Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 9, no. 2 (Summer–Fall 2018)

group Conference Article

Radical, Communal, Bearing Witness: The Church as God’s Mission in Bruderhof Perspective and Practice

Charles E. Moore

This paper reflects on the relationship between three themes—restorationism, new monasticism, and missional ecclesiology—from the perspective of the Bruderhof, an international Christian movement of intentional communities. The author concludes that if the church today is serious about being genuinely missional as a people, if it is intent on restoring the eschatological witness and vision of the apostolic church, then all of us must consider a new way of being the church together.

Our topic is: “Missional, Monastic, Restorationist?” The conjunction of these three motifs is not only interesting but timely. Much attention has been given recently to the interrelationship between the church’s missional and formational tasks. Emphasis upon ecclesial, liturgical, and spiritual formation define the later, while strategy, messaging, and contextualization have characterized the former. In their book, Missional. Monastic. Mainline.,1 Elaine Heath and Larry Duggins creatively and thoughtfully reflect on what it means to be both missional and monastic (formational) within the Mainline tradition. Their thoughts grow out of the recent neo-monastic movement2 but also from current missional theology, which re-envisions the biblical story and the relevance of the incarnation in terms of what God is doing in the world.3 A slate of books and articles have picked up these two seminal ideas, emphasizing one or the other or both.

So how might these two notions, being missional and monastic, interface with the restorationist tradition? This is the central question, and it is here that I run into a quandary. These three motifs are linguistically and theologically problematic within the framework from which I see and experience things. The Bruderhof, an Anabaptist communal church of which I am a member, is neither strictly missional, monastic, nor restorationist, at least not in the usual understanding of those terms. Drawing more directly from the Sermon on the Mount and the early church’s eschatological orientation, we strive to proleptically “restore” a more integral and socially dynamic understanding of “church” and “mission”—one that in daily life attempts to demonstrate the impinging reality of God’s coming kingdom.

Ecclesial Context

Before proceeding further, let me describe in more detail my particular ecclesial context.4 The Bruderhof is an international Christian movement of singles and families that began in 1920 in post-war Germany. This is important. Eberhard Arnold, a theologian, publisher, and sought-after speaker, came to the conclusion, with his wife Emmy, that the German church was not only theologically compromised but complicit in the atrocities of the war—something abhorrent to the nonviolent way of the cross. The state church had not only lost its biblical and theological mooring but its spiritual vitality and social credibility. It had sold-out to nationalism, economic imperialism, and the idols of technological progress, materialism, and wanton individualism. It had to repent and begin again.

Inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, the early Christians, and the first Anabaptists, Arnold and others threw in their lot together and forged a communal settlement, sharing all things in common: possessions, work, daily life, housing, and however else they could—all in an attempt to express God’s new order of peace, justice, unity, and love. The heartbeat of their new-found venture was to bear witness to the transforming power of Christ’s life and death, in which all things could be made new. What Jesus taught and what the first Christians experienced could be lived out today.5 Poverty of spirit and the Beatitudes were real; peacemaking, forgiveness, and reconciliation are possible; sexual integrity, marital fidelity, and the childlike spirit could be celebrated and preserved; uncompromising truthfulness, love for one’s enemy, un-hypocritical, non-pious devotion in simplicity could be genuinely practiced; and finally, social and economic equality, the elimination of poverty, the experience of spiritual, social, and material unity in expectation of God’s final future were all realizable in God’s new community—the church.

From a very humble beginning, the Bruderhof now consists of thirty communities on five continents.6 Those communities vary in size and shape, existing in a variety of settings: urban, non-urban, and rural. Our life together consists of a common table, common property, common work, common education, and a variety of other common endeavors. We live together and make decisions together. Young and old are cared for, and serving one another takes priority over where we live or what kind of work we do. Our community is based on submission to Christ and to one another, manifested in our willingness to consider the needs of others before one’s own and a commitment to forgive one another in a spirit of reconciliation. In short, our life together is our worship; it is the best way we know how to honor God and further his mission on earth. This life of community is possible not because we are striving toward some utopian ideal or trying to emulate some pristine ecclesial pattern but because we have been moved by the Spirit to believe in and proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom of justice has come in Christ and is at hand today.

With this as our backdrop, I now want to consider, in reverse order, the aforementioned motifs and how they might be understood and lived out within our own communal context.

