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.