The following opinion piece by Rod Dreher appeared in today’s issue of the New York Times. It is a MUST-READ for Christians in America today.
While decrying the hypocrisy of many in the evangelical right for their unwavering support of Donald Trump, he rightly points out that
“The most pressing problem Christianity faces is not in politics. It’s in parishes. It’s with pastors. Most of all, it’s among an increasingly faithless people.”
Leaders in the long-time mainline churches: Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian have seen a steady decline in their membership over the last decades. People, especially younger ones, are abandoning the churches of their fathers and mothers in shocking numbers. Dreher quotes a 2014 Pew study that reveals “more than one in three millennials refuse to identify with a religious tradition – a far higher number than among older Americans.”
My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) reports a total membership of 1,482,767 active members in 2016 (one of whom is NOT Donald Trump) while the same denomination in Kenya has a total membership of approximately 4,000,000. The problem obviously does not lie with the teachings of the church, but with the culture and expectations of the people who attend it.
We are seeing a generation that looks for entertainment not spiritual nourishment or discipline. Unfortunately, many churches cater to their youth by feeding them what I call “spiritual junk food.” It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the churches in the United States that are seeing major growth in their numbers are the ones that are led by people like Joel Osteen who preach “Jesus is your buddy” and “everyone deserves to be rich and happy.”
Christianity is simple; but it is not easy
In the 1930s German theologian and anti-Nazi Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book “The Cost of Discipleship” about the concept of “cheap grace.” He said “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without requiring church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Dreher also references a statement by Pope Benedict XVI saying that the spiritual crisis the West faces is worse than anything since the fifth-century fall of the Roman Empire. Dreher then states “This is why St. Benedict of Nursia is so relevant to Christians today.”
St. Benedict founded the Benedictine order to counter the decline and decadence prevalent in Rome at the time. It was also an era of increasing warfare as invading barbarians ravaged the Italian countryside. He sought out solitude and, with a small band of followers, developed a radical and Gospel-based way of living. “The Rule of St. Benedict” which Benedict himself called “a little rule for beginners” is short, understanding of human failings, and has provided a bastion throughout the centuries for innumerable monasteries founded in his name.
For those who remember the book “How The Irish Saved Civilization” – it was Benedictine monks living in Ireland who deserve the credit.
The Rule is based on leading a balanced life of work, prayer, and rest. The fundamental tenets are those of humility, obedience, and a continual striving to seek God. It is a gentle rule and one that, in many ways, can be followed by lay members who do not live within the confines of a monastery. There is even a special group for such people, known as Oblates. They do not make vows, but “promise” to live according to the Rule as best as they can in the world. One does not even have to be Catholic to become an oblate as this Presbyterian writer can affirm.
Dreher sees the Benedictine path as one that can save Christianity in an ever-increasingly secular world He wrote “In the early Middle Ages, the churches and monasteries were those tiny arks carrying the faith and faithful across a dark and stormy sea. The can be once again. And must.”
Dreher is also the author of the New York Times best-selling book “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation” where he “argues that the way forward is actually the way back – all the way to St. Benedict of Nursia.
Discipline, balance, humility, and prayer are virtues that every Christian of every denomination should strive to achieve. One does not have to be a monk or an oblate to seek the Benedictine path. The teachings of a sixth century monk may well be the salvation for 21st century Christianity.