When Forsaking Godly Vocations Turns A Church Into A Monastery

A monastery is a building or many buildings where monks or nuns live with religious vows.  In these monasteries, monks and nuns will keep busy with rigorous religious activities, growing food, and crafting goods. 

While some monasteries do a tremendous amount of work for the greater community, it is generally understood that individuals in the monastery live in seclusion from the rest of the world.  And so, by design, monasteries are places where individuals are meant to withdraw from the world into spiritual seclusion – they are freed from the distractions of the greater world.  Worship services, prayers, fellowship, and hard work all occur – exclusively - within the monastery’s four walls. 

Now, while it is easy to believe that monasteries are things of the past – from the Medieval Age – surprisingly, they have been on the rise in America for quite some time.  They are popping up everywhere, often in ways that one might not think.  That is to say; many churches in America have become modern-day monasteries. 

You can often see these modern-day monasteries in the architecture of church building.  For example, church fellowship halls, gymnasiums, lobbies, cafes, courtyards, multipurpose rooms, clubhouses, and welcome areas, often dwarf the sanctuary’s size.  You can also see it in church activity calendars too.  For instance, the sanctuary is used one day a week for church services, and the rest of the church facility bustles with religious activities the other six days of the week.  To the point; much of the religious activities of Christians these days (apart from actual church services) occur within the four walls of the church facility.  Christians are very busy – religiously speaking – inside their churches.   

While this may seem like a super-critical observation, it is worth noting that the past architecture and calendars show us that apart from regularly scheduled church services, much of Christians’ lives did not happen (and could not happen) within the walls of the church.  You see, many older church buildings consisted of a sanctuary and a very small narthex (i.e., entryway).  And so, much of the non-church-service-activities of modern churches would not be possible in older church buildings. 

So, all of this brings up a fascinating observation.  If worship services happened in the sanctuary, where did all the other church’s activities and busyness occur?  If there were no gyms, fellowship halls, gymnasiums, lobbies, cafes, courtyards, multipurpose rooms, clubhouses, and welcome areas, where did the Christian practice their faith the other six days of the week?  The answer, it occurred in their vocations.  It happened in the Estate of the Family.    

I am reminded of a former parishioner who was very insistent on having his own ‘ministry’ within the church’s four walls.  It had to be ‘his ministry,’ it had to take place ‘within’ the church building, and it has to be ‘on’ the church calendar.  Now, setting aside the misunderstanding that there is only one ministry in the church – the Word and Sacraments – what was this man’s hang-up?  Quite simply, he was doing everything possible to avoid suffering in his vocations and wanted to have his religious fill inside the church.  Without even realizing it, he made the church into a modern monastery where he hoped to live in seclusion from his vocations as a husband, father, and grandfather.  He was married to a very overbearing woman.  His relationship with his three grown children was quite challenging.  And he frankly despised the idea of being tied down as a grandfather – babysitting, changing dirty diapers, and playing house all day.  And so, the idea of doing a ministry inside the church was quite appealing, as it would allow him to seclude himself from his vocations as a husband, father, and grandfather.  He could still be religious and pious inside the church while conveniently neglecting his vocational callings in the real world. 

While there is indeed a need for parishioners to be at the church to maintain the building, conduct needed business, make plans, and receive the Word and Sacraments, it must be clearly understood that most of the Christian’s piety is played out in their Godly vocations.  The church is not an escape from one’s vocation as a father, mother, parent, son, daughter, worker, citizen, etc.  But instead, the church is the one place where Christians gather to be forgiven of their failures, strengthened in faith, and built up in love so that they can joyfully leave the four walls of the church and enter into their vocations for good works – good works that God has prepared in advance for them to walk in.  All church leaders and pastors work in the church to the end that the parishioners might receive the Word and Sacraments. 

But when churches become monasteries, the church and parishioners become inward-focused, and the Christians’ vocations in the ‘real world’ are often neglected.  No wonder why so many churches in our day and age are obsessed with the jargon of being missional.  They set themselves up to be a monastery, which results in Christian good works not flowing outward into vocations but inward into the church’s walls.  Alas!  As Luther once famously said, “God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.”

And so, we can conclude that the health of any local church is not necessarily tied to the religious fervor or bustle inside the walls of the church – churches are not monasteries.  But does this mean that churches should not be active or busy?  By no means!  The health of any local church is tied to the distribution and reception of the Word and Sacraments!  Healthy Christians come to the church often and regularly to receive – to be strengthened in their faith to God and built up in love for their neighbors.  Any busyness, religious fervor, and bustle inside the church walls should be about receiving, not doing.  We receive from the church (i.e., faith); we do to our neighbors in our vocations (i.e., love).  Christians always come to church – and come regularly – not to give their best to God but to receive God’s best in Christ via the Word and Sacraments! 

Christians come to church regularly to confess sins, receive forgiveness, be strengthened in faith, and built up in love, so that they might enter back into their vocations.  The pattern is simple: gather, receive, and go – then repeat. 

This article was originally published in the St. Paul's Lutheran Church October Newsletter of 2020 (www.anchoredminot.com).  

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