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Radical and Restorationist: Stone-Campbell Resources for Christian Intentional Community

Restorationists are specially gifted to advance missional communities in North America. The fellowship was formed in rural regions and carries within patterns of holistic wisdom which can be adapted to a fragmented urban world. The emphasis on biblical “costly discipleship” has primed members for life together. Elements latent within the Restoration Movement such as ecumenism and pacifism provide further support for communities to unite believers from different traditions and to distinguish them from the dominant culture. Moreover, as autonomous congregations, Restorationists can adopt new practices more quickly than mainlines. Even sectarianism, if transformed, offers the basis for a robust countercultural identity.

The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Christ. I believe it is now time to call people to this.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 19351

Authentic restorationists are inevitably radical and countercultural Christians.

Richard Hughes, 20022


“Monkish ignorance and superstition” was a favorite term of abuse among early Protestants. For the Reformers, the monastery came to symbolize everything that was wrong with Christianity; reform meant the abolition of vows and cloisters and the democratization of monastic virtues.3 Five hundred years later, the heirs of the Reformation have revised their opinion of the monastery; no longer the fount of all ills, a “new monasticism” is seen as a source for ecclesial renewal. The wisdom of the Desert Fathers, the Benedictines, the Franciscans, and other “monkish” traditions may be the key to nothing less than the “the resurrection of American Christianity.”4

Larry Duggins and Elaine Heath believe just that. Cofounders of the Missional Wisdom Foundation, they have become leaders in the new monastic movement. Their recent book Missional. Monastic. Mainline. challenges believers to organize residential discipleship communities modeled loosely on ancient monasteries.5 These communities are “missional” in that they participate in God’s salvific mission by living out the new creation in their common life, through care for one another and service to their neighbors. Mainline Protestants are the intended audience of this book; drawing on the theological and practical resources of United Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopal traditions, Heath and Duggins have developed a “field guide” for starting a parachurch neomonastic community.

Their contribution is welcome, as most writings on new monasticism have assumed an Evangelical audience.6 Another branch of the American church which has not been addressed is the Restoration Movement, which consists of Independent Christian Churches and acapella Churches of Christ.7 The Restoration Movement, a merger of Barton Stone’s “Christians” and Alexander Campbell’s “Disciples,” developed during the Second Great Awakening as an effort to unify the denominationally fragmented frontier churches through a return to early Christian practices.

Like many American churches, Restoration churches have faltered in the twenty-first century, in part because of their failure to adapt to shifting cultural and political realities. The new monastic movement presents an opportunity for Restorationists to recover dimensions of their religious heritage and to join other Christians in making present God’s kingdom to the world. The vision at the heart of the Stone-Campbell Movement is a restoration of the Jerusalem church described in Acts, the unified community of disciples gathered for fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Members of the movement know how the Restoration vision has been twisted into a toxic and intolerant sectarianism. Yet sectarianism is simply a distortion of the virtues necessary for vibrant intentional community. For Restorationists building new monastic communities, the sectarian heritage which has caused so much harm may be the key to moving forward.


New monasticism evolved as a response to the growing Constantinianism of American Christianity.8 In the 1970s, a group of students calling themselves “sojourners” moved into inner-city Washington, DC. Their name was a reference to 1 Pet 2:11 and a recognition of their discomfort with the political and ecclesial status quo. Christians continued to form missional micro-communities, and eventually, the title “new monastic” was adopted, as a concern for recovering Benedictine Christian spiritual practices was added to the original social justice impulse.9 A number of intentional communities sprang up in the early 2000s, inspired by the examples of Shane Claiborne’s Simple Way Community in Philadelphia and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove work with Rutba House in Durham.10 In 2008, Elaine Heath began the Epworth Project, a network of communal houses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area associated with the United Methodist Church. In the last decade, many of these young communities have joined older communities such as Reba Place Fellowship in Chicago and the Bruderhof in New York to form a community of communities called the Nurturing Communities Network.

The primary function of the term new monastic is not to identify with any particular monastic institution but rather to stimulate the contemporary imagination by invoking ancient traditions of radical Christianity.11 American evangelical new monastics have been characterized by twelve “marks,” but the key insight of the movement is that Christians should live “intentional” lives in close proximity to one another and the poor.12 Most new monastic communities are urban, located in the “abandoned places of empire” (Mark 1). Residential structures vary. Some communities occupy single-family houses on the same street; others live in multiple units of the same apartment building. Many practice cohousing, with all members residing under the same roof, sharing property, meals, and chores. Whatever the arrangement, physical proximity allows for the sharing of material goods, sharing joys and sorrows in a deeper way, and spiritual accountability. Nearness also makes possible regular corporate disciplines such as the daily worship (Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove even wrote a breviary called Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals).13

New monastic communities are also active in promoting economic and racial justice. Sometimes this involves direct action like protests and activism.14 At the most basic level, however, the communities have embraced an ethic of presence and intentional neighborliness. Living among the poor, community members can become extraordinarily attuned to the needs around them, whether that be failing schools, unresponsive local government, high crime, infrastructure neglect, or lack of access to nutritious food. And because of their locality, justice frequently manifests in intimate ways, such as welcoming strangers to the table or opening one’s home to unexpected guests.15 New monastics are rarely professional clergy, but their living arrangement positions them to serve. They are “missional” without being “missionaries.”

