When Monastic Meets Mainline

A Review of Missional. Monastic. Mainline.: A Guide to Starting Missional Micro-Communities in Historically Mainline Traditions. By Elaine A. Heath and Larry Duggins. Cascade Books, 2014.

In 2008, when Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove introduced the larger church world to the new monastic movement, he wrote: “Monasticism, I learned, isn’t about achieving some sort of individual or communal piety. It’s about helping the church be the church.”

In Missional. Monastic. Mainline., Elaine Heath and Larry Duggins offer their take on why and how new monasticism can help the mainline church be the church. The first half of the book presents the theological argument for a partnership between mainline congregations and new monastic communities, while the second half hashes out the practical realities of what such a partnership would entail.

Putting the two halves together, Heath and Duggins offer a compelling message that deserves an audience from both lay and clergy leaders of mainline churches and intentional communities.

Many paid, professional ministers serve big steeple churches that are struggling to reimagine how to live out the good news in a rapidly-changing context. At the same time and in the same communities, founders of new monastic movements seek to embody the good news in creative, incarnational, context-specific ways. While new monastic movements often struggle for stability and support, many mainline churches have building and financial resources. On the other hand, where mainline churches may struggle for the creativity and relevance to reach those outside their doors, new monastics excel in these endeavors.

Heath and Duggins eloquently articulate the potential for a powerful synergy at the intersection of mainline and monastic. When mainline churches create space at the edges of their traditional programming and services, new incarnations of the church can be born. These holy experiments – with all their risk, failure, fine tuning, and blossoming – find safe space in an anchor congregation. Traditional churches find renewed vitality in their connection to and sponsorship of new, innovative pathways to ministry. And fragile ministry start-ups find resources and support in their connection to an established congregation.

“One of the best gifts of healthy new monastic and missional communities,” they write, “is their ability to serve as a leavening agent in the anchor church… A wonderful gift of the anchor church to the missional community is just that—an anchor of stability, love, prayer, and encouragement to its own missionaries.”

The authors go on to address many practical concerns related to the establishment of missional micro-communities connected to traditional mainline congregations. They offer suggestions for creating a culture within the congregation that open to experimentation, risk, and failure. They provide a model for gathering a lead team and setting up a pilot community. They address questions about finances, insurance, and responsibility. And they observe the need for an outside agent to provide spiritual direction and care for the fledgling community and its participants.

This extended quote captures the significance of Heath and Duggins’ proposal:
“The larger, vibrant churches of the future, the ones that will still have buildings and paid staff, will not resemble the attractional/consumer churches of today. There will be far fewer of them, for one thing. But more importantly, they will carry a different DNA. They will be anchors for all kinds of missional communities and initiatives in theological education for lay people. There will be large worship celebrations, to be sure, with great preaching and music and liturgy. But that won’t be seen as the most important thing that happens in the church. Instead, the defining characteristic of the church will be its ability to equip and deploy ordinary Christians into the world, where they will cultivate real disciples and form alternative communities that provide a foretaste of heaven. This work will not be done to make a financial profit in the anchor church. It will be done in order to cooperate with God in the mission of making all things new.”

Anchors for all kinds of missional communities and initiatives… Equipping and deploying ordinary Christians into the world… Forming alternative communities that provide a foretaste of heaven… Cooperating with God in the mission of making all things new…

Could this be a description of your church? Do you wish it were? If so, then Heath and Duggins’ book might be one place to find the theological grounding and practical advice for setting out on this missional, monastic, mainline journey.

David Brown
Pinnacle Associate

Contact David at revdavidmbrown@gmail.com