A Different Way to be Church

Over the last year and a half God has been birthing a vision in me about a different way to be church. I’ve been looking at different models and ways to be church. At the present time this is where it stands. Below you’ll find a framework for a different way to be church. Again, I stress that this is a framework. The purpose of such a framework is to provide a structure in which to build the life of the Church, not to be a black and white, this-and-nothing-else, mentality. Take a look. I’d love to hear responses and thoughts.

A different way to be church:

Community Vision

Much is being said and written about church planting in the Anglican context at the moment. For me to join the cacophony of voices in some ways seems redundant. However, I have yet to see a community express this vision in such a way as to resonate or identify deeply with my own. Therefore, I feel the need to put it down on paper. The following is a beginning. It will continue to unfold in the future I’m sure. Nonetheless, this is the starting point.
What follows will be divided into different sections. Each section represents a core understanding of the heart of the Community. Each section will highlight the starting point and a different facet of the ethos of the Community.

Rule of Life/The Four Practices

This idea is taken from St. Patrick’s Anglican Church, Lexington, KY., although there is some modification. Much of what follows is directly from their practices literature; which can be found here.

For many churches, if you want to become a ‘member’ of a particular church the path is pretty standardised. Begin by going to church on Sunday morning. Or you may come to the church for a specific reason – i.e. baptism, wedding, etc.  After an initial period of attendance,  you become more involved by attending a programme – a short course, a home group, etc. As you do this  you get to know people to varying degrees. You begin to participate in more programmes. At a certain point, you are invited to lead/organise something. Lastly, you become a leader for a specific ministry. You are now giving time, tithe and talents to this specific church. By this stage you have become a member, whether there is a formal ‘rite’ depends upon the church.
This is the way most people become part of a local church. The specifics of the story may vary, but the basics are the same. This model of participation in a local church is affinity based. But what if we could be the church in a different way? What if we participated in a local community based upon a different foundation? What if church was not based upon the programme or what we do, but how we live and who we are as a community?
When we read Acts, we see the early church struggling to be the Church. But Luke doesn’t mention anything about Sunday school classes, Alpha courses, personal development programmes. Programmes or courses or Sunday school are not bad things unto themselves.  They just aren’t mentioned by Luke as what the early church did. However, Luke does speak about that to which the church devoted themselves. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2.42ff) They devoted themselves to being a community based on these things, not based on the programmes they put on or how many ‘ministries’ they ran. They wanted to be disciples of Jesus and that was the passion to which they devoted themselves. This is the foundation for the Four Practices: worship, community, formation and mission. (For the sake of brevity, refer to the Four Practices from St. Patrick’s for a fuller explanation of the Four Practices.)

All that the Community does stems from these four practices. As St. Patrick’s mentions, the only thing that they commit to do is Sunday worship. Everything else is done based upon need and is only done as long as there is a need perceived by the community. In practise this provides freedom to the community to change and develop. No longer do we have do do something simply because ‘we’ve always done (fill in the blank – Alpha, Marriage prep, Sunday school).’
Moreover, the Four Practices form a Rule of Life to which every member commits. A Rule of Life is most closely associated with religious orders. However, Cranmer in the Book of Common Prayer(BCP) does many things to imply his desire for a Rule of Life to be the norm for all Christians, not just monks and nuns. For instance, Cranmer redacts the Daily office from 8 times to 2. This idea is evident to such a degree that the 1962 Canadian BCP includes at the end of the catechism a statement about the need for everyone to have a Rule of Life.
There are certain aspects of the Rule which will be common to all, such as regular attendance at the Eucharist or the Daily Office (the twofold office of Morning/Evening prayer being essential; the fourfold office encouraged – mid-day and compline in addition to morning/evening prayer). However other things will be specific to that person; a personal expression of their Rule.
Both the Four Practices and the Rule of Life form the core of the Community. Everything else flows out of this perspective. Everything else is inherently derived from the Four Practices and the Rule of Life.