One of Elaine Heath’s contributions is to refine the meaning of missional and evangelical in this context. She has argued that both terms have been tainted by their association with American imperialism, to the extent that older forms of “personal evangelism” are no longer tenable. “Christian evangelism,” as she defines it, “is the holistic process of initiation of persons into the reign of God revealed in Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and anchored in the church for the transformation and healing of the world.”16 Mission is thus not only a “being sent” but also a way of “being put” in a particular place with others.


Heath’s understanding of mission as community coheres well with the original vision of the Stone-Campbell movement. Despite superficial similarities, Stone-Campbellites have preferred to be known as “Restorationists” rather than “Evangelicals.”17 Unlike American Evangelicals, who were primarily interested in personal conversions, Restorationists have been more concerned with the church itself.18 Using the New Testament as a guide, early leaders hoped to reconstitute the unified, Spirit-filled, apostle-led church of the New Testament by setting aside denominational allegiances and confessional statements and uniting as “Christians only.” The new body politic would be joined by a common biblical story, a communal ethic rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, a high view of baptism and discipleship, and a simplified liturgy oriented around the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper.19 Thousands of people on the American frontier joined the movement and became members of “the Church.”

Restorationists certainly did not oppose evangelization (though there was some initial resistance to foreign missions), but much attention was given to “being the church.”20 “The mission of this Church,” wrote second-generation leader David Lipscomb in 1867, “is to embrace all people, all nations, kindreds and tribes, and to mingle and mould them into one universal brotherhood . . . [and] to rescue and redeem the earth from the rule and dominion of the human kingdom, from the rebellion against God, and to reinstate the authority and rule of God on earth.”21 Human government was Lipscomb’s way of referring to fallen institutions which divide humanity by race, class, and creed. These demonic institutions could only be combated by an equivalent political body, the church. The church could never be identified merely by name, doctrine, or confessional affiliation; the church could only be known in its particularity, by the countercultural practices of the members of the local congregation. This ecclesiology has at times festered into an exclusive and sectarian attitude, such that some congregations considered themselves to be the only Christians in their time and place, but this was not the position of the early leaders. To be the church meant, as far as possible, to reconstitute the original Christian community which was “one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32).22 For Alexander Campbell, it was the unity of the body of believers, living in distinction from the world, which is “the only successful means of converting the world.”23

The Restorationist understanding of the church as a missional community was shaped by their apocalyptic worldview. “I mean by that phrase,” writes Richard Hughes, “an outlook whereby we seek to live our lives as if the final rule of God were fully present in the here and now. Such a vision calls for radical and countercultural living, since the Kingdom of God inevitably stands in judgment on the kingdoms of this world.”24 The earliest Christians were indisputably apocalyptic, and their orientation to God’s inbreaking kingdom informed their theology and practice. The view saturated the writings of the New Testament and became the lens through which the Old Testament was interpreted. The apocalyptic narrative is summed up by Restorationist theologian and community leader John Nugent:

Jesus implemented God’s kingdom in a way that no one expected. Rather than replace the corrupt structures of the fallen world order, Jesus began his new order right in the midst of the old one. He gathered his people, awakened them to newness of life, infused them with his Spirit, and sent them on mission. This newness of life . . . signaled a new era in world history, a new world reality, a new way of living, a new way of relating to people, a new people to relate to, a new status before God and all creation, and a life of abundant blessings.25

The apocalyptic outlook implied a countercultural politics oriented towards justice. Since the earliest days of the movement, Restorationists have positioned themselves against “the world.” As Hughes notes, early leaders and their communities “embraced simplicity instead of ostentation, advocated nonviolent solutions to human conflicts, shunned material wealth, resisted racism, and risked their own well-being for the sake of their neighbor’s good.”26 These examples are normative if not always actualized: “the world” has most often signaled corrupt morality rather than fallen political structures. Yet, even in the absence of radical politics, Churches of Christ have quietly resisted nationalism for most of their history; a vestige of the countercultural instinct persists in the absence of American flags in their worship spaces.27 The apocalyptic outlook diminished as the tradition entered the mainstream following the Second World War; however, there is currently a renewed interest in justice and political activism, especially among younger members.28


