to find rest and it is by this commitment to hospitality that we experience the Scriptures coming alive.” ~ Darin Petersen of Relational Tithe and The Simple Way
Although I’ve spent one semester as a seventh and eighth grade science teacher, I don’t claim to be a scientist.
In fact, in high school and college, it was the subject I avoided the most. Years later, I started to take seriously my role as a communicator and discovered the significance of science in relation to my understanding of how best to engage listeners with the Story of God.
It turns out that learning more about the science of listening can actually change the way you and I teach kids in our ministries.
Listening is central to the growth and development of everyone who can hear. Studies show that 53% of class time for a U.S. college student is spent listening.1 For the same demographic, nearly 12 hours out of a 24-hour day are spent in some form of listening activity.2 The often unspoken reality is that listening does not necessarily constitute learning, content retention or a willingness to believe information. In contrast, some studies show that we remember a mere 25% of the content we are presented.3
Why so little? Students tend to listen for facts, but get easily distracted. Their listening is sidetracked by noise, daydreaming, or chasing another topic altogether. And often, students listen without being interested in the subject at hand in the first place.4
With all this being said, the task of an effective communicator is not to be taken lightly. Some argue that offering convincing statistics engages the listener and creates lasting impact, but experts also tell us that people quickly dismiss statistics that are inconsistent with their beliefs.5
On the other hand, fictional stories—which often can be processed very efficiently with minimal effort and high recall—engage a phenomenon called “suspension of disbelief,” which can lead to tangible change.6 Employing the art of storytelling, I once wrote and told a story to my teenagers whose main character, Chloe, dealt with depression, loneliness and cutting. I shared it over the course of a few weeks at our mid-week gathering, but I could see that one teenager was especially impacted. During my second week of telling the story, this teenager stood up and quickly walked out of the room in distress. One of our youth workers followed close behind and found out that this teenager also struggled with cutting and could no longer walk alone in the struggle.
This student suspended disbelief and chose to be engaged by story. This ancient form of storytelling—Jewish Agada (Rabbinical Storytelling)—had become so real to her that she began wrestling with some of the biggest issues she’d ever faced in her young life. She heard Chloe’s story and realized that it was her story. For this reason, some in the medical field have implemented storytelling as a mode of healthcare communication, bringing attention to issues ranging from suicide to AIDS prevention.
Communication expert Dr. Brian Leggett says, “A story is a narrative which actively engages the listener’s sense-making faculties. It helps the listener to make sense of what is being said and to make the right associations. It helps the listener to think widely by stimulating his or her imagination.”7
We’ve discovered that storytelling can break down walls of cynicism and mental distraction and lead listeners toward engagement. The art, then, is in assimilating fiction into belief. In order to practice that art of assimilation, we need to create intentional dialog and discussion.
Less Preaching, More Conversation
As youth workers who are passionate about inviting our students into the Story of God, it is important that we follow in the footsteps of our Rabbi, Jesus. Jesus was the master storyteller, and true to Rabbinic tradition, one-third of his teaching was done through the art of storytelling. Similar to Jesus’ parables, modern day storytelling is a method that might provoke more questions than answers. The story becomes a conversation starter, not a conversation finisher. This isn’t always true, of course. As youth listen and engage in the story, they can process some of the answers because the story meets every teenager in a different spot of their faith experience.
Where the story is the conversation starter, the follow-up discussion and dialogue is the conversation continuer. (I would say “finisher,” but most often that’s not the case.) It’s paramount that we communicators open up times of honest dialogue and questioning. Just like a rousing conversation after a good movie, most of the impact and application will occur after we tell the story. It’s like spending a large amount of time setting the table and displaying a beautiful meal, and now it’s time to call our guests to sit around the table and take it all in. We communicators become not simply the primary medium for communication but hosts of a feast of questions and conversation.
Does this mean we simply offer up our opinions and spiritual insights through our stories and then let them all be cast out into a sea of subjectivity? Absolutely not. It’s very important that we keep the group centered on the topic while still leaving room for honest conversation and questions.8
However, we must keep in mind that our teenagers are told conflicting stories and “truths” all the time, whether they’re at school, on the sports field, at home, or in some form of relationship. Let’s allow our teaching to give way to guided, thoughtful, and Spirit-led conversation in the hopes of inspiring them to begin the process of entering into a living, active, and very real relationship with Jesus.
If Only I Had a Guitar in My Hands
I have a friend named Robbie. He’s been a part of our high school community for the last three years or so. For the most part, he attends our gatherings and is well liked and respected by his peers and adult leaders.
Robbie is a guitar freak. He plays it, listens to others play it, and flat-out lives it. And I have no doubt that he’d be proud of that description. He has the long curly locks of most “good” rockers, a penchant for tie-dyed shirts, and an endless supply of Converse shoes. When I ask Robbie what his favorite activity is at any given point in the day, he puts his index finger over his closed mouth and ponders his response. Fitting to his character, he responds, “I would have to say either listening to guitar riffs of my favorite artists on CD or playing my guitar without distraction.” This kid would eat his guitar if such a feat wouldn’t scratch it.
Robbie also is a very intellectual and thoughtful student of the Christian life. He’s not afraid to ask hard questions, and he’s a model to many regarding how to live a life of honest transparency and openness to accountability. I respect him very much. That said, Robbie has a hard time focusing during any kind of teaching because he self-admittedly drifts off into guitar world within about two minutes of the start of the talk. He recently told me (during a time when I was not teaching through story, incidentally) that he was really interested in what I had to say and would like to know more. But he just couldn’t pull himself away from pondering how to “play that A-minor with a harmonic that the Allman Brothers nail every time” in one of his favorite two hundred songs of theirs. (I felt so affirmed and self-assured in regard to my teaching abilities after hearing that—defeated by an A-minor with a harmonic. Awesome!)
As a result, while Robbie would often come to our weekly gatherings on Thursday nights, during the talk he’d either play his guitar (outside) or do his best to listen for at least a few minutes.
Then we started a new story.
I don’t remember the topic exactly, but there was something about it that caught Robbie’s attention. And not the two-minute span I was used to seeing, but twenty minutes of attention followed by thirty minutes of dialogue attention. At this point I began wrestling with some of the ideas articulated above. Scientifically, what was it about storytelling that allowed an otherwise hard-to-capture mind like Robbie’s to actively participate in what I was saying? There had to be something to it.
And apparently there is.
I’m not proposing you scratch all your future teaching and permanently teach through story. I don’t! But teaching through the art of storytelling is a great communication tool to add to our communication toolbox as we seek to engage and invite our teenagers into the dynamic Story of God.
Consider teaching your next topic series through story (i.e. sex & dating, forgiveness, etc…)
Instead of preparing a three point propositional teaching, begin to build an outline of your story as a modern day parable, while taking into close consideration your audience and context. As a 1st century Rabbi in the Roman Empire, Jesus was exceptional at this.
Create characters, a setting and plot that integrate Scripture and illuminates your topic. Try to develop characters and setting that your teenagers can relate to and have fun with it!
Prepare follow-up discussion questions that unpack your story, which ground it in the everyday realities of your teenagers.
Tell your story with confidence and conviction! You can tell your whole story in one night or you can tell it over the course of a few weeks and build momentum by ending each session on a cliffhanger. Your teenagers will hardly be able to wait to come back and hear the rest of the story!
Follow up with group conversation, questions and dialog that allow the main points of your story to take root in the hearts and minds of your teenagers.
Jon Huckins is the Co-Founding Director of The Global Immersion Project, Missional Leadership Coach with Thresholds, family man, speaker & author of Thin Places & Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling
Books by Jon Huckins
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