This unshakable reality has led many a thinker, Christians and conservative religious types alike, to ask "what now?", how are we to live and function in a brave new world, taking a Gospel to a people who no longer fear the cultural stigma of being irreligious? This is especially problematic as so many of the people and groups asking that question don't even agree on what the Gospel is, either agreeing to not worry about it or seeking a lowest common denominator acceptable definition of the Gospel.
One of the more popular and coherent options being put forth for the church comes from Rod Dreher who writes extensively at The American Conservative. Rod has been banging the drum for an option that labels The Benedict Option and it seems to be gathering some serious support. The Benedict Option is sort of a withdrawal from the world, not in the sense of being disengaged but rather by being distinct from the world to preserve civilization and religion for that time when the suicidal culture we live in finally collapses. His synopsis is below:
The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.
This has some merit. For too long the church has had a vested interest in being unequally yoked to the state, with the state providing religious protection, a favored position in the culture and favorable tax treatment and the church in turn being a public agent of the state, giving religious significance and authorization to the workings of the American empire and tragically been at the front of the line to send our young men out to kill at Caesar's demand. I would agree that being intentional in our community with one another will be even more critical in the decades to come if the church is to survive. What Rod sort of misses is that these sorts of "set apart" communities exist today. He gives passing reference to the Bruderhof but fails to mention the Hutterites, the Amish, the Old German Baptist Brethren and some of the more conservative manifestations of Mennonites who already are practicing a culture of separation from the world, although a case can be made that they do so to a fault.
Of course Dreher's vantage point as an Orthodox (Capital "O" Orthodox) convert from Catholicism is a major factor here. His Catholic/Orthodox blinders are apparent whenever he speaks of anything evangelical or Protestant, at least non high-church Protestantism. The people most likely to embrace some form of the Benedict Option outside of the Roman/Orthodox sphere are those Protestant/evangelical types that are most conservative and speaking as someone who falls into that continuum I can say with confidence that we don't find much common cause with ornate ritualistic religions headed up by popes and patriarchs and including a lot of very troubling religious beliefs and practices. You can find some of that in this part of his Introduction To The Benedict Option:
Note here that what Rod is really talking about is preserving not Kingdom communities of regenerate believers but more of a general sense of preserving Western culture. I very much doubt that a significant number of people were born-again based on some piece of art or music. The big issue with the Benedict Option is that it is not aimed at Kingdom formation. It is aimed at preserving civilization and along with that religious practice. What he seems to be proposing is a form of "evangelism" that negates the necessity of the spoken call to repentance and the pointing of the way to Jesus Christ. The end goal of the Benedict Option from the perspective of the Roman/Orthodox church is a reuniting of the church with the state and the culture at some point in the future. As Dreher puts it: "It’s all about culture now.". I would retort that it has never been about culture.
So if the Benedict Option is not correct, what does the way forward look like? I think the original, European, persecuted Anabaptists give us a more practical model to face. I take occasion to point out that I am speaking about the Anabaptists before the mass migration to America. The "Anabaptists" of today are split into two groups, one a largely orthodox, Gospel focused conservative Anabaptism that suffers in some ways from a focus on an external rule-making and rule-keeping model that also tends to be very suspicious of pretty much every other Christian tradition and on the other hand a rapidly imploding wannabe "progressive" form of "Anabaptism" that bears almost no resemblance to Anabaptism apart from the word Anabaptist.
The Anabaptists faced a multifaceted threat to their very existence. The state and the sponsoring religion of that state sought to suppress what they saw as the Anabaptist threat to the church-state amalgamation that dominated the Reformation period. This was true for Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. The Anabaptist movement itself faced schism from within as some took the opportunity afforded them by the loosening of the religious monopolies of the day to go off in divergent radical forms that bore no resemblance to Anabaptism proper (Münster being the most obvious example). Often forgotten was a third threat to the Anabaptists, the Turks. The Turkish incursions were a clear and present danger not just to the Anabaptists but to all of Western civilization. In fact the refusal to take up the sword against the Turks and advocating the same of others got the Anabaptists in all sorts of trouble with the authorities.
What also set the Anabaptist founders apart in their time of persecution in Europe was that they were aggressively evangelistic. Stories abound of massive numbers converting and becoming Anabaptist wherever they went, and that caused all sorts of problems. If someone chooses to reject the state religion, whether secular or sectarian, and keep quiet about it, it can be ignored. When someone is being outspoken about their beliefs, calling others to convert and being openly and vocally critical of the prevailing culture, that brings the church and the state/culture into conflict and in the case of the Anabaptists it was seemingly one-sided. The state had the sword of Caesar, the Anabaptists had the Sword of the Word of God. If we don't have a message other than "gay marriage is bad but check out our sweet paintings", then what use are we?
I am fully aware, painfully in some respects, that what I am calling for is going to have to take shape in a difficult adjustment. For those who are already living in tight-knit Anabaptist communities there needs to be at some point a recognition that not everyone who is walking the Christian path is going to wear headcoverings, plain suit coats and ankle length dresses (at least not at first). The tension between being welcoming to those who don't look like them and still retaining their distinctives is a real one. For others who are in the more common religious model the days are coming when the church will be few enough that our spending habits will have to change dramatically. A Sunday morning focused model with most resources being directed at making Sunday morning as entertaining and low commitment as possible was never healthy to begin with and is going to be impossible in the very near future. The Anabaptist witness ought to be a place to turn for those who find their religious model burned to the ground around them.
If the Church, i.e. the community of regenerate believers living in visible communion with one another, looks to our past to find a model of the way forward, it only needs to go back to the 16th century. It is a hard path, filled with persecution and sorrow, but it is the path that I think gives us the best example of how we will need to live in the years to come. God grant us the wisdom and humility to see this and the strength and perseverance to face the days to come, staunch and unflinching.