Given the centrality of the early Jerusalem church in the Restorationist imagination, one might expect to find examples of intentional community analogous to new monasticism in the movement’s history. Few exist. One possible explanation is that for most of their history, Churches of Christ and Christian Churches have been organic congregation-communities. Until relatively recently, most of these churches were found in small farming communities in the South and Midwest; most congregations claimed less than one hundred members; most families lived in relatively close proximity and depended on one another economically, physically, and spiritually.29 Though somewhat idealized, Wendell Berry’s memory of American agricultural communities applies to these congregations. He defined community as “a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature” with a “mutuality of interests” governed by “the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness.”30 (The repeated emphasis on “local” recalls a peculiar practice among Churches of Christ: nearly every congregation is named after a town, street, or other local geographic marker.) Something approximating Christian intentional community was a natural expression of Restoration principles in its original rural context.

Parallels have been made between these rural churches and Anabaptist communities such as Mennonites and the Brethren.31 Because of its gathered-church ecclesiology and political separatism, the Stone-Campbell movement has been recognized by Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder as an indigenous expression of Anabaptist principles in the United States.32 Anabaptists share many of the same theological and ethical priorities as Restorationists, including the primitivist impulse. In the nineteenth century, a number of Brethren church-communities integrated with Stone-Campbellites, injecting something of the Anabaptist communitarian spirit into the early movement.33

One significant precursor to the Stone-Campbell Movement, the Sandemanians, practiced a form of thick community in imitation of the Jerusalem church.34 In the late eighteenth century, John Glas broke with the Church of Scotland to form a “free church.” Together with his son-in-law Robert Sandeman, they established small communal congregations in Scotland and New England. Members covenanted to join together in mutual submission, share their material goods with the needy, regularly observe the Lord’s Supper as a love feast, and practice conflict resolution modeled on Matthew 18. So close were the members, who called one another brother and sister, that the Edinburgh papers accused them of incestual relations. These churches opposed missions and evangelism, believing that the common life and worship of the local community was a sufficient witness.

Within the Stone-Campbell Movement, there has been only one notable attempt to form a residential Christian community.35 Sidney Rigdon, an associate of Alexander Campbell, organized a Christian commune called “the Family” on Isaac Morley’s farm in Kirtland, Ohio, around 1830. Consisting of about one hundred members, the community renounced private property and joined in a common rule of life. Rigdon argued that “our pretensions to follow the apostles in all their New Testament teachings, required a community of goods; that as they established their order in the model church at Jerusalem, we were bound to imitate their example.”36 Despite the clear Restorationist rationale, Campbell was appalled at Rigdon’s social experiment. Threatened with excommunication, Rigdon eventually joined the Mormons, who were more sympathetic. Had Campbell accepted Rigdon, the Restorationist movement may have taken a more explicitly communitarian turn.

Nevertheless, Campbell’s negative reaction to the Kirtland Community is a clue to the rarity of Christian communities in contemporary Stone-Campbell circles. Rigdon’s commune was one of many “family commonwealths” and utopian communities springing up in the US. For Campbell, any form of intentional community was tainted by association with socialist “freethinkers” such as Charles Fourier and Robert Owen, whom Campbell personally debated in 1828. Campbell insisted that communitarianism was unsustainable and would result in “ruin and confusion when practiced by large multitudes of converts.”37 Moreover, he did not think the New Testament warranted any sort of common life; while the Jerusalem church was indisputably “socialist,” he considered that community a failure.


Communal living continues to be politically and theologically suspect. Despite Campbell’s reservations on this point, Stone-Campbellites have not avoided radical politics in other areas, as their record of pacifism proves.38 The same religious commitments which sustained thick community in the rural nineteenth century, when introduced into the urban twenty-first century, potentially lead to some form of common life. The new monastic paradigm offers Stone-Campbellites an opportunity to reclaim elements of their tradition in an increasingly urban world.39 In cities across the country, there is a deep thirst for genuine community.40 For Christians who have experienced the intimacy of small rural churches, the longing may be even more acute.

Restorationists have already begun forming such communities, and Stone-Campbellites have been a part of the new monastic movement almost from the beginning. Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis was a thriving suburban church in the early twentieth century, but by the 1970s membership had dwindled as the neighborhood diversified and physically declined. In the 1990s, leaders of the church made the decision to recommit to their neighborhood. They began a community development corporation and several families moved back into the neighborhood to practice intentional living.41 In Lansing, Michigan, several Christian families began sharing meals and meeting regularly in the early 2000s. They formed a network of house churches, called Delta Community, committed to radical discipleship. The community shares responsibilities (there is no paid staff) and is committed to living simply, freeing financial resources for missions, outreach, and local needs.42 In the last few years, a house church in Abilene, Texas, has evolved into a thick residential community called Eden, which is in the process of building a facility outside of the city.43

