The church as abbey

Iona_abbey Last year, several of us in the Fuller DMin Missional Leadership program had dinner with Alan Roxburgh one evening.  Alan is one of the DMin adjunct professors, and author of The Sky Is Falling, co-author of The Missional Leader, and contributor to Missional Church, edited by Darrell Guder, the book that started this whole missional conversation.Since reading about the early Celtic Christians, I have had the idea that a local church could function like the old Celtic abbey.  So, I asked Alan about this concept of church as abbey at dinner.

Alan mentions in his book, The Missional Leader, that we need a new concept of church leadership in a reimagining of the eccleisal role of abbott or abbess.  My thinking fits Alan’s at this point — to have an abbott or abbess, you must also have an abbey which would be the local church.  Alan has visited the Northumbria Community, an early Celtic Christian region, now home to a modern-day neomonastic movement.Roots In Celtic Christian Communities

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

9 thoughts on “The church as abbey”

  1. Well said: “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.”

    It saddens me when the bulk of our “outreach” is simply to get people into our doors so we can THEN love them. What if we simply reached-out(ward) in real and tangible ways to people, expecting nothing in return as a church, and loved simply for loves sake? What if we were less concerned with the survival of the institution and more concerned with loving our neighbor—as the church? I honestly think that doing so—in a sense losing our life (church) and in the process finding it—the vitality would return.

    Thanks for the post! Good thoughts….

  2. I love this concept “The church as an abbey”, we have been moving along this road at our church, experimenting with “hubs” places where people of the local community, individuals and groups can both come to and launch out from. The abbey imagery helps better formulate in my mind how it works. the other aspect I like about this is the intergenerational community working together to tranform their geographical community.

    In an age where individuals are so much more mobile, and churches congregations commute miles to go to their “preferred place of worship” the abbey emphasises a central place dedicated to serving those you live amongst. To further explore those who are wrestling with this I would recommend the book “The Connecting Church” by Randy Frazee

  3. I do have one question…. Where in this vision do the sacraments come? It seems to me that one of the truly great aspects of the Celtic Christian vision was their ability to highlight the sacramental in all that they did. Moreover, as you have already mentioned, the centre of the abbey was the Church and the heart of the church was the weekly celebration of Eucharist/Communion/the Lord’s Supper. What does this look like in your context?

  4. Fr. J – thanks for your comments and the link to your post. You’re not the first person who has contacted me with similar ideas. God must be up to something.

    Yes, the Baptist tradition of communion is more symbol than sacrament. I was thinking about this the other day. During the aftermath of the Reformation, radical reformers stripped out the eucharist as sacrament, and moved the proclamation of the Word to center stage, literally. Hence in many Baptist churches the pulpit is center stage, with the communion table on a lower level in front of it — a very visual statement of Baptist theology.

    I love the centrality of the eucharist in the Anglican tradition. In our Baptist church we observe communion once a month, which is more frequent than most Baptist churches in the U. S.. However, I agree theologically with you, that the eucharist should be the center of our worship expression, and seemed to be so in the early church as well.

    I have also written several other posts about the church as abbey, just follow the category “church as abbey.” Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Hello Chuck, just out of curiosity, have you read any of the work of Thomas Oden? I’ve been agreeing with him more and more in regards to “Paleo-Orthodoxy” in terms of theology, and am curious what thoughts you had. In many ways, “The Church as Abbey” could be a big part of recovering the Classical Christian Tradition Oden refers too…

  6. You have cause me to thik about a new idea. I’m not sure how I feel about the church as an abbey, but I do agree with many of your statements. I know that we as a church need to do something to reach out to the community. How does this practicing this concept correspond to the number of new believers? Are more people hearing the good news about God, even though it is presented in a different way?

    You have given me something to ponder.

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