The Restorationist Impulse

Regarding the restorationist motif, with its stress upon freedom and the primitive apostolic church, I want to highlight the often-neglected eschatological dimension of restorationism. When we think of American restorationism, and its European Anabaptist counterpart known as restitutionism, what comes to mind is the attempt to overcome the extra-biblical traditions and practices that have crept into and divided the church.7 How can this be done? By appealing to the pure lines of the apostolic early church as described in the New Testament. For Anabaptists in particular, restoration (or restitution) primarily meant, in the words of Franklin Littell, “to relive in studied fashion” the life of the New Testament community in all its facets.8 For many Anabaptists this resulted in a definite ecclesial pattern or set of essential prescribed practices.

Robert Friedmann has argued, however, that for many early radical reformers it was not the exact emulation of the primitive church per se that concerned them, nor even the historic re-establishment of something that had previously been lost or abandoned.9 It was simple obedience to Christ in terms of discipleship. It was in this sense that Eberhard Arnold turned to the early church. Following Ludwig Keller’s lead, Arnold believed that the true church, or Gemeinde, was never actually lost; it has manifested itself as a perennial community of believers, albeit in a myriad of expressions, both before and after Constantine.10 It is not important that the primitive apostolic church provides some fixed, normative, timeless pattern.11 What is important is spiritual affinity, or identifying the original stream of God’s Spirit as it manifests itself in different historically situated contexts. Despite the fall of the church under Constantine and other deviations since, the true church has always existed somewhere, usually in fresh and new ways other than established structures, even if it is not always readily identifiable. Again and again, God’s church makes itself manifest.12

For Eberhard Arnold, the Radical Reformation was neither a turn backward nor “a new movement that had never previously existed.”13 Through it the freedom and power of the gospel had come alive in a new and different way, best described by the watchword imitatio Christi (the imitation of Christ)—the discipleship of Christ. These words especially, according to Arnold, are the “evangelion katexochen—the gospel at its sharpest and most definite, and in its clearest and broadest form.”14 This is what the Roman church corrupted and what the magisterial reformers failed to fully honor.

Take the issue of believer’s baptism. According to Arnold, the issue was not essentially a religious dispute but a disagreement over the nature of the church and whether the church should rely on the state. Contrary to Zwingli, the radicals rejected the notion that the state was necessary to further the cause of Christ. The true church, filled with the Spirit, did not need the power of the sword, nor did the state’s cultural task need buttressing by the church. In light of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, the real issue regarding believer’s baptism was the separation of church and state. The church’s task was not the repression of evil through force but the redemption of evil through love and costly discipleship.15

This is why, in 1523, Conrad Grebel, along with several other radicals, went on to make a sharp attack on capital, interest, and church taxes, demanding their total abolition. These were incongruent with the character and Spirit of Christ’s teachings and the life of the church as depicted in Acts. The church consists of believers who voluntarily give all they have so that no one is left in need. This body politic has nothing to do with capital, interest, or other forms of profiteering. Hence the radicals challenge to Ulrich Zwingli: “You are too slow and too lukewarm in all things concerning the true church and the kingdom of God. Don’t you realize which way the times are pointing? Don’t you see where the Spirit of God is blowing? Now is the time to act with the greatest and holiest sincerity!”16

The first Anabaptists, therefore, understood restoration in eschatological terms: radically forward. It was this eschatological impulse that inspired Eberhard Arnold to live in total community. The true and living church must be free from the powers and principalities of this world, the powers of injustice and violence. Only in this way can the fullness of the gospel, ruled and guided by the pentecostal spirit of expectation, be lived out. God’s word must not only be free from the state but be free to empower the church to embody the powers of the future. The church’s tasks, in whatever hour of history it finds itself, is to bear witness to the living word as a proleptic foretaste of things yet to come. Such certainty and faith in the “last days” is what compelled Zwingli to finally say of Grebel, “He talks as though the Messiah had already come.”17

This is the key to the church’s unity—not a timeless form or an ecclesiastical pattern statically frozen in Scripture but a common witness to the coming reign of God. For this reason, we in the Bruderhof have never been interested in copying the early church, nor the early Anabaptists. We only seek to embody the apostolic spirit manifest in both. The true church throughout the ages always lives messianically—radically in God’s future centered in Christ by the power of the Spirit.