For nearly ten years, I was a part of a new monastic community in St. Louis called Lotus House.44 Though the community was independent, it had strong ties to the Stone-Campbell Movement: The founders were all part of a local campus ministry sponsored by the McKnight Road Church of Christ (now McKnight Crossings), and several members were graduates of Ozark Christian College. The community also worked closely with North City Church of Christ, a local urban ministry. The community—which averaged ten members, married and single—was housed in two large houses in north St. Louis. Members committed to a rule of life, covenanting to fidelity in our relationships, simplicity in our material life, and service to those around us.45 These commitments translated into a shared rhythm of life. Each day we shared meals and chores, we began and ended each day with common prayer, we dedicated one night a week to serving in the neighborhood, and there was a common fund from which all community expenses were paid.

Looking back on our experience, I see how our Restorationist formation prepared us for life in a new monastic community. Four brief observations:

First, the biblical Jerusalem church is the normative model for Christian living. In the Churches of Christ, Acts 2 is known as “the hub of the Bible.” The establishment of the original community following Pentecost is understood to be the culmination of God’s redemptive plan (which is why Stone-Campbellites are so keen to reconstitute it). The Pentecost vision is immediately recognizable to anyone formed in the tradition; once, after a fellow Restorationist was introduced to the community, she burst out: “You’re living out the Acts 2 church!” In our community, a painting based on Acts 4:32—“all the believers were of one heart and one mind”—hung in the entryway of the house.

Second, the egalitarian congregationalist tradition prepared us to share the responsibilities of common life. Early Stone-Campbellites rejected professional ministers in favor of the practice of “mutual edification,” and while few churches continue this practice, the anarchical spirit persists. From a young age, members learn how to set up chairs for a meeting, clean up after a potluck, visit the sick, and lead worship or Sunday school—every believer is a priest (and a secretary and a janitor . . . ). In small intentional communities where there is not a strong hierarchical leadership structure, members must count on each other to do what needs to be done; everyone must be prepared to exercise their gifts.

Third, Restorationists have traditionally prioritized ecumenicity. For the sake of Christian unity, doctrine has been downplayed, leading to what John Mark Hicks has called a “wild democracy” of belief.46 The Lotus House began with a core of Restorationists, but within a few years, we claimed members from across the confessional spectrum—Presbyterian (USA), Lutheran (Missouri Synod), Catholic, Orthodox, and Pentecostal. We were united by a Rule of Life, not a creedal statement. Once, a younger member of the community was distraught to discover that he could not receive weekly communion at another member’s church (which practiced closed communion), despite the fact that he was sharing daily table fellowship and prayer with this individual. The community was the site of true communion. Bonhoeffer observed long ago that “life together under the Word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis, but rather where it understands itself as being part of the one, holy, catholic, Christian Church.”47 In Restorationist terms—“Christians only.”

Finally, the apocalyptic outlook produces tightly-knit kinship communities where “family of God” is more than a metaphor. Congregations have tended to be small and intergenerational; members know one another well and care for each other. The sectarian mentality encourages members to value the community of believers over biological family—“whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50; NIV). In Rosabeth Kanter’s sociological analysis of American communes in the nineteenth century, she finds that the single-greatest factor in the long-term success of utopian communities is the cultivation of this sort of familial “commitment,” a quality she describes as detachment from other values, a high cost of membership, and a commitment of self and resources.48 Though Restorationist Christians are not immune to American individualism, they have a strong tradition of communitarianism, rooted in the biblical story and their historical experience on the frontier.


In Evangelism after Christendom, Bryan Stone echoes Heath’s definition of mission in Missional. Mainline. Monastic. “The most evangelistic thing the church can do today,” he writes, “is to be the church—to be formed imaginatively by the Holy Spirit through core practices such as worship, forgiveness, hospitality, and economic sharing into a distinctive people in the world, a new social option, the body of Christ.”49 Restorationists have throughout their history imperfectly embodied this call to community as mission. They have been “imaginatively formed” by the apocalyptic tradition and “politically formed” by the practices of small, intergenerational congregations in rural America. The new monastic movement offers one paradigm for the Stone-Campbell tradition to further its radical kingdom vision of a renewed Pentecost community on the new frontier of the rapidly expanding American city. By embracing its own quasi-monastic sectarian legacy, Restorationists may not only contribute to the revival of American Christianity but also save themselves.

Alden Bass teaches theology and Scripture at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City. He was a founding member of the Lotus House Community in St. Louis and continues to be involved in the Nurturing Communities Network.

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

1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a letter to Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 424.

2 Richard Hughes, Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul, and Future of Churches of Christ (ACU Press, 2002), 106–7.

3 Greg Peters, Reforming the Monastery: Protestant Theologies of the Religious Life (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014), 1–18.

