Something was brought to my attention the other day in a missions class that really got me to thinking. In the the days when Roman Catholic missions was at its height, their strongest advance was made via the religious order. The Jesuits and the Augustinians come readily to mind. These were small groups (denominations if you will) of the RCC who went out into different culture and countries and spread the Gospel through educational institutions and the like.
In discussing this aspect of our Christian history, I was asked if it was possible that religious orders were going to be a trend within the Emerging Church. I got to thinking, and I think that they very well might be, if they aren’t already.
You see, within various Christians traditions, there are incarnations of the Emerging Church. Whether you are Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, or Charismatic, there is an Emerging congregation within your tradition. The EC is criticized greatly for some of the odd things that they do, but underlying all of this is a desire to take the Gospel to a world that is messed up and needs a Savior.
And each manifestation of the EC carries with it its own characteristics and distinctives. Each incarnation has its own flavor. And each distinct manifestation is reaching a different demographic of people for the cause of the Gospel.
The framework is there for a revival of the religious order as a valid means of reaching, particularly, the Western world with the story of the Messiah. But how willing are we to embrace it?
The religious order had many things going for it, but one of the things that made it most effective was it’s mobility. In fact, it was partly due to this fact that contributed to the hard time that Protestant missions had in getting started (that and their understanding of predestination and their belief that the Great Commission only applied to the Apostolic age and was not valid for Christians today and that Jesus was coming back soon anyway and so there wasn’t really a felt need to do anything in regards to presenting the salvation story). The religious order was able to move from place to place very easily. One of their methods was, in fact, to set up a monastery, bring in converts to the Christian faith to train them, and then send them out into another part of the country to spread the Gospel in like manner.
I see a similar trend emerging within Western Christianity today.
With the growing influence of the house church movement, there is a door opened for a more mobile Christian faith. What if there were men and women so devoted to the Gospel that they spent their days moving from town to town, establishing small communities of believers, training leaders, and then sending those leaders out to do the same? Think of how quickly the Gospel would spread in our communities!
Could it be that the groundwork is being laid among the Christians of my generation to begin a new wave of Christian missions here in the West that utilizes this old idea?
Something else that made the religious order so successful was that their monasteries were self-sustaining. They would grow their own food and make their own clothes. With a growing trend toward this very thing just within our own backyards, this is an easy step. A larger church could commandeer an old apartment complex (or build a new one), fix it up if need be, and begin ministering to the people already there. By encouraging the people to stay there, at least temporarily, it would open the door for sending those new converts out to begin their own missions in other apartment complexes or small neighborhoods around the town, city, county, state, and nation. And since these small communities would be self-sustaining, more money could be saved and used to meet actual needs in the communities where these complexes were present.
One last thing that made the religious order so successful was its durability. The order was able to quickly adapt to the culture in which it found itself. The Jesuits were the best at this. They even went so far as to study the sacred texts of the people to whom they were ministering and saught to the best of their ability to speak to the people in the vernacular, even using some of their religious phrases and atmospheres to explain to the people the things of God.
With Christianity as a whole being already varied in shape and form, this last point would be very simple. Each denomination has its own distinctives and could therefore utilize their denominational tradition and reach people for the Messiah. And each group would be ministering to a different demographic of people, as is already the case with the various denominations within the West already.
My conclusion: Maybe it’s time to resurrect the religious order and seek to reach the people of the world in a more holistic manner. Sharing the Gospel is not just about getting people out of hell. It is also about changing lives. The cross isn’t only our atonement, but it is also our admonition. It is an example that we have been called to follow. And to minister holistically, we must save souls AND change lives. And I believe that this can best be done by a return to the old practice of the religious order.
Source for historical information: J. Herbert Kane. A Concise History of the Christian World Mission: A Panoramic View from Penetecost to the Present.