Here’s the powerpoint I used in my NOC2008 workshop, Small Churches Make Good Neighbors. I’m using the abbey church model, and discussing the 10 aspects of the ancient celtic abbeys applied to churches today. The ppt is on SlideShare, so you can view and download the presentation, if you find it helpful. I am going to edit and add to the notes, but I think you’ll get the thrust of the presentation as it is. Let me know if you have questions or comments.
(A couple of days ago I wrote about several converging crises — energy, economy, and environment. Since then the price of gas has gone down! Proof that I was wrong. Not! As a nation we are so shell-shocked by the energy crisis that we think a 10-cent reduction in the price of gas is a big break, forgetting that less than a year ago we were paying under $3 a gallon. Anyway, back to our original program.)
I see churches adapting to these three interrelated crises — energy, economy, and environment — in several ways:
- Redefinition of “church.” Church will no longer be the place we go, church will be the people we share faith with. Churches will still meet together for worship at a central time and location, but that will become secondary to the ministry performed during the week. Church buildings will become the resource hub in community ministry, like the old Celtic Christian abbeys. Church impact will replace church attendance as the new metric.
- Restructuring of church operations. Due to the high cost of fuel and a struggling economy, churches will become smaller, more agile, and less expensive to operate than in the past. Churches will need to provide direct relief to individuals and families with meal programs, shelters, clothing, job training, and more. In the not-distant-future, we will live in a world where government is increasingly unable to fund and provide those services. Church buildings will become increasingly more expensive to maintain, and churches with unused weekday space will consider partnerships with businesses, other ministries, and helping agencies. Or churches will sell their conventional buildings and reestablish in storefronts that operate as retail businesses 6 days a week, and gathering places on Sunday (or Thursday or whenever). Churches will focus outwardly on their “parish” more than inwardly on their members. Church staff will become more community-focused rather than church-program focused, and become team leaders in new missional ventures.
- Repackaging of “sermons” and Christian education. With fewer people “attending” church, fewer will also attend Christian education classes. Churches will deliver Christian education content via mobile devices. Short video clips accessible from iPhones (and other smart devices) will be the primary content carriers for church and culture. Church “members” (if that quaint term actually survives) will still gather, but more for monthly celebrations, fellowship, and sharing than weekly meetings, worship, or learning. Of course, there may be several monthly celebrations geared to different lifestyles (tribes), schedules, and preferences. Again, the abbey concept of the church as hub with many smaller groups revolving around the resource center.
- Refocus from institution to inspiration. Okay, so I went for the easy alliteration there. Restated, less emphasis on the “church” and more on how the church enables its adherents to live their faith. Declining church attendance is not a crisis of faith, it’s a crisis of delivery. We can bemoan the fact that fewer people come to church, but ballgames are not suffering from declining attendance. People go to what they want to go to. Church ministry has to focus on engaging people in meaningful ways that enable their spiritual journeys. In a world in crisis, people are looking for something to believe in as institution after institution crumbles. If banks, businesses, and whole countries fail, where can we put our trust? Church should have the answer 24/7, delivered like everything else is delivered now — when people want it, at their convenience, and in a way that resonates with them.
None of the things I have suggested here are new. But, the thing that makes them more viable now is the convergence of all three crises at one time. But, let’s hope for the best and assume that gas goes back to no more than $2 per gallon, the planet cools off, energy is abundant, and the economy flourishes. All the possibilities I suggest above are still viable strategies that may be more in keeping with New Testament values than our 20th century consumerist approach. What do you think?
In her book, Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland, Dr. Lisa M. Bitel states “The archaelogical evidence of [Celtic monastic] enclosures…suggests that living within the sight of the monastic enclosure was useful to farmers and herders, doubtless economically as well as spiritually.” Which is a very academic way of saying that the community around the Celtic Christian abbeys benefitted financially as well as spiritually from the abbey’s ministry.
The abbeys had to be self-supporting and relied on a combination of gifts of land and valuables, plus commerce, farming, and trade to sustain their work. Bitel goes on to comment that as abbeys grew, the community around them grew, attracting craftspersons, farmers, herdsmen, merchants, and even musicians and actors who found a ready market for their goods and services.
