In my Masters degree dissertation study, I started to explore the concept of ‘villages of God’. Built on the old vision of the Celtic monastic settlement, I started to imagine what an outward-looking hub of study, hospitality, creativity, prayer, worship and service might look like. This was a community that didn’t just see their one hour on a Sunday as the sole focus of ‘the church’, but who pioneered a whole life community open to the world, 7 days a week.
I was prompted to look at this after reading a book by a chap called Rod Dreher called ‘The Benedict Option.’ I read it with interest, but there was something missing in it for me. Dreher’s motivations was mainly to stem the moral and political disintegration of the USA, and his reaction of creating Christian communities was simply to preserve the church, and, to some measure, act as preserving agent in the society. He foresaw a day when there would be greater persecution for Christians – and that’s not necessarily unfounded. There’s lots of questions surrounding his vision, and I explored some of those. There was more ‘retreat from the world’ than ‘engage missionally with the world’ in his writing – but then, he’s talking from a different Christian context of Eastern Orthodoxy.
However, my view was that Celtic monasticism…an open, missional and ‘grass roots’ movement in it’s day was a better model of both strengthening Christian life and faith and also engaging more deeply with the wider world. Ray Simpson, the founder of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, has spoken about the concept of Villages of God at some length, and it was his ideas that I compared and contrasted.
As time moves on, I continue to reflect on this study as I reflect on the setting of the local church – in particular, the one I’m in. Our context is one in which the inherited pattern of evangelical church isn’t going to make significant inroads in future days. The ‘preaching station’ concept of Church, whilst very familiar to evangelical Christians, is not one that will effectively reach a post-Christendom, post-post-modern society very easily. This isn’t to say anything about the value either way of preaching, but more about my sense that the purely ‘gathered church for an hour on a Sunday morning and midweek group’ model is not fit for the future. This is a hard message for many to hear because, for many of us, it’s our key definition of church. As I look more broadly than my own local situation, the pandemic has done a little bit to question this for some, but not for others.
I’d love to see churches think more deeply and creatively about what Christian community could be beyond the hour. I’d love for us to divest ourselves of our ‘holy cow’ mentality and, rather than think of church as a meeting, think of church as a dynamic, prayerful, worshipful, creative, practical and engaged 7-day-a-week community which keeps the balance of devotion to God, devotion to community and devotion to mission equally…an equal trinity of life in the Trinity! I’d love to see the vision rise within the church that equates to a stronger desire to return to wholistic community than to a weekly event. I think that if my sole experience of my family was a weekly event, it wouldn’t be the best vision of what a family is. Same with the church, I think.
Our 21st C church is siloed, partly because 21st C life is private and compartmentalised. Church becomes a compartment of our lives, and we can treat it accordingly. For some, this is as far as they will go in their experience of church. I find that deeply sad, because there is something inherently more glorious in the life of the church than that. But, it is difficult to imagine how this might be more when we are each so entrenched in our culture and see church as just one more demand on our time to control. I believe that for much of the early church’s life, before Christendom, church was highly communal and familial – they saw themselves as communities of new creation, outposts of the Kingdom, deeply committed to each other and to the mission, as they lived lives of total allegiance to God.
I’m going to riff on these ideas for a while here on the blog. We all need to stretch our noggins as we move to post-Covid church…not just because of Covid, but because of what Covid has taught us about life, priorities, connection…and about the brokenness of our world and its people. The ability of the church to listen to it’s context is the extent to which it will meet its task under God. I don’t think there has been such a crucial time for some time – we can’t stick our heads in the sand.