4 Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, “New Monasticism and the Resurrection of American Christianity,” Missiology: An International Review 38, no. 1 (2010): 13–19.

5 Elaine A. Heath and Larry Duggins, Missional. Monastic. Mainline.: A Guide to Starting Missional Micro-Communities in Historically Mainline Traditions (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014).

6 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has been the most prolific. See, e.g., New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008); School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, ed. The Rutba House (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005). See also, Shane Claiborne, Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) and Scott Bessenecker, The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World’s Poor (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006).

7 The Disciples of Christ also stem from this movement but are now considered mainline Protestants.

8 Will Samson identifies new monasticism as a “theopolitical response to American Evangelicalism” in “The New Monastics and the Changing Face of American Evangelicalism” (PhD Dissertation, University of Kentucky, 2016), 165. See also Tim Kumfer, “Between Sojourners and the Simple Way? Rethinking Radical, Evangelical Politics in ’08 with John Howard Yoder,” The Other Journal, October 14, 2008, For a much longer sociological treatment, see Wes Markofski, New Monasticism and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2015), 31–69. An earlier wave of intentional communities arose out of the charismatic revivals of the 1950s and 60s. Reba Place Fellowship and Jesus People USA, both in Chicago, are very different products of that movement.

9 James Baker, “Benedict’s Children and Their Separated Brothers and Sisters,” The Christian Century, December 3, 1980, 1191–94; Rodney Clapp, “Remonking the Church,” Christianity Today, August 12, 1988, 20–21. One of the best critical introductions to the new monastic movement is Erik Carter’s “The New Monasticism: A Literary Introduction,” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 5, no. 2 (2012): 268–84.

10 The story is told in Shane Claiborne, Irresistible Revolution (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) and Wilson-Hartgrove, New Monasticism.

11 As observed by Mark van Steenwyk, “What is the New Monasticism?,” March 5, 2008, Kenneth Stewart includes a chapter on new monasticism in In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis (London: Apollos, 2017), though his treatment of American new monasticism is deficient.

12 The Rutba House, ed., School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005).

13 Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

14 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s ongoing “Poor People’s Campaign” is a good example. See

15 For more on the countercultural politics of hospitality in Christian community, see Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), esp. 145–92.

16 Heath and Duggis, 25.

17 For a range of opinions on this issue, see William Baker, ed., Evangelicalism and the Stone-Campbell Movement (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002). Also pertinent are the reflections of Richard Hughes in Reclaiming a Heritage, 93–118. Whatever the relationship, the movement is undeniably rooted in the European evangelical movements of the eighteenth century, as Jamie Gorman has ably demonstrated in Among the Early Evangelicals: The Trans-Atlantic Origins of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2017).

18 According to George Marsden, Evangelicals have been guilty of a “general disregard for the institutional church” (Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991], 81).

19 The International Churches of Christ (aka “the Boston Movement”), which splintered from mainline Churches of Christ in the 1970s, exemplify an intensification of these traits in their discipling practices. For background, see John F. Wilson, “The International Church of Christ: A Historical Overview,” Leaven 18 (2010): 1–5.

20 For a communitarian perspective on this, see John Alexander, Being Church: Reflections on How to Live as the People of God (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012).

21 David Lipscomb, Civil Government: Its Origin, Mission, and Destiny (Nashville: McQuiddy Printing, 1913), 12.

22 Richard Hughes writes about “the biblical form of the sectarian spirit” in Reclaiming a Heritage, 72–78.

23 Quoted by Robert Lowery, “Biblical Models of the Church,” in Evangelicalism and the Stone-Campbell Movement, ed. William Baker (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 212.

24 Hughes, Reclaiming a Heritage, 8. Hughes traces the historical development of the apocalyptic worldview in Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996). One of the best treatments of this theology, especially as it manifested in the Churches of Christ, is John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding (Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishing, 2006), 27–42.

25 John Nugent, Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016), 193. For another treatment of apocalyptic ethics in contemporary theological thinking, see Travis Kroeker, Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics: Essays in Exile (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017).

26 Hughes, Reclaiming, 7.

27 This is especially true of the Tennessee Tradition of the Churches of Christ, formed by Tolbert Fanning, James Harding, and David Lipscomb and ultimately derived from Barton Stone. However, even Alexander Campbell qualified his patriotism with a commitment to pacifism. For a short survey, see Michael Casey, “From Religious Outsiders to Insiders: The Rise and Fall of Pacifism in the Churches of Christ,” Journal of Church and State 44 (2002): 455–75.

28 Monte Cox, “Missions in the Churches of Christ: Trends in Theology and Strategy,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 46 (2016): 163.