Why couldn’t churches today have a positive impact on their communities economically as well as spiritually? Could we create small businesses that serve as gateways into the community of faith, while at the same time providing employment and economic impact? Tall Skinny Kiwi, Andrew Jones, is part of a venture doing just that with the arts. Their microbusiness, called The Sorting Room, provides a venue for local artists to sell their work. Some churches have started coffee shops, or fair trade stores. First Baptist Church of San Antonio operates the 4th Street Cafe staffed by volunteers and they use the funds generated to feed the homeless in San Antonio.
Maybe it’s time for churches to seriously consider going into business. What do you think? Do you know of any churches operating businesses either as a ministry or as part of their self-sustaining strategy? Let’s exclude all the mega-ministries that are big businesses, but what about small churches operating business enterprises?
In the Celtic Christian abbey, the compound was open to all who needed food, lodging, or care. As the monks’ pagan neighbors entered the abbey, they were greeted with many familiar sights — monks or nuns preparing meals in the kitchen, stacking wood for the fire, copying manuscripts, or working in the fields. But, they also encountered the unfamiliar — strange rituals like making the sign of the cross, breaking bread and sharing a common cup, kneeling, bowing, and prostrating oneself.
Learning How to Be A Christian
These were the rituals of Christianity, practiced by monks and nuns in the abbey, and taught to their pagan neighbors who wished to become Christians. Pagans literally learned how Christians acted by seeing, practicing, and repeating these strange behaviors. These behaviors became so ingrained in the life of the convert that they became part of his or her daily routine.
When an Irish convert needed courage, instead of an incantation from their druid past, they prayed a prayer to Christ. The famous breastplate of St. Patrick is the most outstanding example of this type of praying. The Carmina Gaedelica is a collection of everyday prayers from Celtic life — prayers for starting the fire, washing one’s face, sweeping the house, and working at the loom.
Other rituals, such as making the sign of the cross, became automatic responses to the happenstances of primitive life. Celtic Christians learned through words, patterns, and symbols what made them distinct from their pagan Druid kinsmen in actions and belief.
Loss of Rituals in the 20th Century Church
Fast-forward to the 20th century. New church models suggested that people came to Christ most easily if we removed “religious” symbols. This strategy worked well to attract new people to these churches without symbol, but unlike the Celtic abbeys, some of these churches never introduced new Christians to the actions, behaviors and symbols that signify the Christian faith.
Many church buildings were constructed without baptistries or baptismal fonts because baptism was practiced in swimming pools and lakeshores. Communion was not observed in the largest worship services of many churches, or it was relegated to a special service outside the regular pattern of worship. All of this was done because it was thought that symbols and rituals obscure the gospel message. But just the opposite is true.
The Importance of Ritual
Rituals, practices, and symbols are important because they give us external behaviors to express internal commitments. We learn how to “act like a Christian” by doing the things Christians do. So, new converts participate in baptism, receive communion, and are catechized as part of learning how we act in this strange new community called the church.
Without ritual, patterns, and symbols our practice of the Christian faith is stripped of actions that cause us to remember and draw strength from our interior faith. Rituals give us behaviors, individually and corporately, that reinforce our common beliefs. The missional congregation particularly seeks to be distinctly Christian in its behaviors, symbols, and practices — whether ancient or contemporary — because that is part of what makes us a contrast society.
I have adapted this post from the original, which I posted at Amicus Dei last year.
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.
L to R: Me in the future great hall; Debbie in front of the art room off the great hall; exterior from across the street; exterior with Debbie standing beside the entrance to give some idea of the size of the building.
Our community center construction moves forward daily. The roof is completely on now, and the glass in the celestory windows in the great hall is in. Some translucent panels are installed in the gym. Once the building is dried-in, then the real fun begins! The construction folks at Quality Construction say they anticipate “substantial” completion by April 10. We’ll see. At least we’ll be in by May sometime, just in time for summer activities. I’ll keep you posted.
