Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Ashrams, Cults of Personality and Community

In India spiritual teachers set up Ashrams. An ashram is simply a small community of people who are gathered around a teacher for the sake of growing in their interior life. It is different than a monastery where people gather around a common rule of life, in an ashram people gather around a teacher.

Some of the guests at the ashram will stay for a week, while other will stay for months or years. As a former D3 tennis player there is something in me that rings true about finding a teacher. To become good at tennis, one needs a good coach. In fact a good coach plays a significant role in the development of a player. The same is true for martial arts, the teacher makes a huge difference in the life of the student.

Really, it is no different in the spiritual life, the right teacher makes all the difference. There is a saying in the East "when the student is ready the teacher appears". There are very few Christian ashrams. Noted Christian E. Stanley Jones began a movement which is still in existence today called United Christian Ashrams. Here is their tag line:

"Ashrams are unique religious retreats that are Christ-centered and give individuals an opportunity to discover Christian answers for victorious daily living in the 21st century
while proclaiming... Jesus is Lord!"

Their ashrams really are retreats which are fashioned like old style tent meetings, nothing wrong with it, just not an Indian style ashram.

What I realized the other day is that in the US, Christians really seek spiritual teachers who preach well and that they like. There is little understanding of what it means to be a community. Monks are members of a community, regardless of who the Abbot is. Christians on the other hand ebb and flow with the pastors. When a long time and well loved pastor leaves, people leave with him or her. Some, not all of the ones that stay are really still rooted in their previous pastor. During my first year at MLC I heard this a lot about the pastors who had left, which is very normal for US churches.

There is subtle danger of a cult of personality developing in US Churches. A sign of this is when people say Congregation X is "Such and such's church". No, it is the Lord's church where "such and such" serves. I think in the US that we need more profound Christian teachers of the spiritual life who are accessible. I think that these folks ought to serve outside of congregational ministry and have their ministry supported by benefactors. Much like the work of the Contemplative Society: http://www.contemplative.org/

I think that congregations should function more like monasteries and be built on a communal rule which gives freedom and yet continuity to the community. It needs good leadership, but the common rule should draw people more than a good preacher. I think that this approach to ministry would draw more people who are dechurched and unchurched since the gathering of the community would not be about a pastor or other influencers, rather it would be about common life seeking what is means to be a disciple of Christ in a particular place and particular time, guided by a common rule.

'The renewal of the church will come from a new type of monasticism which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. It is high time men and women banded together to do this'
-----Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter to his brother

Here are some examples:





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