29 In the 1936 religious census, over half the members of the Churches of Christ belonged to rural congregations; by 1962, it was estimated at 80% rural. See David Edwin Harrell, “The Sectional Origins of the Churches of Christ,” Journal of Southern History 20 (1964): 272.

30 Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York: Pantheon, 1992), 120. It is no accident that the Church of Christ historical theologian Leonard Allen has a habit of prefacing his books with Wendell Berry quotations (e.g. Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of the Churches of Christ, with Richard Hughes [ACU Press, 1988], Things Unseen: Churches of Christ in (and after) the Modern Age [Leafwood Press, 2003] , and Distant Voices: Uncovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church [ACU Press, 1999]).

31 On a related note, the new monastic phenomenon can in part be explained by the “Anabaptist turn” in American theology led by Stanley Hauerwas.

32 John Nugent, “John Howard Yoder, Radical Ecumenicity, and the Stone-Campbell Tradition,” in Radical Ecumenicity: Pursuing Unity and Continuity after John Howard Yoder, ed. John Nugent (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2010), 11–20.

33 David Eller, “Hoosier Brethren and the Origins of the Restoration Movement,” Indiana Magazine of History 76 (1980): 1–20.

34 Lynn McMillon, Restoration Roots: The Scottish Origins of the American Restoration Movement (Henderson: Hester Publications, 1983), 19–68.

35 As this paper was going to press, Jeremy Hegi alerted me to another Campbellite community established by Frederick August Wagner and Otoshige Fujimori in Japan in the late nineteenth century. Converts were invited to live and work in an agricultural commune in the countryside which they called “holy community.” The group is described in Robert Hooper in “If Your Enemy Hungers Feed Him”: Church of Christ Missionaries in Japan, 1892–1970 (Abilene: ACU Press, 2017), 63–90.

36 Robert Christian Kahlert, Salvation and Solvency: The Socio-Economic Policies of Early Mormonism (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2016), 163. See also, Richard Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon: Portrait of Religious Excess (Signature Books, 1994), 50.

37 F. Mark McKiernan, The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness: Sidney Rigdon, Religious Reformer, 1793–1876 (Lawrence: Coronado Press, 1971), 29.

38 Craig Watts, Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Indianapolis: Doulos Christou Press, 2005); see also the many writings of Michael W. Casey.

39 To the question, “How will we respond to the urbanization of our world when our churches are mostly suburban and rural?,” Cox has no answer (“Missions in the Churches of Christ,” 167).

40 Many similar articles could be cited: Janice Shaw crouse, “The Loneliness of American Society,” The American Spectator (May 18, 2014):

41 The wisdom of the Englewood Community is distilled in Chris Smith’s Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014); see also Kyle Mobley, Tracy Taylor, and Michael Bowling, “From Rural Street to Urban America: The Englewood Story,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 3, no. 2 (August 2012): Englewood also belongs to a network of community-oriented neighborhood churches called The Parish Collective. For more on their model of intentional community, which differs from the new monastic model, see Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen, The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015).

42 The theology behind Delta Community can be seen in John Nugent’s Endangered Gospel (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016).

43 See Laura Callarman, “It Doesn’t Feel Like Church to Me,” Leaven 23 (2015): 102–6.

44 For more on the Lotus House, see Stephen Lawson, “Following Jesus Together in the Inner City: Lotus House,” Christian Standard 149 (Dec 2014): 735. Also, James Werning, Finding Intentional Community: Your Journey Home (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017), 139–48.

46 John Mark Hicks, “I Stayed for the Wild Democracy,” in Why We Stayed: Honesty and Hope in the Churches of Christ, ed. Benjamin Williams (Los Angeles: Keledei Publications, 2018).

47 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John Doberstein (New York: Harper Collins, 1954), 37.

48 Rosabeth Kanter, Community and Commitment: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective (Harvard University Press, 1972), 61-74. Lipscomb on commitment: “If the church ever attains to its primitive purity and efficiency it must be by a return to this clearly established principle of the separation of all its members from worldly governments, and the consecration of the affections, time, means and talents of all its members to the up building of the church of God and the salvation of the world” (Civil Government, 128).

49 Bryan P. Stone, Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 10.

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

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 (, 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.


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:

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.

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The Essence of Renewal; The Anatomy of Decline: Ten Priority Questions for Renewal

We know that Churches of Christ are in sharp decline in North America.1 We also know that God, the source of renewal, is present in his Holy Spirit. Pursuing renewal for our churches leads us to discern answers to theological and ministry questions for church renewal from Scripture.

I praise God because I have witnessed churches being renewed over the past few years.2 But also feel sorrow—even anguish—because many more churches are struggling and wilting, and many are likely to die.

I believe that the questions we ask and the priority we give them decides the direction and ultimately the future of the church. So, I am suggesting ten priority questions for leaders to ask prayerfully and courageously if they hunger for the renewal of their churches.

