Churches adapt ancient models for the 21st century


For many of us who care about church, it is becoming increasingly apparent that church as we know it must change in order to maintain its mission in the 21st century.  This change will not be cosmetic.  This change will not be a debate about traditional worship versus contemporary worship, or small groups versus Sunday School.  The kind of change the church must adopt is transformational change — change that fundamentally reshapes how we think about church, and what church actually does.

Three ancient church models are gaining traction in the first decade of this new century:  the marketplace church, the monastic church, and the mission center church.  Each one of these church models existed in previous centuries, but now each has been reimagined for this new millennium.

The marketplace church. This is the church that is a coffee shop or an art gallery or a clothing consignment store during business hours, engaging its community through the medium of the marketplace.  A good example of this is Knox Life Church in Knoxville, Tennessee which operates Remedy Coffee, and then gathers for worship on the weekend. The old Celtic Christian abbeys maintained farms which engaged the local population, generated income for the abbey, and provided employment for their neighbors.

The monastic church. This is the church where community, a committed community, is the core value.  The monastic church might do good in their neighborhood, or they might share table fellowship with each other on a regular basis, or both.   Participants in the monastic church community do not necessarily live together, but they share a rule of life that mimics that of the ancient monastic orders.  Gordon Cosby’s Church of the Savior is probably the oldest and best-known example of this type, but Shane Claiborne’s group might be a more recent example.

The mission center church. The all-time winner of this category, and the sole occupant of this slot for decades, is the Salvation Army.  Their mission work overshadows the other things they do like worship.  A good example of a local church that is a mission center is Solid Rock United Methodist Church in Olivia, North Carolina.  Solid Rock UMC died as a struggling storefront church, and was reborn as a mission with a mission.  The Celtic abbeys also were mission centers in the midst of great need.  One abbey fed over 1,000 people a day.  Most abbeys gave refuge, cared for the sick, welcomed the stranger, and provided food, shelter and clothing to those who needed it.

These ancient models are with us again because all three — marketplace, monastic, and mission center — express the vision of their participants to be a new expression of church built on a specific approach to being the people of God.  Some churches combine all three, and more, of these models to become “the church as abbey” that I have written about previously.  I think this is the wave of the future for church, and that any or all of these expressions are legitimate and effective ways of engaging the world with the gospel.  Notice that none of these models emphasizes worship as the connection with the surrounding community.  More on that later.

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5 Comments

  1. These are 3 great models that increasingly are starting to sound good even for older folks. I had a conversation this evening at my church with a deacon and he mentioned pieces of all three of these approaches, and that he is really hoping for our church to be able to “re-write” itself. Thanks for putting this together, I really like what you have done with the “church as abbey” model.

  2. Drawing on the church’s history is a good place for us to start the transformation – it grounds us in our roots and secures the direction of our growth. Christ has called us to be remade in his image, and like the Protestant “church reformed, always reforming”, I think we need to think of this transformation process as always ongoing.

  3. Brethren:

    I found your message interesting, especially in today’s church trend. I agree with the three examples of church you mentioned above. We actually need to cater with those areas as were largely practice in the book of acts during the early church era that brought them to an unprecedented growth enabling the message of the Lord Jesus Christ to reach thousands of people and areas.

    However I do not favor in some points you mentioned as follows:

    1. that church as we know it must change in order to maintain its mission in the 21st century.

    2. This change will not be a debate about traditional worship versus contemporary worship, or small groups versus Sunday School.

    3. The kind of change the church must adopt is transformational change — change that fundamentally reshapes how we think about church, and what church actually does.

    I explain …

    1. It is so true that we must maintain its mission in the 21st century, but we are not supposed to change the methodology given at the Bible just to ride with the trends of the changes in society. It is still the society that must be changed and ride with the Biblical teaching maintain the orthodox practice of the 1st century AD.

    This change that you are espousing is very dangerous that might lead to emotional trend and to the so-called new generation churches which are leaving behind sound Bible doctrines.

    2. This issue is actually debatable if we will only be concerned with sound doctrines and the biblical church growth.

    There is a great risk for a small groups since the process is sharing insights from diverse ideas or mindsets. The biblical objective for teaching biblical truths can still be achieved using small groups or “facilitative method” if the facilitator will stand straight-still with sound biblical doctrines. He or she must not be swayed with the so-called “felt-need” as espoused by the modern “transformational churches” (such as the saddle back church of Dr. Rick Warren).

    3. The transformational change that some church is espousing & practicing today (such as the one I mentioned above) is trending away from the traditional biblical orthodox practice — this is actually a paradigm shift from the traditional yet biblical context of learning the biblical teachings.

    This transformational thinking is actually leading to the new age’s one-world church.

    We must be very careful with the so-called fundamental reshaping of the church as normally it is leaving behind sound biblical doctrines (it is actually the under-the-table objective of it). if the transformational change will go better from the lapses of practice of biblical teachings, I have no objections for it, but again we must be very careful. “Each one of us must be very vigilant on analyzing what are the real objective and basis of what we are doing and the effect of it”

    Lastly I wish to quote the following:

    “An example: A traditional thinker, when proven wrong with factual information (ie-Biblical moral absolutes), yields to the facts, and admits that he/she is wrong, and then aligns him/herself to those facts. Because Biblical moral absolutes do not change, such traditional thinkers, who align themselves to those unchanging absolutes are labeled as “resistant to change”.
    On the other hand, transformational thinkers, when proven wrong with factual information, have been conditioned to process that information differently – they automatically question it and dialogue it within themselves; their (deceitful) hearts rebel against it, and then they begin to justify (to themselves and others) why it is that they no longer have to attend to the facts. (They process the facts away, and their conscience becomes seared.) This is the natural result of the dialectic process – the searing of the conscience [1 Tim 4: 1-2]. These people are then able to justify to themselves why they are no longer bound to Biblical moral absolutes. You see, people are saying that the Biblical message just doesn’t apply to today’s (humanistic) culture – that it must be interpreted in light of the culture of the day. [To some degree this is true – (i.e.-slavery was common then, etc.).]”

    My apology for whatever words or names that I mentioned which might in anyway prejudice any individual, church, party or group, also some terminologies that might not exactly fit to our intentions.

    My objective for commenting for your article is to “somehow give light to the prevailing unbiblical trends of our century.

    You can send your comment anytime.

    In Christ Jesus Alone

    God Bless brother

    Dom Manzo

    1. Dom, thanks for your comment. I was not using the word “transformational” in a technical way. You appear to have a different definition for that word than I had in mind. However, you points are well-taken, and I would agree with most of what you say. We might be using different words to say similar things, and I take it you are not in the United States, or at least your cultural background is not the same as mine. Context does matter. Thanks for your comments.

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