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A minor


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Wipf & Stock
Today it occurred to me that four of the books that have most influenced my theological and ecclesiological perspective were published (or republished) by Wipf & Stock in Eugene, Oregon. (The books are The Sociology of the Church by James Jordan; From Sabbath to Lord's Day, edited by D.A. Carson; One Lord, One Faith, by Rex Koivisto; and The Priesthood of the Plebs by Peter Leithart.) Searching for more information about Wipf & Stock this afternoon, I ran across this article: "The New Monastics: Alternative Christian Communities" by Jason Byassee (Christian Century, October 18, 2005). Here's a lengthy quote:
Something of a different animal from Reba is the Church of the Servant King in Eugene, Oregon. Many of its members are evangelicals who originally joined a parent congregation of the same name in 1978 in Gardena, California. The Eugene congregation was planted in 1987. Most of its key leaders have been living together in intentional community since the '78 founding.

Servant King started as an evangelical effort to live out scripture's vision of the church. A commitment to nonviolence evolved slowly, partly as members read the works of Stanley Hauerwas, partly as they decided who would clean the bathrooms. Peace is not merely about a position on the war in Iraq; it is about how one relates to one's neighbor, one's spouse and one's adversary in the community. Community leader Jon Stock points out that most intentional Christian communities that are not committed to nonviolence don't survive, because when arguments erupt, someone has to win—and the community loses. The Gardena congregation that planted Servant King has had such a rupture and is now on strained terms with its ecclesial offspring in Eugene.

Servant King's members say that a key to its survival is its "overcoming of pietism." They are not rigid about drinking, smoking or cursing; the atmosphere there can seem a bit like the early hours of a fraternity party. This is intentional. Members have worked hard to avoid any sense of competition over righteousness, both as individuals and in comparing Servant King to the wider church. Such pride can splinter a community, as in the Gardena congregation's case.

When I asked Stock whether he considers his community a model for the rest of the church, he almost visibly shuddered: "I'm much more comfortable talking about the mistakes we've made." Though smoking and drinking are permitted, the group is traditional in other moral matters. "We're quite conservative in what we do with our genitals. You have to get money, sex and power straight or they'll ruin you."

Pietism can create artificial boundaries between a community and the wider church. Communities like these are born precisely out of impatience with the mainstream church, which they regard as compromised by or indistinguishable from the world. Servant King has, with some difficulty, reembraced the wider church. It follows the lectionary in its preaching and celebrates the Lord's Supper weekly. It invites prominent theologians to visit and teach in its midst.

On the Sunday I visited, the community added a new member to the group, which Stock says is made up of 23 adults, eight teenagers and "I can't remember how many" children. The group gathers in the largest living room of its several houses in Eugene to sing "Down to the River to Pray" and to accompany the new member to her baptism—in a large tub in the backyard. She makes a public confession of sin, saying she has "idolized relationships above all." Stock almost whispers, "The Lord forgives." His fellow pastor, Brian Logan, shouts St. Paul's words as he dips her under the water: "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation!"

In a liberal university town on the west coast, Servant King seems strange not because it's a commune of sorts, but because it's Christian. The community works to be known as such among its neighbors. It runs Windows bookshop, a used bookstore with mostly theology texts on its rough-hewn shelves. Ten years ago the bookstore birthed Wipf and Stock Publishers, which employs many of Servant King's members. The community also runs a coffee shop. All these activities take place in a city block-sized building that includes a pizza parlor and a stage for performances, which draw others in. Eugene's small number of Christians (it has the fewest churches for a city its size in America) know the church, as do the colorful assortment of folks who stop by for pizza, coffee, books or conversation.

By comparison with Servant King's members, Reba's Mennonites seem a bit more pious and plain. Reba's participation in a network of similar Anabaptist fellowships in the Shalom Mission Communities also stands in contrast to Servant King's independent status. But the two groups have some things in common. The life of the mind is important to both (one makes its living by selling books; the other has bookshelves filled to overflowing). Both communities are also quite wealthy. Reba's real estate is worth a fortune in the overheated Chicagoland housing market, and Servant King's property has tripled in value during the recent housing boom.

