Power to the People

ggWithout fanfare, Dutch Educator and Renaissance reformer Geert Groote rather organically founded the core of a new spiritual community in Deventer, Holland around 1375.  [photo credit]

He began by moving into a small room of his home and offering up the rest to a group of adult women to use with a spiritual focus. Their practical day-to-day work was out in society, specifically geared toward supporting school-age youths and improving the way the common Dutch were housed. The women subscribed to house rules according to tenets he developed for them, and they collectively became known as Sisters of Common Life. Theirs was a life of poverty, strongly contrasting with the life of luxury found in established monasteries and church circles. In about 1381, Groote’s student Floris Radewijnsz (1350-1400) founded a male religious group, Broeders des Gemenen Levens (Brothers of Common Life) along these same tenets. Separated in two buildings in Deventer, these men and women shared property and daily food in monastic style, but none would enter into strict monastery vows.

The Common Life was largely pastoral, focused on the religious life and welfare of the laity (Kaldenbach). To support this, they developed a framework of prayer and personal devotional practices, later labelled Devotio Moderna (‘Modern Devotion’). This framework stressed the sanctity of daily life, and both sought and expressed practical wisdom of how to deal with the routine problems of daily living. Thanks to van Ruysbroeck’s influence the order was largely structured around the Rule of St. Augustine, though its adherents remained lay people who took no permanent vows as Augustinians and were free to leave the group at any time. Devotio Moderna emphasized four main themes: A focus on the Bible; cultivating morality by replacing one’s vices with virtues; the “imitation of Christ,” by which they used structured meditation to insert themselves into Bible stories to identify emotionally with Christ and his Passion; and a deliberate return to the model of the early church from the corruption of the fourteenth century. Devotio Moderna was thus intensely practical, with little time for abstract, speculative theology that characterized other philosophers and theologians of that era. Breakpoint’s Glenn Sunshine has a great run-down on this ministry.

The Brethren and Sisters recognized that no one could practice their disciplines alone; it required living in community with a great deal of mutual support and accountability. Shunning co-ed living created important time for individual and corporate prayer and meditation, confession, mutual correction and support. Community members also worked on the local economy to support themselves. In keeping with Dutch convention, the women mostly made and sold lace. The men labored in other jobs.

With such emphasis on knowing the Bible and the early Christian writers, Devotio Moderna placed a premium on literacy. Since they could read and write well, many earned a living copying manuscripts. They started schools with the specific intent of promoting church renewal by enabling more people to read the sources of the Christian life themselves. They also wrote several textbooks. The best-known of these was De Imitatione Christi (The Imitation of Christ) originally penned in Latin by Thomas à Kempis in the period 1418-1427. The manuscript was widely circulated before its first printed edition in 1471. Within three decades it had been printed in over 745 times and in 100 editions, including translations into German, French, Italian and Spanish. The book’s instructions on spiritual formation have greatly influenced both Catholic and Protestant spirituality. Oxford’s Robert Miola (2007) regards it as easily the most important devotional book in Catholic church history next to the Bible itself. Admirers of the book include Ignatius of Loyola (the Jesuits still give it an official place among their exercises), and John Wesley, who credits it among the works that influenced him at his conversion.

In light of the 14th century Catholic Church that effectively owned the religious, political and social spheres while all this was going on, the impact of this lay ministry was rather stunning. Bishop Peter Jenson cites biblical basis for this. When the Apostle Paul speaks to the Church in Corinth about behavior inconsistent with the gospel, he does not address the ministers of the church but every member of it. 1 Corinthians, he says, is not a note from the bishop to ‘his’ clergy, an ad clerum. Paul regards the discipline and the obedience of the church to be the responsibility of all. Mark Mattison likewise writes that none of the first-century local churches were governed by “monarchial bishops” (i.e., “traditional one-man pastors”). Nor was the episcopate the upper echelon of a well-defined Clerical Order which governed the laity. It wasn’t until second century Ignatius of Antioch where the concept of the exalted bishopric was formed.

What is the point? There is tremendous power in the laity. All are called and gifted to serve. But the congregation will rarely do for their Christian community that which is already being done by paid professionals.

A recent example: Our chapel music director/accompanist broke his wrist in November and has been out on disability ever since. Prior to his departure he had, for many months, tried in vain to get members of the congregation to faithfully participate in music with him. His sudden departure thus meant no music, or more glaring to the congregation, reliance on pre-recorded Christian music videos.

The reaction to this was swift. Over a few weeks a volunteer worship team formed and now numbers over 15 regular musicians playing instruments, singing, and planning the service. Interestingly, the volunteer roster in other areas has also grown as this sense of participatory membership has bled over into other ministry like bible study and Sunday School.

When professionals run the show the laity is rather content to let them run things. When the professionals fail, at least in this case, the laity quickly accept the call to service.

But is the dynamic causal? Are professionals hired because volunteers are too unreliable? Or by hiring professionals are we communicating to volunteers that they are not valued? And what does this say about society generally, say, with regard to the effectiveness of paying government vs promoting Church volunteering to meet the needs of the poor?

In any event, perhaps too many Christian professionals are in positions where the congregants would be more effective.

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