Church leaders frequently make decisions to keep peace among members or to navigate competing doctrinal or practical agendas rather than to seek God’s will through prayer and discernment. These questions are not developed from surveying what people want but from discerning what God desires based on what God is calling his people to be and do through Scripture.

May God raise up leaders who seek his will!

Question 1: What is God’s divine purpose for the church?

I would like for you to imagine what God might do if you made these passages a part of your life and aligned ministry according to them.

In Matt 22:34–40, when Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment in the Law?” by one who considered himself an expert, he replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”3

The purpose of the church is the love of God and love of neighbor.

Praying to God in John 17:14–16 toward the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus describes his disciples in this world: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”

The church distinctively lives in the world but is not of the world.

In Matt 28:18–20, the resurrected Lord said to those worshipping him (and to some who doubted), “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. I will be with you always to the very end of the age.”

The church by divine authority is to go and make disciples, baptizing and teaching them, knowing that they are led forward by his divine presence.

Question 2: How do leaders equip God’s people for works of ministry?

Ephesians 4:11–16 illustrates how God’s people become leaders who “equip his people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up” and “become mature,” no longer “blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love,” they grow up into him “who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

The major task of church leaders is intentionally to “prepare (equip) God’s people for works of service.”

As we will see, this equipping is better caught than taught.

Questions 3: How are leaders chosen?

Jesus called a few disciples who had walked with him on the journey to become leaders. At the beginning, Jesus invited a chosen few to come into his life, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19) and “Come and see” (John 1:39, 46). They learned by walking with him. Out of these maturing disciples, he then selected apostles, “that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). Searchers became disciples who matured to be his apostles. The journey was personal, heart-to-heart, over a period of years. They heard Jesus teach and minister and then were sent out to imitate what he had been doing.

The Jesus process was searchers-disciples-leaders! Jesus walked with many searchers, some of whom became disciples, with some of those emerging into leaders. Leaders were called and chosen within the context of ministry.

Question 4: What was Jesus’ rhythm of ministry?

In Luke 6, Jesus first sought solitude when he “went out to a mountainside to pray and spent the night praying to God” (v. 12). Second, Christ’s communion with God led him to choose his twelve apostles, thus creating community (v. 13–15). Third, Jesus went down from the mountainside with his disciples and began to minister with divine power (vv. 17–19) by preaching the Sermon on the Plain with his new disciples (vv. 20–49, cf. Matt 5–7). The Jesus rhythm was solitude-community-ministry.

The church must likewise learn this rhythm of solitude-community-ministry, living UP—IN—OUT (UP in relationship with God; IN community; OUT on mission).4 These “three disciplines are important for us to remain faithful, so we not only become disciples, but also remain disciples.”5

Questions 5: How do Christians who live in the world but are not of the world make decisions?

An answer can be discerned from how decisions were made at the first church council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, reflecting on whether converted Gentiles follow Jewish customs. In this conference, three speeches were recorded, each focusing on the question with a different emphasis. There is, however, a common theme about decision-making embedded in each. Peter speaking from “history” declared that God had made a choice to accept the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas argued from “ministry” that God had performed miraculous signs and wonders among the Gentiles confirming his acceptance of them. James spoke from “Scripture” that “David’s fallen shelter” would be restored and that both the remnant and “the nations that bear [God’s] name” would be welcomed (Amos 9:11–12). Each speech focused on what God has been doing. It was therefore necessary for all the Christian leaders to accept James’s conclusion that “It is my judgement, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).

Church leaders gathered to discern the will of God, not the desires of Jewish Christians or customs of the Jewish law.

Too frequently, elder and staff meetings have been more concerned about discussing popular methodological approaches to ministry and negotiating the competing desires of members than listening to God. How do leaders come to realize that listening to God in prayer leads the church to make transformative decisions in line with the will of God? Such upside-down thinking spiritually and radically transforms decision-making.

Question 6: What are the functions of elders?

Church leaders are called “elders” because of their maturity and “shepherds” because of their tasks. Their profile is that of mature, godly leaders (1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9). The functions of such spiritual leaders are to discern the cultural customs and currents that stand in opposition to the Way of Jesus and to oppose leaders who (as in the example of Acts 15) teach that one has to be circumcised in order to be saved or who (as in the example of Titus 1:5) seek some type of financial remuneration—to protect the church from imposters whose “minds and consciences are corrupt” (Titus 1:10–14).

Their task is not primarily to make the plans or set the agendas of the church but to pray for and care for the flock and discern with them God’s leading.

Question 7: How do children grow to spiritual maturity?

We know that we walk with our children in the midst of both their struggles and our own. All families live in various kinds of dysfunction. Despite our failures, we live with assurance that God in his Holy Spirit works in the midst of these human struggles.

