THIS WEEK, we’re welcoming Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a chief architect in a nationwide renewal movement focused on neighborhood congregations.
PART 1: Find out about Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s different approach to building healthy congregations and healthy neighborhoods.
PART 2: Beginning of our interview, focusing on his new edition of The Rule of St. Benedict.
PART 3: The portion of our interview on The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture.
PART 4: The conclusion of our interview focuses on The Awakening of Hope.
DAVID: As a journalist, I’ve been reporting on religion in America for 30 years, including news stories on the rise of the great suburban mega-churches. The most startling news in your new Zondervan book, The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith, is that you seem to be preaching 180 degrees away from the megachurch idea. I’ve been describing your new book to people as a return to smaller, historic, neighborhood communities. In urban-planning terms, you’re telling people to leave the suburban malls behind and go back to living and shopping locally. And, you’re not alone. Your frequent collaborator, Shane Claiborne, is saying something very similar: Evangelism and outreach are great—but formation and discipleship in local communities are much more important. Am I hearing those messages correctly?
JONATHAN: Yes, but people need to understand where we’ve come from. Shane spent time at the proto-typical megachurch, Willow Creek. Chris Haw, who worked with Shane on Jesus for President, comes out of Willow Creek, too. When you hear this kind of message from Shane and Chris and others, you’re hearing an internal critique of the megachurch movement. Willow Creek did a self study some years ago that concluded: We’ve done well in bringing people in—but not very well forming them in the way of Jesus.
DAVID: Later this year, we will welcome Chris Haw to ReadTheSpirit to talk about his new book, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism. That book comes out this autumn and tells about Chris leaving his seeker-evangelical roots for a return to the Catholic Church. That’s going about as deep and old as you can get in Christianity.
JONATHAN: Yes, there is this movement toward the deeper and older resources. I’ve read an early copy of Chris’s book. He’s a friend of mine. In that book, Chris does a beautiful job of showing how those resources that are right there in our tradition make a lot of sense for people today, when we engage them in a critical way. Chris has the gift of the convert: He’s now presenting the Catholic faith through the fresh experience of the recently converted. What he’s writing now may even help some people who have left the Catholic tradition find their way back because of the way he’s presenting it.
DAVID: Are you tempted to make a pilgrimage to Rome yourself?
JONATHAN: No, I’m not on a trail to Rome—or to Canterbury. But, as a Baptist, I realize that I couldn’t be the Baptist or the Christian that I am today without the early desert fathers, the liturgy that comes from the Catholic and Anglican traditions—and all of the incredibly important gifts that are there in our shared Christian storehouse.
TURNING AWAY FROM POLITICAL PREACHING?
DAVID: So, that’s evidence of a historic turning point, I think. Among young evangelicals, we’re seeing some of the brightest minds, with some of the biggest grassroots networks, actually rebuking some of the big evangelical trends we saw booming as recently as the 1980s and 1990s. If I’m reading you and Shane and Chris correctly, you guys also are urging people to quit preaching politics. There are other big names out there—Brian McLaren and David Batstone come to mind—who have huge evangelical audiences and still are preaching strong political messages. Brian and David come out of that Sojourners-and-Jim-Wallis kind of movement that preaches on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, the enslaved. Batstone is famous for his anti-slavery work. Shane and Chris have unleashed the popular Jesus for President movement—but in the end of that particular book and video, they make a point of avoiding any message in favor of a specific candidate, party or public policy.
Page 159 in your own new book, for example, says bluntly: “Christianity does not offer a program to fix the world.” Are you actually telling people to quit being politically active?
JONATHAN: First, I need to say: I certainly consider myself part of the movement that always cries out for justice when there is injustice in our world. And I think the heart of that movement in the United States is that long-standing coalition of radical evangelicals, black folks and Quakers who started the Underground Railroad and the abolition movement in the early 19th century. Growing out of that movement was the evangelism of people like Charles Finney. In the mid-20th century, that kind of strange coalition surfaced in the civil rights movement. I certainly consider myself part of that historic movement.
But, you have to remember that many of us also are coming out of the sort of 20th century evangelicalism that wants to grab power and rule the world in Jesus’s name. Many of us have personal background in the Religious Right and we’ve seen that kind of seeking after power that defined the Religious Right. Shane and Chris and I are conditioned in our writing and speaking by having seen the dangers of that kind of grasping after political power.
That’s why we talk the way we do about Jesus having engaged the world in a different way. We’re speaking to that very grasping we all saw in the Religious Right. Jesus’s way was more the process of becoming the change that we seek. I love Jim Wallis. I love Brian McLaren. We want to be part of the prophetic witness against the powers that foster injustice in our world. But I find my vocation in the church—based on where I’ve been and where I’ve come from in the church—as telling people that our role is to be an incarnational presence in the world; our role is to listen closely to the voices of those who have no voice. Our goal is not to set ourselves up as the official spokesperson for Christianity in Washington D.C.
OPENING THE DOORS TO A PRACTIAL THEOLOGY
DAVID: In this series, we are recommending three of your books to readers. I think people should get all three. They form a triptych of your overall message. We get the ancient foundation of your practical approach to theology in the St. Benedict book; then, we get the basic message about slowing down and paying attention to our neighborhoods in the Stability book. Then, in this newest book, I think we’ve got the most complete overview of your message. For readers who’ve never heard of you until this series of articles, I would say: First and foremost, order a copy of The Awakening of Hope. I know Phyllis Tickle talks about this new book in that way, too.
JONATHAN: Yes, Awakening of Hope is the clearest, most-accessible, most-complete one-volume look at this new monasticism movement. This book is the fruit of 10 years of research. I wrote it as a celebration of our faith and a representation of our faith in a post-Christendom sort of way. In this book, you can see how we are trying to recover an ancient Christian tradition. You could call it a new catechism of the church’s old language. I’m trying to tell people what our faith really is about in communities today.
DAVID: You use the term “catechism,” which simply means that the book teaches people the basics about your movement. But we should emphasize: Awakening of Hope is not about memorizing a bunch of beliefs—far from it, right?
JONATHAN: When we meet new people, what they really want to know about us is not: What do you believe? They want to know: Why do you live like you’re living? So, I’m focusing on the practices of Christians in the world today and why radical Christians in the world today are doing things like living in one place, focusing our work on a single place, focusing on nonviolence and all the other things we do. That’s a way of getting at the heart of our faith.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF GREAT AWAKENING
DAVID: The book ends with a vision that we already may be in the midst of a new Great Awakening. In fact, we will publish a brief excerpt of that section in this series. So, let’s close with just a quick snapshot from you: What evidence do you have of a Great Awakening?
JONATHAN: First, we need to understand that the awakening already has happened and is happening—and the Gospel already is speaking in a new way to many people all across the country and around the world. That’s what happened in past Great Awakenings in America, except they tended to happen in one place. Now, this is happening in many places and just emerging to greater public awareness.
What fuels a Great Awakening is not that individuals suddenly realize the Gospel is good for them. What really moves this is the collective experiences of many people from many backgrounds in many places—all realizing that there is a widespread need for change. I see this widespread movement among young people who realize that the current trajectories of our world are not moving us toward a hopeful future. Many of these young people are emerging in tiny pockets and small places all across the landscape—gathering in small groups and trying to imagine the world to come.
Don’t look for a big tent to go up. Don’t look for one place where preachers gather and thousands come to a single experience. This awakening is happening in countless places, many of them too small to see right now. But it is emerging. There is an awakening. And I think that’s great news.
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Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.