This issue, we’re raising the possibility of a restorationism that is missional and monastic. The unlikely convergence of these three ecclesiological adjectives is a sign of the times—at least, for American Christianity. As Kent Smith explains, two papers given at the 2018 Christian Scholars’ Conference at Lipscomb University anchor the issue. The Missio Dei Foundation invited Elaine Heath, co-author of Missional. Monastic. Mainline., to respond to Alden Bass’s and Charles Moore’s presentations, as well as another conversation about intentional communities and the future of theological education. It was a fruitful exchange, and we are lamentably unable to represent it entirely in print. Nonetheless, the question to which Bass and Moore responded—What would it mean to be missional, monastic, and restorationist?—proved a generative framework for this issue’s contributions, even those not directly related to the conversation about intentional community and new monasticism.
As has become our custom, the Summer–Fall issue features as many of the proceedings of the Mission Theology and World Christianity section of the Christian Scholars’ Conference as we can muster. We are extremely grateful to the authors who allow us to publish their work. Among them this year are Gailyn Van Rheenen’s and Jared Looney’s papers, which, although they were not written in connection with the conversations on intentional community, add significantly to this issue’s main theme. If that theme is a sign of the times, so is these missiologists’ work. Van Rheenen has been laboring for nearly two decades to move Churches of Christ toward a missional ecclesiology, and his article is rooted in that experience. The title of his essay says it all: Churches of Christ, like all of the Restoration Movement, are faced with the same decline as the rest of American Christianity. Missional ecclesiology is essentially a renewal movement. Just as new monasticism was born amidst the death throes of Christendom, so was the missiological revisioning of the Western church. Their trajectories were originally quite distinct, but their convergence has been fairly organic, producing work such as Heath’s.
Not all varieties of missional ecclesiology are obviously compatible with new monasticism, but the reason why is itself a significant question to raise, if only indirectly. As I state in passing in my essay, missional ecclesiologies tend toward either a separatist or an activist bent—a polarization that new monasticism at its best seems to challenge. Those of the separatist bent often characterize themselves in terms of “alternative community” and “alternative politics,” and Stone-Campbell restorationists historically identify most naturally with such separatism. As contemporary restorationists explore new monasticism, therefore, we may find that one of its contributions to a missional restorationism is precisely the refusal to concede the dichotomy of separatist and activist impulses. The journey inward and outward concurrently is the intention, even if it is not always fully realized.
Looney’s work emphasizes a distinct aspect of our moment in the American church, which is really just a local moment in the world church. What have trends like urbanization, globalization, migration, and the cultural shifts that accompany these to do with the mission of the local church? I quite like reading this article alongside those focused on new monasticism, as it requires a jarring shift of gears. Whatever restorationism has to do with new monasticism and missional church, it cannot escape the contextual forces that Looney highlights. Missional ecclesiology has too often (and strangely) ignored properly missiological questions. It is no surprise that new monasticism, given the standing critiques of old monasticism, is liable to the same weakness. So the incidental juxtaposition of Looney’s conference paper with the rest of the issue’s material is a bit of serendipity from my perspective.
Returning to the unlikelihood of the initial question, we solicited a handful of additional pieces in order to supplement the conversation. Can the Stone-Campbell flavor of restorationism be neo-monastic? What would that look like? One the one hand, we make recourse to those with deep roots in Churches of Christ who have experimented with intentional community. Kent Smith has mentored many students at Abilene Christian University during his own pilgrimage toward what has taken shape as the Eden Community. Among those exploring these possibilities, Aaron Shaver and Joshua Love have spent years pursuing intentional community in Abilene and beyond. Others, like Lindsey Hoffman, have struck out on their own in search of answers, aware that the restoration of the Acts 2 church is somehow deeply resonant with new monasticism in all its variety. On the other hand, we look to theological retrieval and contextualization work like that of Brandon Pierce. Any way you cut it, we have a lot to learn from monastic spirituality. Clearly, there is no one way to answer the question, but the answer seems generally to be yes: those of us committed to the missional renewal of restorationist churches can look to new monasticism for rich resources. And in turn, perhaps new monastics will find a blessing among us restorationists. These graces, given and received, are what the dialogue is all about.
Soli Deo gloria.