The principle “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Prov 22:6) gives us assurance!

This training is lived out in the family rhythms of (1) turning to God in prayer; (2) reading the Bible to discern the will of God; (3) living in community with other Christians; (4) sharing the narrative of God and the Gospel within the nuclear and extended family and with those who do not yet know the way of God in Jesus Christ, and (5) hearing God’s call for sharing the Gospel on mission within the local neighborhood, city, country, and other parts of the world.

These counter-cultural rhythms help us live distinctive lives as followers of Jesus in an increasingly secular, time-fragmented culture. Healthy churches integrate their children into every aspect of the life of the church.

Question 8: Why do churches disintegrate?

Paradoxically, churches often disintegrate from the inside out while appearing on the surface to be healthy.

In contemporary North America, faith disintegration frequently begins when husbands begin to live busy, secular lives disconnected from faith and eventually affecting family.6 They frequently go through the motions of “going to church” because they have not been formed spiritually as disciples. Their wives struggle largely by themselves to develop the spiritual formation for their children. Parents often focus on children’s activities and neglect their own personal spiritual formation. As a result, the church becomes a “place to go” rather than a “family of fellowship.”

Churches also disintegrate because elders and members focus on the forms and functions of church rather than on God’s eternal purposes. Purpose and passion are lost when vision is too small, too this-worldly. What if the church lived with the understanding that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is the fulcrum of human history and sought to live lives shaped by the cross of Christ? What if Christians brought their sufferings to the cross as well as their sins? What if Christians took their scars to the cross so that they became testimonies to transform?

Christians too frequently forget the centrality of the gospel and live “functionally,” going through the motions. They invert Phil 2:4 by looking primarily at their own interests rather than the interests of others. They forget the purpose of their baptism! They lose their ability to articulate their faith. The church becomes secondary to other parts of life.

Question 9: What is renewal?

  • Renewal takes place when families seek first the kingdom of God.
  • Renewal takes place when families develop a rhythm of prayer and devotion.
  • Renewal takes place when churches incarnate God’s presence within their community of fellowship.
  • Renewal takes place when God’s presence is evident while the church meets both publicly and from house to house as an inviting community.
  • Renewal takes place when the church lovingly shares its own faith with searchers and skeptics, inviting them into loving community.

Question 10: Why should we expect opposition? How do we live faithfully during persecution?

We live in a world where, whether aware or not, Satan seeks to lead us astray from our devotion to Christ (2 Cor 11:3). While called to put on the “full armor of God” to withstand the temptations of Satan (Eph. 6:10-17), we are tempted by the lusts of the flesh and enticements of contemporary culture. We are, however, frequently oblivious to the source of our temptations and unprepared for such spiritual struggle!

In the midst of these temptations God calls us into a Trinitarian relationship with himself–a loving interaction with the intertwining fullness of his being: God, our Creator; Christ, our Savior; and the Holy Spirit, our Sustainer and Empower! Thus, a primary question is “Are we living within this Trinitarian relationship or largely on the boundaries of this triangle—trying to follow God while following much of the world!”

Faithful presence is this Trinitarian way of walking in with the fullness of God, basking in his love and holiness, covered by the blood of Jesus, and living by the power of his Holy Spirit. Faithful presence is like marriage in which the husband and wife faithfully care for each other (Eph. 5:25) or a family in which parents lovingly care and nurture their children who then faithfully care for their parents at a later stage of life. Faithful presence is incarnational: God comes to us in multiple forms and dwells among us. We, in turn, grow to dwell with him. May we, as the church, live within God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit rather than in the world!

Live faithfully! Redeem the time! May you live with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:14).

Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen served as a church-planting missionary to East Africa for fourteen years, taught Missions and Evangelism at Abilene Christian University for seventeen and a half years, and is the founder of and facilitator of church planting with Mission Alive ( His books Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Perspectives, Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, and The Changing Face of World Missions (authored with Michael Pocock and Doug McConnell) are widely used by both students and practitioners of missions. He edited Contextualization and Syncretism, a compilation of presentations of the Evangelical Missiological Society.

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

1 See Carl H. Royster, “Churches of Christ in the United States: Statistical Summary by State / Territory,” June 2018, 21st-Century Christian’s latest online numbers show 11,966 congregations (a 10 percent decline since 2000) and 1,445,856 adherents (down 12 percent).

2 Note the Mission Alive process for the spiritual renewal of older churches at

3 Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.

4 For further discussion of this model, see Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Is Missional a Fad?,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 7 (Summer-Fall 2016):

5 Henri Nouwen, “From Solitude to Community to Ministry,” Leadership (Spring 1995): 81,

6 This claim is based on my experience and developed in conversation with Don McLaughlin, senior minister at North Atlanta Church of Christ in Dunwoody, GA.