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Gyrovagues, Church-Shoppers, and Ecclesial Free Agents

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : June 25, 2008

From the Rule of St. Benedict:

But the fourth class of monks is that called Gyrovagues, who keep going their whole life long from one province to another, staying three or four days at a time in different cells as guests. Always roving and never settled, they indulge their passions and the cravings of their appetite, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites. It is better to pass all these over in silence than to speak of their most wretched life.

St. Benedict despised the Gyrovagues–wandering monks who never settled into a monastery. These monastery-shopping free-agents were a monastery unto themselves. They never submitted to the abbots, never settled into a rhythm of life. Instead, they wandered from monastery to monastery, enjoying the hospitality, eschewing work, and living the carefree life they had determined for themselves.

These moocher monks were sponges who, casting off vows of stability (staying in one place) and obedience (obeying the Abbot), were a law unto themselves.

Strange how what was considered the lowest form of detestable monk in Benedict’s time is an almost noble spiritual standard in ours.

Ours is a Christian culture filled with gyrovagues–church shoppers and ecclesial free agents. It isn’t uncommon for someone to attend four or five communities off and on in one’s city. In fact, I’ve had friends that seem to think it is noble that they are unencumbered with church membership.

This sort of thinking is increasingly the norm. It makes sense that it would be, since ours is a culture of consumer choices. With so much being offered at the ecclesial buffet table, why not sample around?

After all, people in Benedict’s day were jerks. They were backwards medievals who didn’t really understand things the way we do today.

Or, perhaps, Benedict was a wise Christian sage who understood the human heart in ways that we’ve forgotten?

In the West, we see the fruits of individualism and consumerism (two things that Benedict would despise). Nothing is sacred. Everything is commodified. You can buy Jesus cosmetics and Buddha soup. Spiritual traditions are rarely passed down from generation to generation in our country, since hardly anyone stays in the religious tradition into which they were born. And few people in our transitory society stay in the same neighborhood for very long. We’re a nation of gyrovagues.

In some ways, this is a good thing. That means we’re enjoying more of what life has to offer. It means that we’re prospering…we’re not confined to the lot that life has thrown our way. We can move to wherever we want, practice whatever faith we want, choose the church that we like the best. What’s the down side?

I think Benedict would be quick to point out the fickle nature of the human heart. Without something to submit to, you basically make choices that reinforce the impulses of your own heart. It is hard to shape disciples in a culture of free agents and church shoppers. That’s because church shoppers and ecclesial free agents are essentially discipling themselves.

But heck, we don’t need to be discipled by another. After all we have our Bible and the Spirit.

But double-heck, the disciples had that too but for some reason Jesus felt it necessary to be with them, training them for three years. And we’re not talking classroom education like you get in a seminary. We’re talking the real stuff: talking with Jesus into the early hours, watching Jesus heal the sick and then being told to do likewise. Every sermon. Every conversation. Every miracle. Every prophetic act. The disciples took it all in.

The sort of Christian being “produced” in America is exactly in keeping with the way we engage discipleship. Or, in the words I once heard from Alan Hirsch: “We’re all being discipled, the question is only who is doing the discipling.” And in a Consumer society like ours, where being a “gyrovague” is the norm, we are being discipled by our consumer choices.

We are our own abbots and our media-saturated society provides the Scripture for our self-formation.

What sort of disciple does THAT create?

I’m not advocating an embrace of early medieval Benedictine monasticism. But I think we need to be thoughtful and creative and serious about how we understand spiritual formation in our communities.

What can we learn from Benedictine vows of stability and obedience?

How can we reimagine Benedict’s charism for our time?

What do your communities do to challenge the negative side of “gyrovaguery”?

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of JesusManifesto.com. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.


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    Interesting that church-hoppers existed in Benedict's time, too. I find this to be the most challenging aspect of leading a church community. The unencumbered freedom to follow one's desires is assumed to be the highest good in our culture, and it's difficult to preach a gospel that is so antithetical to it.

    We've been struggling to understand how to apply "stability" and "obedience" to our community without becoming a cult ;)

    One of the ways we try to challenge "gyrovaguery" is by making our gatherings low-key and sustainable. They are very meaningful for those who are committed to the community, and intriguing (I hope) for those who aren't, but they definitely are not entertaining to watch. But we do struggle occasionally against the tendency for people to simply skip a gathering because they "felt like it." We're trying to instill a sense in our gatherings that we really need one another, that we don't "come to church" to be fed religious goods and services, but to be the visible Body of Christ, to encourage and edify one another, bringing our gifts to bear on the life of the community. It's definitely an uphill battle, though.

    Good post, thanks. Provoked a lot of thought for me.
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    Our family has been Church free agents for about 3 years now. We have visited/attended dozens of Churches during this time. We want community. We want fellowship. We want a Christianity that matters.

    Instead.......we found Churches don't care. Not one Church we have visited in the past three years has ever followed up by visiting our home. (even churches we visited numerous times)

    It has been over 3 years since we last heard an explicitly gospel sermon from start to finish. A lot of fluff, how-to junk......but not much gospel.

    SO the consumer CAN be the problem but many times it is the product that is the problem.
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    We've had a somewhat similar experience. We sporadically go to the church that we feel 'closest' to, but after two years we're less connected than when we started, and not much better off.