The Monastic Impulse

What then of the monastic, or neo-monastic, impulse? As we know, this motif has received a great deal of attention lately, most notably with Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option. I won’t try to describe that option or define exactly what neo-monasticism is, but two features stand out: community and contemplative practice. These two elements rely on and reinforce one another. Elaine Heath and Larry Duggins highlight this in their book. They argue that the conventional or traditional model of church, with its buildings and programs, must be reformed or at least seriously complimented. What we need now is a greater, more deliberate effort to establish micro-churches or communities—gatherings and households that meet together in alternative spaces with the aim of connecting people with a more meaningful expression of the church. The church must become an anchor for new monastic, missional communities, which attract real followers of Jesus, not just spiritual consumers. This means building a thicker community life together with a common rule that is inclusive, nonviolent, healing, and transformative.18

In a similar vein, Alan Roxburgh, in Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World, argues that the traditional, institutional church (as well as other social institutions) no longer works; it is unravelling. The good news, however, is that underneath the unravelling, God is up to something. “The Spirit is busy re-founding the church for our time.”19 It is showing us how to embody a way of life that makes space for alternative patterns of organizing life together—not more and better church programming that tries harder and harder to attract people, but a thicker sense of community that joins people together more holistically and organically.20

This emphasis upon community is coupled with contemplative, liturgical, and other monastic-type practices. David Fitch, in his book, Faithful Presence, argues that it is these very practices that shape us to be a community. God’s people must be “disciplined” around a rule of life that actually forms them into the story of God: daily disciplines of prayer, meditation, singing, listening to God’s word, along with regular practices of confession, reconciliation, Eucharist, fasting, giving, and serving. When we take these practices seriously, he argues, “it is impossible to locate the church inside four walls of a building.”21 Without disciplines that shape us into a community, the church otherwise remains an event. We fail to take shape as a cohesive social reality. As a people and as a result we tend to stay as a group, as individuals.”22 The result? God’s word, as well as his people, become disembodied and dismembered, torn apart by a fragmented and fragmenting world.

This fresh emphasis upon community and monastic practice resonates deeply with us in the Bruderhof. For the past five years I have served on the steering committee of the Nurturing Communities Network—a network that has grown out of the neo-monastic movement, which links established communities with emerging, young micro-communities. The Bruderhof has not only hosted several network gatherings, but our community members regularly visit and work alongside these communities.

But as laudable as these effort are, there is something that is lacking. For us, community isn’t something we have or do or make; it is not something we strive to build or foster, least of which within the matrix of a traditional ecclesial structure. Rather, it is something we are. Church and community are one and the same. The church, in essence, is a community of the Spirit; it is our everyday life together in Christ that encompasses all the facets of living. It short, our life together as a church is (or at least strives to be) the communal harbinger of God’s future reign of justice and peace. For us, the church is neither a place, nor an event, nor a set of discrete practices that are performed at certain set times—religious or otherwise. It is life together as God’s people. Any practices that follow only nurture and protect what we already are in Christ. These practices don’t so much form or shape us but give expression to and reinforce who we already are. Community is not a quality or some attribute of the church; it is the form in which the kingdom manifests itself in the world. It is the context from which we as the church live out Christ’s teachings, through which God’s mission is fulfilled on earth, and toward which we hasten the coming of God’s reign.

The Missional Impulse

This leads us to the final motif of mission. As with the monastic motif, a great deal of serious thought and creative energy is currently being spent on re-conceptualizing what the church’s missionary task is in the world. Concerns over how mission and evangelism have been hijacked to serve the exploitive interests of empire, including the marketplace, combined with the rapid decline and irrelevance of traditional church life, along with the loss of faith and spiritual vitality among those engaged in various social, political, economic, and environmental causes, have forced people to reimagine what missional ecclesiology should be like. A number of emphases have emerged.

First, there is a renewed emphasis on how God is already at work in the world, beyond the four walls of the church. According to Heath and Duggins, God’s work can be especially seen amongst the vulnerable, among society’s marginalized and oppressed.23 Gone are the days when we try to get people into the church. Our priority is to be a faithful presence amongst our neighbors in very specific, local contexts. It is not behind the pulpit or in the pew or in any other sacred religious space that God accomplishes his greatest work. Moreover, we must not conceive of mission in terms of what the church can do on behalf of God and for the world; rather, we must, in the words of Roxburgh, “frame our lives around questions about God’s actions in our neighborhoods and how to join with God in these places.”24 How? By embodying a way of life (community) in the places where ordinary life unfolds—listening to our neighbors, relying on their hospitality, travelling lightly in order to make space for alternative patterns of organizing life together.25

In other words, mission is about being incarnational—participating in existing networks of relationships, friendships, and acquaintances in neighborhoods, especially among those at risk.26 This demands “contextualizing” the gospel so that it can be encoded in such a way that it becomes meaningful to the respondent, meets people’s deepest needs, and penetrates their worldviews, thus “allowing them to follow Christ and remain in their own cultures.”27 We don’t have to divide the world between those who are “in” and those who are “outside” the church. Every sphere or area or domain of existence is “a potential arena of God’s presence.”28

