The Faith and Leadership blog at Duke Divinity School profiles the Society of St John the Evangelist, and its use of technology and social media to reach beyond the cloister.
In the mid-2000s, an Episcopal monastery in Harvard Square was at risk of extinction. The Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) had no clear path to raise $13 million for essential building repairs, and its religious publishing business was hemorrhaging money at an unsustainable rate….
But a decade later, the future looks much brighter for this community of 13 men who dedicate their lives to prayer, brotherhood and guiding others in the spiritual life. They have come up with the necessary $13 million and completed building repairs. They’ve also seen annual fund donations climb from $500,000 in 2006 to more than $1 million now, with a yearly double-digit growth rate.
The community has found a breath of new life in the air waves of the Internet. Publishing year-round its “Brother, Give Us A Word” program, and offering interactive Advent calendars and Lenten programs, the monks have found an appetite for bite-sized pieces of monastic life in the business of the every day.
The monks, who stop whatever they’re doing and worship together at least four times a day, have discovered a market for insights born of their relatively simple, disciplined lives. Those craving to know peace, freedom and God flock to hear a simple, inspiring word from those who still make time in specific hours for the holy. Grateful for what they’ve received, seekers commonly donate to the community.
Sharing spiritual riches and receiving charity in kind have been staples of monastic business models since the desert fathers withdrew to caves in the Egyptian desert in the second century.
But one factor makes 21st-century pilgrims very different from ancient ones: now they’re arriving virtually, via the Internet. Today’s brothers are distinct, too, insofar as they’ve learned to be as hospitable in cyberspace as they are when someone arrives at their doorstep on a cold winter night.
At the center of their outreach is the digital distribution of what Coats calls “monk content.” Pearls of monastic wisdom go out daily via email to 25,000 subscribers and via social media such as Twitter and Instagram. The result is a type of content that is rare in the online world: wise reflection from cloistered souls who, ironically, do not use Twitter or Instagram themselves.
The article notes that all five men who have joined the order since 2009 found their way to the monastery doors through the virtual portals of their Internet offerings. Read more about the marriage of ancient and modern monastic hospitality and prayer here, and link to the SSJE website here.