    Exploring other options nowadays...
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    I would concur with Bruce. When Jesus called his disciples he went to them. The good Shepherd goes to look for the lost sheep. When babies become toddlers, parents spend a lot of time following the toddler around.

    I agree that it is important to get plugged into a church home, where you can be known, and know others. But I've rarely had someone from church call me up to find out how I'm doing or check on me, even in places I've been in for a long time. There seems to be unspoken ecumenical boundaries that are to prevent membership conflict, but which in effect make it so people who aren't actively involved or who aren't like calling the pastor for counsel don't get any attention by anyone.

    I have been very encouraged by the church shopping, because I feel like it has put pressure on church administration to change the way their doing church. While I'm dedicated to my church, I miss a more ethnic flavor. I have had times where I visited several different churches and I felt much more connected to the Church body as a whole. There is a need for cross pollination.

    I don't like moochers any more than St Benedictine. There needs to be a way that a person's reputation could follow them from church to church. A person could then get involved sooner, and the moochers could be avoided better. There seems to be a lot of fear of loss of control with respect to getting people involved. And most of the time the definition of getting people involved is having them join an established band wagon, rather than being ready to enable someone else's band wagon. It takes a while to find other band wagons that are similar to one's own band wagon that one might want to join in the wagon train.
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    The problem I see with many churches is the "all in or all out" mentality. If you don't buy into the leadership's methodology and perform the way they believe you should you are quickly written off and not a team player..Once I declined an opportunity to serve in a church ministry due to time constraints and the fact that I was presently serving in another capacity, but the next time I saw this church leader he wouldn't even make eye contact.Church leadership must show acceptance of everyone no matter what their commitment level and become less about their "ministries" and programs and more about the people. This could alleviate the need for so many to shop around.
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    the problem is that we want fellowship in places that do not care what the Bible has to say about what church is. Pray that the Lord would bring people into your life that want to fellowship on a freindship basis outside of the incorporated scenario. Check these links out: http://www.house2house.net/ , http://flrev.org/ , http://www.hccentral.com/directory/index.html. A life changing book for me has been: The Pilgrim Church, by E.H. Broadbent. It shows how those who want Biblical Christiantiy must not be shy about gathering outside of the state church structures. These is good study material available at: http://www.ariel.org/dcs.htm. It is time to stop hoping that the churches that you find in the yellow pages will somehow become what you are looking for. Non corporate gatherings do take loving commitment, but not blind allegience to a man based heirarchal system. Those who are tender hearted to the doctrines of Christ, found in the Bible, will be greived of spirit by what they see out there. It is time to "be" the church, rather than continually looking for it in all the wrong places.
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    Thank you Tom. I'd come across house2house but the other resources were new to me. I will check them out.
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    Having recently removed myself from the congregation I served in for almost 7 years, I'm a bit shell-shocked (even though I have strong community and accountability with other believers). Its very strange not having a sense of place.

    One of the questions I have been toying with, however, is why the "itinerant preacher" is such an iconic figure in Christianity, while itinerant laity are simply self-seeking? If a pastor "feels the Lord leading him" to a new position or to start a new church, it isn't questioned, but if a church member feels the same leading, they are really just following their own desires.

    The responsibility of a discipling community falls on both those discipling and those being discipled... and on down the line as the discipleship continues. When it becomes a "my-way-or-the-highway" type controlling relationship, it ceases to be community... or discipleship for that matter. I value stability and obedience... I also value mutual-respect and communication. I guess its difficult for me to continue in the first where the latter is absent.
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    Doesn't it matter as to what one's calling is? After all, as counter point to Benedict, read The Way of the Pilgrim, the spiritual Russian Orthodox classic. That is the story of a peasant who prayed one prayer, wandered from place to place, led by God's Spirit alone and so changed an entire culture's spirituality.

    There is a difference between laziness and the spirituality of "not knowing where one is coming or where one is going to" (John 3:8). One must have a direct sense from the Spirit as to where one is going and to directly head there, even though there may be no human authority or community to lead one. Such a spirituality is the exception rather than the rule. But for Benedict, or anyone else, to deny the spirituality of the pilgrim wanderer is to deny an essential form of God's leading.

    Steve K
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    The mendicants (Franciscans, Dominicans, etc) had to defend themselves against the charge of being gyrovagues. I am sure that Benedict would recognize the difference between a gyrovague and a pilgrim or itinerant. It all depends upon, like you say, calling.

    I appreciate the fact that it is hard to find a good church to belong to. I can also appreciate the special calling of itinerants. But, to me, modern "gyrovagues" are those who have a sort of buffet spirituality.

    I think we can all recognize the general trend, and it is a growing one. And I think there are some serious drawbacks.
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    I'm not so sure about Benedict, because I think he saw anyone without a clear human authority as being rogue spiritualists.

    But I certainly see your point. I am a pastor of a church without membership, but I spend a lot of time telling people that they need to commit to a Christian community and to be accountable to it until they release you. If we do not commit, then our faith is without substance and without application.
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    Sounds kinda like you're saying that we all need clear human authority. ;)

    Don't get me wrong. I don't think that Benedict is worth swallowing hook, line, and sinker. But there is some wisdom in his spiritual path. I filter his insights through a sort of protestant or anabaptist understanding of community. And so, I believe we all must submit to authority...the authority of Jesus mediated through the Body. We must all practice mutual submission. And in so doing, we do indeed submit to clear human authority, in a certain manner.

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