To be missional, then, according to Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen, in their book, The New Parish, involves “sharing life together and living in the midst of the everyday realities of a particular place.”29 This includes having a more “profound connection to the cultural life of the area . . . with personal and group practices that knit together an embodied fabric of caring relationships.”30 In other words, we as the church must learn anew to craft “a life together in a definable place” (parish) amidst “all the relationships (including the land) where the local church lives out its faith together.”31

When this happens, neighborhoods are transformed and flourish. The church involves everyday life together in the parish and for the sake of the parish. Worship is thus not an “event” but a way of life. “The worship gathering rehearses who you are and the type of people you long to be together as you live out your faith in the parish throughout the week. . . . At the center of church practice is faithful presence in the parish.”32

What does this faithful presence entail? It means diving into the new commons, which simply means all that we as people share with others—“all the dimensions of life for which everyone in your neighborhood shares a common concern.”33 All aspects of the commons must feel the effects of the church’s faithful presence. Take economy, for example. The dominant version of how our consumer economy works is broken and unsatisfying. The church can subvert it by looking for ways to invigorate the local economy. Instead of a consumer economy, it can bolster a gift economy by investing and starting local enterprises comprised of neighbors who strive to live justly.

As with the monastic motif, there are many aspects to this approach to mission that we in the Bruderhof can relate to and affirm. The Word was not just announced; it became flesh. For us, however, a misplaced emphasis upon the commons risks undermining the community we desire and are called to be. Whatever else the church might do, it must exemplify in its life together an “otherness,” something different from a life based on the values and practices that stem from private property, personal autonomy, and other systems of power. Yes, God is at work in the least likely places but God is uniquely and most vividly at work in the church—not the four walls of a building or during certain sacred hours, but in the very warp and woof of a shared, total life dedicated to consecrating every facet of the ordinary.

The church is not just a gathering of people, whether large or small, that does mission; it is a contiguous social reality that prefigures, not just symbolically but concretely, God’s mission of transforming all things in Christ. Its very life is missional because its task is to make visible collectively what the Spirit can do when people repent and live by faith. In this way it actually has something to proclaim and invite people into—rich, poor, and anyone else oppressed under the weight of this world’s fallen systems. Being missional doesn’t just mean rubbing shoulders with neighbors and performing quiet, concrete deeds of love and service, but serving the world together as a radical, subversive alternative. That demands sacrificing the world’s patterns and priorities for the sake of manifesting the redemptive otherness of God’s kingdom.

In our own experience, given time and patience, opportunities naturally open up where we can relate to and serve the wider local community. Through our publishing work, which includes publishing timely books and a quarterly magazine (http://www.plough.com), and in reaching out to others—our neighbors, public officials, and those who serve in public institutions—the input we give and the contributions we make are often welcomed. Where possible, we seek to find ways to come alongside others to better the commons and make it a more livable, humanizing place. While these spheres are designed to serve the common good, we do not pretend to know how best to govern them or fundamentally improve them. That is not our goal. Besides, the epicenter of God’s mission lies elsewhere. This is why, whether through our neighborhood daycare center, prison work, nonviolence program for students, work with refugees, or other ways we try to be a neighbor, those who know us understand that our allegiance is to a different social order, one that runs counter to consumer capitalism, partisan politics, and lifestyles of leisure. But joined with this, they also know that we value friendship and cooperation despite differences. Ultimately, and hopefully, through our life together they get a glimpse into what life could be like and what God’s coming future will be like.

This may all sound very missional, yet it is different from the transformational focus that is being emphasized today. We believe that if we focus too much on transforming the commons, renewing neighborhoods, and looking for how God is at work in various “third places,” we risk undermining the most precious thing the church has to offer: itself. We can too easily forget how radical the church’s missional task really is: to incarnate concretely Jesus’s will and way and call people to it. This can only be achieved when people actually see what such a life is like. This is what it means to be missional: to prove by our life together that this world “is passing away” (1 John 2:8). Mammon has indeed been defeated on the cross; consumer capitalism and private property, with its legal and coercive apparatus, need no longer dictate or define how we live and work and care for each other. The church has something even better than a gift-economy: the giving up of everything economy! It is in living justly together as family that we as disciples make manifest the power of the good news in the ordinary and everyday realities of a particular place. Faithful presence without radical witness will invariably result in a fatigued and enculturated church—the very thing that is generating so many new models of community and mission. Without a visible, viable, social alternative, the church cannot effectively or fully further God’s mission of transforming all things in Christ. It loses its eschatological significance.

