I think we should see our churches today as like the Sons of the Prophets: semi-monastic communities that interact with the wider culture, including the corridors of power when required, but largely do our own thing while living within it. We are, as Peter would have it, exiles even within the land (1 Peter 1).
In the past I’ve described evnagelical churches as living in an anticulture, have suggested that we are in an ebb of history, which can make us think Christendom was a terrible thing, which it wasn’t.
Assuming you’re with me, and convicted that we don’t build anything, but that we also live at what feels like a civilisational ebb, what can we do about it?
I think it’s helpful to start by looking at others in the Bible who sat at a similar point in history. Take, for example, the Sons of the Prophets in 2 Kings. Elijah functioned as a solo prophet who despaired of there even being anyone else who followed Yahweh in Israel—though he was wrong (1 Kings 19). Elisha, by contrast, worked with and lived with a community of lesser prophets called the Sons of the Prophets (they first pop up in 1 Kings 20, seemingly sprouting from the ground).
Which, by the by, follows the Biblical typological pattern of the lone man followed by the man and his ‘bride’ that we see repeated time and time again. It is, in its final form, John the Baptist followed by Jesus.
The Sons of the Prophets were a reform movement from within Israel. They had no real cultural power, for all Elisha occasionally spoke with the king in a much less combative role than Elijah had, he also seems much less interested in the monarchy than Elijah was. Which is another of the Bible’s grand patterns, from priest (servant) to king (ruler) to prophet (member of the divine council). Why would you be interested in kings when there are prophets to speak with?
They remain a faithful community within Israel, without leaving it. A faithful community that has clear borders but still lives in and among the rest of the culture. Which sounds remarkably like that old cliché, “in the world but not of the world.”
They seem to be semi-monastic, with their own place to live (2 Kings 6), but that also receives others into the community at need. They seem to disappear from the narrative when Elisha does, which is simply because the focus of the storytelling moves elsewhere, and we are left to ponder what their impact on the grand sweep of history was. It may well have been minimal.
“What a terrible model for us!” I hear you cry! Or not, as the case may be. I’m certain that the impact they had in continuing the faith of Yahweh in the land and on the people that they helped was significant.