Mea culpa. That’s Latin for “I pulled the trigger on my mouth before it cleared my holster, and I shot myself in the foot.” Or something like that. Now that I have calmed down over the McChurch post at Out of Ur, let me do some backpedaling. I now understand —
- Eddie Johnson described his church using the analogy of a franchise to point out the very positive aspects of the North Point strategic partnerships.
- The franchise description was Eddie’s, not Andy’s, according to Eddie himself.
- Eddie is a really nice guy who responds with grace and good humor. Unlike some folks who have called him the ‘anti-christ.’ (And I thought I was over the top!)
Which brings me to a reasoned discussion of the whole business of “church models.” Eddie’s right — we all use church models to describe the approach we are taking in our particular ministry situation. Reference to church models has become a kind of ecclesial short-hand, helping others know who we are and what we do. Church models include purpose-driven (Saddleback), seeker (Willow Creek), video (North Point, Life Church), externally-focused, servant evangelistic, missional, emerging, denominational, and so on.
With that in mind, here are 5 ways church models can be helpful:
- Identity. Denominations served the purpose of identifying a church in the 20th century. In the 21st century, affiliations are more in vogue. Many churches advertise that they are Purpose-driven, or seeker-friendly, or video-oriented to identify themselves to their communities.
- Processes. Eddie calls this systems, but however you say it, it’s how you do things. Churches that affiliate with a particular model do things consistent with that model. The use of proven methodologies helps jump start many church planting or church revitalization efforts.
- Focus. As Eddie said, they don’t offer the church program buffet. They know what they do, and they don’t get distracted by other “good”– but off-message — opportunities.
- Support. Most church models originated because someone had done it at least once. I like the Celtic Christian abbey model, and that was done over 1,000 years ago. Others are more current and provide literature, promotional materials, training events, and programs with support on-line or on the phone.
- Metrics. Church models usually have measurements that are important to that model such as baptisms, new members, attendance, or participation in small groups. Many have benchmarks that incorporate several measures of mission success. Each model is looking either for growth, development, progress, maturity (Willow’s study), or some other attribute that is measurable.
Church models are helpful in all the ways I’ve mentioned and more. But, church models are just that — models. Our daughter and her husband own a franchise restaurant, and the reality and the model can be vastly different. Models provide a good framework for us to shape ministry around, but I have to constantly remind myself that “God gives the increase.” However you measure it. What do you think?
Yesterday I posted Ten Marks of the Church-as-Abbey. One of the characteristics, economics, plays an important role because the ancient celtic Christian abbeys were self-supporting while providing economic transformation to the community. Today, tall skinny kiwi posts about the fourth sector — groups that want to change the world while making their own way financially. The term “fourth sector” distinguishes itself from the other three sectors, which are:
- Public sector — usually means government.
- Private sector — usually means businesses.
- Voluntary sector — usually means non-profits who depend on volunteers for funding and, well, volunteering.
Here’s what Andrew is doing, in his own words:
I just wrote an article about Co-operatives and social enterprises for a missions publication. I made reference to our new venture – The Old Sorting Room – which we will launch in a few months and which can only be described as our monastic-inspired cooperative-run social-enterprise micro-business fourth-sector for-benefit organisation.
Of course, being from New Zealand, he spells organization funny, but that’s not my point. My point is that around the globe, churches and individuals are doing parts of the church-as-abbey, without necessarily calling it that. And, I like Andrew’s description —
- “monastic-inspired” (Note: the abbeys were monasteries and nunneries, but of course you knew that.)
So, there you are. Another example of the abbey church function — economic self-sufficiency through work. More to come on the abbey phenomenon.