Yet these communities are not investors. Their property is important to them only as a way of allowing members to live near one another and share life together, as Stock writes in the New Monasticism book, or of enabling them to offer low-cost housing to their neighbors. When I asked Stock and Logan what they plan to do when their members retire, they looked befuddled. Christians don't retire, in their view. "Florida is not on the Christian map," Stock says. They plan to work until they cannot, at which point they will trust others to take care of them.

If their care for one another now is any indication, others will be there for caregiving. Stock and Logan kiss each other on the cheek when they part for a journey of a few days, suggesting that three decades in intentional community has led to a deep friendship. "What we're after is a place that tastes and smells like the kingdom of God," Stock says. One gets a sense of such a place at the party after the baptism. The new member has requested a traditional backyard barbecue, but I'm told she could have chosen any food she liked. Really? Even lobster? Sushi? Caviar? "Sure, she's a new member of Jesus' body—when else do you celebrate?" Servant King is not opposed to extravagance as such, but wants to see it in the service of building the kingdom of God rather than in private consumption.


The communities I visited have important differences in organization, style, finances and even theology. Some are churches, like Church of the Servant King and Church of the Sojourners. Some are related to churches. Reba sponsors two ecclesial gatherings nearby, so that one can worship with a Reba congregation without participating in Reba's common-purse arrangement. Rutba looks for support and wisdom from nearby St. John's Missionary Baptist Church, but members do not have to attend. Grace Fellowship is simply a mainline church committed to more radical living. Reba folks have a common treasury and give a stipend to members; Sojourners members maintain an agreed-upon standard of living and give the rest of their income to the church. Servant King members tithe 15 percent and open their books to one another to account for the rest. Servant King's rough speech and petty vices would make some people at Reba uneasy.

These communities can seem a bit inbred. Jonathan Wilson, coiner of the phrase new monasticism, is father and father-in-law of the key members of Rutba, which hosted the conference, edited the book and sponsors the Web site by the same name. The woman I saw baptized at Servant King is Jon Stock's niece. Stock runs Wipf and Stock Publishers, which prints Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's work. Members of Sojourners and Grace Fellowship spoke at a conference organized by the Chicago-area seminary professors who send students to Reba.

Another problem the communities face is the challenge of transcending divisions along the lines of race and class. While those who do join are drawn to the scriptural norm of communities that transcend racial and financial barriers, they tend to be white, college-educated folks, despite great effort to reach out. For example, one of the Sojourners' original goals was to serve some of the tens of thousands of refugees displaced to San Francisco as a result of civil war in El Salvador. Three Salvadoran families joined the church and benefited from its legal clinic and job preparation aid. As soon as they acquired the resources, the families promptly bought minivans, left the church and moved to the suburbs. Perhaps those who have had less of a chance at pursuing the American dream are not yet ready to be disenchanted with it.

Even with these difficulties, the new monastic communities say they are adding new members, and various new communities are sprouting up around the country. Camden House in New Jersey has planted a garden in an area of postindustrial blight, where homeless people can get fresh vegetables. The Open Door in Atlanta is billed as a sort of "Protestant Catholic Worker" house, where members staff a soup kitchen for the homeless and agitate for justice in the city. Others communities have arisen in such unlikely places as Shreveport, Louisiana (emphasis mine—JA); Omaha, Nebraska; Waco, Texas; Springfield, Massachusetts; and Lexington, Kentucky, now linked as part of the informal new monasticism network. Each has its own gifts, idealism, quirkiness and commitment to local community. And each claims to be an alternative to the now-regnant empire and a foretaste of a coming kingdom.

Each of the communities I visited seeks also to serve the wider church—and even to convert it. Monastic communities have always had greater influence than their numbers. For one thing, they enable preachers and other Christians to point and say, "See, someone does try to live out the costly demands of Jesus with regard to possessions, family, nonviolence and love." Their presence also encourages more traditional churches to alter their life in small but significant ways.

Even if the effort doesn't have that effect, its adherents view it as worthwhile. As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says, "Whether these communities proliferate or not, this life is good enough in itself."
(Anybody know what community he's referring to in Shreveport?)

jon :: link :: comment ::

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