Summary

So where does this all lead? On the one hand, the current interest in monasticism, as well as in the church’s missional task, is extremely promising. The ways in which we have understood church are changing and indeed need to be changed. For us in the Bruderhof, this is exciting. Practices that form us together into a thicker life of community are vital to faith and mission. On the other hand, the changes many thinkers and practitioners are advancing are, in my estimation, not radical enough. Their vision of church community is, in the end, too thin, and their vision of mission too untethered from Christ’s ultimate mission: to become head over all things for the church (Eph 1:22).

I don’t pretend for a moment that we in the Bruderhof have gotten it right. We are not some shining example. We have to fight the tendency of becoming too focused on our communal life together, because we are prone to mistake the common practices we share, or our form of life, with the Spirit that should animate it, and we too easily forget that our community life should serve the higher purpose of God, which is the reconciliation all things. We, like everyone else, need to think in fresh ways about what it means to authentically bear witness to the gospel. But if the church today is serious about being genuinely missional as a people, if it is intent on restoring the eschatological witness and vision of the apostolic church, then all of us must consider a brand new way of being the church together. This is the most radically missional thing we can do in a world that is fast falling to pieces. The Spirit that descended at that first Pentecost after the resurrection and was testified to by the first apostles always reconciles and gathers; this Spirit ultimately gives birth to an altogether different kind of social reality. When this occurs, an ecclesial (not to mention institutional) upheaval happens—a radical reconfiguration emerges that displaces conventional ways of being God’s people. A new kind of Spirit-filled community, one that gives rise to a concrete, social, and revolutionary way of being the church is born. And whenever this happens, the imaginations and longings of those who are famished with a hunger for a genuine, relevant Christianity find themselves swept along by the Spirit.

Charles E. Moore resides with his wife and daughter in Esopus, New York, and is a member of the Bruderhof community, a movement based on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and the witness of the first Christians as described in the book of Acts. He currently teaches at the Mount Academy. He is also a pastor and an editor, author, and blogger for Plough Publishing. He is co-editor of the Blumhardt Series and his works include Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (Plough, 2002), Action in Waiting: Sermons by Christoph Blumhardt (Plough, 1998), Leo Tolstoy: Spiritual Writings (Orbis, 2006), Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship (Plough, 2016), and the award winning book, Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People (Plough, 2016). Moore oversees Acts2onCampus, an initiative to reach college students with the radical call of Jesus, and is on the steering committee of the Bearing Witness Stories Project (Goshen, IN), as well as the Nurturing Communities Network, a growing network of intentional Christian communities.

Adapted from a paper presented at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 6–8, 2018.

1 Elaine A. Heath and Larry Duggins, Missional. Monastic. Mainline. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014).

2 See The Rutba House, ed., School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2005), and Jonathan R. Wilson, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010).

3 In terms of application see Darrell Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) and Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). For theological treatments see Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015) and Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

4 For a fuller treatment dealing with the beginnings of the Bruderhof, see Marcus Baum, Against the Wind: Eberhard Arnold and the Bruderhof (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1998).

5 Arnold’s vision of the Sermon on the Mount is articulated in Salt and Light (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1998).

6 For current information about the Bruderhof and its various communities and activities, see: https://www.bruderhof.com.

7 Unlike restitutionism, restorationism grew out of the American soil of splintered denominationalism. Anabaptists were concerned more with the corruption of the church.

8 Franklin H. Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church: A Study in the Origins of Sectarian Protestantism, 2nd ed. (Boston: Starr King Press, 1958), chs. 3, 4. It must be added here that there also existed an apocalyptic strain among Anabaptists that focused less on some pristine past and more on preparing for the imminent return of Christ.

9 Robert Friedmann, “Recent Interpretations of Anabaptism,” Church History 24 (1955): 132–51.

10 See Eberhard Arnold, The Early Anabaptists (Rifton, NY: Plough, 1984), and Why We Live in Community (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1995).

11 For a fuller treatment of the early church see Eberhard Arnold, The Early Christians in Their Own Words (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1997), esp. the introduction.

12 Ibid., 4.

13 Ibid., 5.

14 Ibid., 20.

15 Ibid., 28.

16 Ibid., 42–43.

17 Ibid., 51.

18 Heath and Duggins, 24.

19 Alan J. Roxburgh, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in Our Time (New York: Morehouse, 2015), v.

20 Ibid., 52–53.

21 David E. Fitch, Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 38–40.

22 Ibid., 199.

23 Heath and Duggins, 19–20.

24 Roxburgh, 45.

25 Ibid., 52–53.

26 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 64–65.

27 Ibid., 109.

28 Fitch, 12.

29 Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen, The New Parish (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 8.

30 Ibid., 9, 16.

31 Ibid., 23.

32 Ibid., 85.

33 Ibid., 95.