Models for how we should do church are not in short supply. Seeker-sensitive, purpose-driven, emerging, missional, traditional, liturgical, ancient-future, and the like all have their merits. I am really interested in the church-as-abbey concept myself. I have read extensively about the early Celtic Christian church and find it intriguing and encouraging. In that research I identified 10 characteristics of the church-as-abbey, as I call it, or abbey church, for short. Here are the essential characteristics, or marks, of what I mean when I use the church-as-abbey model:
- Worship. The church-as-abbey has at its heart the practice of worship. But worship that is public, powerful, and brings one into the presence of God through some type of intentional liturgy, whether formal or not. But not every parishioner of the abbey will attend every service. The idea is not to get everyone to one service, but to provide opportunities for worship that abbey adherents can participate in regularly, if not weekly.
- Arts. The church-as-abbey celebrates creativity as a gift from a creative God. The arts reflect our connection to creation and God’s creative power. The arts are expression, statement, witness, and beauty for a world that needs all of those things.
- Hospitality. The Celtic abbey was open to all who needed its hospitality and help. Monks, even those fasting, would interrupt their discipline to greet and welcome those who came into the abbey’s confines. Welcoming the stranger is a vital part of the abbey’s ministry.
- Economics. The abbeys were self-supporting, engaged in cultivating fields, raising livestock, operating public markets, and giving employment opportunities to the community. I read about a church the other day that also operates a farmers’ market, and has been doing so for years. I am exploring the agrarian movement, particularly as it attracts followers of Christ. More on that later.
- Learning and scholarship. The Celtic monasteries became the centers of learning, preservation of sacred and literary manuscripts, and schools of instruction. The amazing Book of Kells is the prime example. See How the Irish Saved Civilization for other examples.
- Catechesis and spiritual direction. For new converts, the abbey provided initial instruction. For more mature converts, the abbott or abbess provided spiritual direction and aided in spiritual formation.
- Rule of life in community. The Rule of St. Benedict is the most famous of these “rules of life” but there were many others that defined the monastic community’s social and spiritual interaction.
- Ministry to the marginalized. The poor, hungry, disenfranchised, sick, old, and disabled found help of various kinds within the abbey’s compound.
- Peace and justice. St. Patrick was the first person in recorded history to speak out against the Irish slave trade. Patrick’s appeals eventually resulted in the end of the Irish slave trade, of which Patrick himself had been a victim. Patrick also prevailed upon the Irish kings and warlords to live in peace with one another, as much as they were able. The abbey bears that same responsibility today.
- External missions. Celtic priests, including some of the well-known figures such as Columba, went on extended “missions” to areas removed from the abbey. In a reimagination of this practice, the missional church-as-abbey establishes external groups but groups with ties to the abbey church. This is the area with which I am struggling now, but I believe it is a core part of the abbey concept. These groups are not “missions” in the sense of international missions, but rather are groups that are “distant” from the abbey either in travel, culture, or status, but that have a connection to the abbey as “mother church.”
But, you say, “Where is evangelism, ministry, and education — those staples of the church as we know it today?” The 10 marks of the abbey church above contain evangelism, ministry, and education, but from a new perspective. George Hunter, in his intriguing book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, says that in the Celtic Christian abbey “belonging” came before “believing.” Prospective converts were incorporated into the community before they became believers in Christ. Not a bad model for us today, which is one of the main reasons I like the abbey approach. What do you think?
The ancient Celtic Christian abbeys produced beautiful illuminated manuscripts, the most notable being The Book of Kells. In his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill credits Irish monasteries with rescuing ancient texts, recopying them, and then taking them back to Europe to replace the texts burned during the barbarian invasion.
But churches and Christians today are finding new ways to use the arts to “save civilization” or at least individuals in it. Our church was featured in Outreach magazine in December 2006 for helping sponsor Soundcheck, a teen open mic night in our community. You can read about Soundcheck and other arts programs we have in the Our Church tab at the top of this blog.
Leadership’s latest newsletter spotlighted an arts program that is saving 600-at-risk kids, and helping them give expression to their creativity. Sketch is an arts program in Toronto with sponsor partners made up of Christian churches, individuals, and other organizations.
This is part of the church-as-abbey concept springing up all over North America. Based on the ancient Celtic Christian abbey, churches are becoming modern-day abbeys in their own communities. The great thing is that size doesn’t matter — small churches particularly can become abbey churches and impact their communities in new ways.