A profound shift is taking place in this country. It has already taken place in much of Western Europe. It has also happened in Canada. It is just now that the United States is catching up. That shift is the movement away from Christianity in places where it was once dominant. For a whole variety of reasons those who claim to be Christian and those who affiliate with a particular church are slowly declining.
But there is a difference between what is happening in Europe and what is happening in North America. The difference is that in Europe there is still, even if vague, a dim memory of a pre-Christian past. Those of us in North America, at least those of us of European descent, have no such memory. Our collective memory does not include a time when we were not, at least in North America, Christian.
That is not true in Europe. And that is what fascinates me.
Today we remember a saint, Willibrord, from pre-Christian Europe. It is not that there were no Christians in Europe in the days of Willibrord, who lived from about 659 to 739, but Christianity was only one of a variety of religions of the time. Europe was still very much a mission field for the Gospel. And that is what fascinates me. How did Europe go from a place that was non-Christian, to one that was overwhelmingly Christian in a few hundred years? By understanding that, we might begin to piece together a vision for the Church today in North America. How do we as the Church live in the midst of an increasingly non-Christian culture and how do we faithfully proclaim the gospel of Christ within and to that culture?
What fascinates me about this period of church history, from the Fall of Rome in the early fifth century to say 1100, is the story of people like Willibrord and their missionary activities. And what fascinates me most is that most of the missionaries at this time were monks. It was monk missionaries who converted large areas of Europe. So the question is, what was it about monks and monasticism that had the power to convert people to the Gospel of Jesus.
I think there were two things. One of them is that they lived the Gospel as if it mattered and that the Gospel made a difference in their lives. The other is that they did it within the context of a community. Willibrord wasn’t living a Christian life on his own. He was living his faith, as if it mattered, within the context of a community. And that is how he made a difference.
I find it increasingly fascinating that as the Church in Europe and North America find ourselves in the midst of a non-Christian culture that slowly but surely the model of being church that was so familiar to Willibrord and the monk missionaries of pre-Christian Europe are once again taking form.
I am convinced that in the days ahead, monastic communities like us, and intentional Christian communities like St. Hilda’s House, where some of you are from, will form the backbone of the Church, not because we are doing anything fancy of heroic, but simply because we are living the Christian life as if it mattered within the context of Christian community and demonstrating how the Gospel of Jesus can make a difference in a persons’ life.
In a sense that’s what Willibrord, whom we remember today, was up to all those years ago: living the Christian faith as if it mattered, and showing how it can make a difference. And that is all we are asked to do. And that is pretty powerful stuff which has the power to convert.
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