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 with Jonathan, focusing on his new edition of The Rule of St. Benedict.
PART 3: Today, read the portion of our interview on The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture.
PART 4: Conclusion of our interview focuses on The Awakening of Hope.
DAVID: We began this interview talking about your publication of an easy-to-read paraphrase of the Christian classic, The Rule of St. Benedict. As you describe Benedict’s vision of finding stability in the midst of our worldy chaos, let’s turn to your second recent book, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture.
Right now, countless Americans would love to find some kind of stability in their lives. The moment I began reading your book, I was thinking of people like Craig and Nancy Goodwin, whose book Year of Plenty was one of our recommendations to readers last year. I’ve kept in touch with the Goodwins’ ongoing work. One big goal in their lives is not to drop out and isolate themselves. Crucial to their family life and the outreach they’re doing is helping people to see how we’re all connected. In a nutshell, that’s what you’re talking about in this book by Paraclete Press.
JONATHAN: Yes, we don’t want to mistake the alternatives Benedict is showing us with just dropping out. In fact, to radically connect yourself to the gospel is not to drop out at all—it’s to engage the world in a different way. You’re engaging in this work in one place for the sake of the whole world. In Benedict’s vision, that is possible not because these works have heroic value in themselves—but because you are doing these things within the living Body of Christ that extends around the world. Indeed, in Benedict’s Christian vision, this is the Body that created the whole world. When a small group of people, even in one small place, gets up and prays together each morning—you’re doing incredibly important work for the whole world.
STAYING IN ONE PLACE AS A RADICAL RELIGIOUS IDEA
DAVID: If readers are interested in this particular book, I would urge them to purchase this along with your version of St. Benedict’s Rule. Just as you were saying, there clearly are close connections in your teachings on these points. But I want to press you further, because you’re finding yourself in demand as a speaker and teacher. As a Christian activist, you’ve already circled the world and worked in a wide array of places. If we look back 2,000 years, we wouldn’t have Christianity if Paul of Tarsus hadn’t been a global traveler. St. Francis traveled the known world in his day.
In this book on stability, you tell people that it’s very important to stay in one place. So, how does that fit with your own life—and the examples of other great Christian teachers who traveled widely?
JONATHAN: That’s a great question. And I need to explain that I’m not disagreeing with the parts of scripture that tell us to go into all the world. Our list of men and women who traveled far and wide in the Bible can go on and on—of course Abraham traveled, Moses traveled. But as people living in the United States we’ve been formed in a country that is defined by at least a century of rapid technological advancement. Our culture is speed, speed, speed. Move, move, move. A lot of people, today, are in pretty desperate need to rediscover resources that help us to stay.
There’s a lost treasure in the church’s history—a beautiful treasure from our tradition that I hope I represented in this book. I say it like that because it seems to me that the challenge of staying—the challenge of stability—is at least as much aesthetic as it is logical. We can try to convince people to stay with the logic of our arguments. Staying helps our communities to grow. But the logic of these arguments comes up against the thousand advertisements we see every day telling us that somewhere else is better than where we are right now.
You know one of the most surprising responses I’ve heard to this book on stability? I’ve now heard enough of these responses to recognize it as a real trend. I’m hearing from people who run Christian mission agencies who want me to come talk to staff, to volunteers, in one case to an international gathering. The first time I got one of these requests, I laughed and said, “Why would you—as a mission agency sending people around the world—want your people to read this book about staying in one place?”
One of the people running one of these agencies said to me: “We need to hear this message. We have a real problem with sending Americans to other parts of the world, these days, because they tend not to stay. The average stay is about two years. There’s something in their cultural formation that calls them to go on a mission. But, when they actually get to a new place, they find that they can’t stay there either. This book about stability is important. We need to help people figure out how to do the hard work of deciding to stay in one place and really invest in that place.”
DAVID: This may sound simple at first glance, as readers go through this interview text. But, it’s radical stuff. What you’re teaching here, it seems to me, flies in the face of the big megachurches. They say to people: Hey, forget about your neighborhood—hop on the freeway and cruise out to our great big regional church. And, the megachurch mantra says: If we need to expand tomorrow, we’ll just leave this current building behind and move to some other auditorium. Even the patterns of Catholic church closings across the country seem to suggest that older neighborhoods don’t matter. Lots of historic urban parishes have closed their doors nationwide. You’re arguing: Place does matter—and even small neighborhoods matter.
JONATHAN: (Laughs) Well, pastors do get an awful lot of marketing plans and pitches in the mail. A lot of times, the suggestion is to dig deep into the world of business and marketing for answers. I’m pointing out that we have other treasures in our own tradition that we can draw on in our communities.
Most importantly, I’m getting lots of emails and letters from young Christians who tell me that the church is not even giving them the language to describe this longing they feel to be rooted in a place. They feel this need for stability like an ache. Instead, we give them hyper-mobility. Today, the Earth is crying out to us through more and more scientific data that we’re just not made to go this fast. We need to find different ways to live in this world.
READ more of our interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, next focusing on his book The Awakening of Hope.
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Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.