In Celtic Christian life, the monastic group established their community near a town or well-traveled crossroads. Unlike later monastic communities, the Celtic Christian communities were not cloistered — they were open to passers-by, neighbors, and townspeople. When disputes arose, the village knew that refuge and peace could be found inside the walls of the Celtic Christian compound. As these communities of Christ grew, they became the centers of the community.
The abbeys were resources for worship, commerce, craft and trade, advice, hospitality, evangelism, catechesis, healing, care, and a host of other needs and ministries. The surrounding pagan community learned that the abbey was a place where they could go for help, food, shelter, and guidance. The concept, according to George Hunter’s Celtic Way of Evangelism, was that “belonging comes before believing.” The monks were quick to welcome the stranger, inquirer, refugee, and others into their midst.
The Church-As-Abbey Reimagined For Today
The modern day church-as-abbey would function much the same way. Worship, prayers, instruction, meals, and hospitality would be practiced there. But also the church would be the “hub” in the “wheel of ministry.” Spokes in the wheel could be house churches, small groups, ministry and social action groups, alternative worship experiences, off-campus locations, and off-site ministries. All of these would relate to the church-as-abbey as the central resource for coordination, planning, prayer, and support.
Small groups would be connected to the abbey through the use of in-house instructional materials available by video and podcast. Small group leaders would be facilitators using the resources from the abbey thereby preserving the clarity and consistency in teaching.
Small groups of all functions would worship at the church-as-abbey at least monthly, reporting to the abbey on a regular basis. Small group leaders would be held accountable for ministry design, content, and outcomes.
Small churches could act as abbeys, too, without buying additional land, building additional buildings, or hiring additional staff. The key would be creating groups external to the abbey, but related to the abbey to maintain the practice of the community.
The abbey would adopt a “rule of life” — a set of practices which its members followed, thus identifying them with the abbey’s particular philosophy and calling. This rule, patterned after the Rule of St. Benedict, would at a minimum include regular prayer, Bible reading, worship, and service to others. Specifics would be developed by each abbey in conversation with leaders and members of the community.
The church-as-abbey solves many of the problems of engaging the area surrounding a church. Most ministry happens outside the church, with the church as resource. Individuals are not first invited to “church,” but are invited, for example, to join a social action group that feeds the homeless each Tuesday night. Churches need to get past the idea that only our church members can be involved in ministry projects. Participants relate to the church as abbey — as resource — to their ministry long before they feel any need to join the abbey.
Only as the church moves out into the world to do the work of Christ in the way of Jesus, will we again find the vitality which the Christian community has lost to institutionalism. The church as abbey has great potential for each church, regardless of size, to engage and befriend its ministry area — its geographical “parish.” More work needs to be done on this concept, but I am convinced it holds great promise for the future of the church.