Intentional Community

Community is one of the Four Practices, but encompasses a broad swath of concepts. Community in many churches is found in a variety of settings. However, there can be a distinct separation between these community events and the community we live in on a daily basis. It is my belief that we must be intentional about community. Moreover, it is my belief that such a community needs to be local and close in proximity. (This was originally one of the outcomes of the parish model.) However, to simply live close to someone does not naturally foster community. The heart of this desire will be throughout the Community. However, the expression of intentional community may vary. For some, they may desire to live in a house with others, sharing meals, living space, etc. For others, community houses may be an expression of intentional community. Families, individuals may live in community houses which are in strategic locations in their neighbourhood. Co-housing may also be another possibility. No matter the expression a commitment to regular shared meals, the Daily Office, and a commitment to live in a posture of hospitality and service to each other and their neighbourhood will be the norm. The aim of any intentional community is to become more like Christ and serve His world.
Community in many church contexts has been viewed as optional or at the very least limited due to a variety of reasons (proximity, worldview, etc.). The purpose of a church community which intentionally pursues community with each other will hopefully have the outcome that this community will extend beyond the community to the surrounding neighbourhoods. The purpose of community is twofold. First, it is for the body to become through relationships more like Jesus. Second, the purpose of community is mission; where God has placed them geographically has meaning and intent. Therefore, intentional community leads us to be more like Jesus and take this to those surrounding us.

Celtic Abbey/‘Hub’ church/Minster Model

The third major understanding of the vision is what some have called a Celtic abbey or ‘Hub’ church or Minster model. For some people there are presuppositions, both positive and negative, which are attached to certain terms. Therefore it is helpful to begin with what this model will be, rather than what it is not.

An Abbey church is:

  • a district (larger than a traditional parish. Originally were know as parochiae.)
  • composed of a variety of sizes of worshipping communities
  • local and regional (at the same time)
  • composed of a variety of worship styles
  • collegial in leadership (made up of both ordained and lay leaders. Leaders may serve in different worshipping communities at different times; though their local community will depend upon their locale.)
  • missional (both local and regional)
  • empowering to local communities
  • flexible
  • both bounded and centred (set theory)
  • outward looking
  • able to use resources regionally

An Abbey church is not:

  • a revamped expression of a diocese
  • a parish with small groups
  • defined by ‘parish’ boundaries
  • led by the ‘1 priest’ model
  • resourcing only 1 parish

The abbey model fosters both a local and regional, inward and outward focused community. Moreover, with local worshipping communities coming to worship at the ‘abbey’ at least once a month (this would probably be much more frequent in the beginning), there would be a distinct identity which is aptly expressed in the concept of dual citizenship. Lastly, the abbey church fosters holistic and organic expressions of worship, in their broadest sense – art, dance, music, commerce, creativity of all kinds.

For further discussion of the church as abbey see here:


The three sections above – the Abbey church, the Four practices, intentional community –  are the three pillars of the vision which God has been birthing in me. Each of these pillars is practised to one degree or another in varying contexts. However, there is a tendency in many expressions to favour one of the pillars over another. For instance, St. Patrick’s in Kentucky where the Four practices originated, does not seem to have a deep desire to express intentional community as described above. (This is not intended to be a criticism, rather an observation. I do not know the extent to which they foster community. I can only surmise from thier website.) Another community strives to embody intentional community, as many neo-monastic communities do, yet do not fully express the missional nature of the church as abbey or express mission in the same way as found in the Four practices. Others take aspects of the Abbey church, such as ministry to the marginalised (found particularly in the charism of the Franciscans), and place them above other expressions. My hope and prayer is that the three pillars will provide a suitably balanced and sustainable way of being the Body of Christ, the Church, and living this call wherever God has called us.


8 thoughts on “A Different Way to be Church

      • T. Justin Read-Smith says:

        I would welcome the dialogue. Thanks for taking the time to read the post.

        First and foremost, I’d like to say thank you to you for the four practices. They are succinct and focused. They summarise the ancient disciplines very well.

        Just a little background…. A lot of my thinking in this area has come from both the North American context (I’m American, but did my training @ Regent College Vancouver) and the parish contexts in the Church of England. Moreover, the initial question that started this journey was: Why, when I look around the Church (particularly Anglican churches), do I not see many mature disciples? Why is it that our faith is, as John Stott put it, a mile wide but only an inch deep? This led me to another question: If as Anglicans we have a resource as deep, profound and rooted in Scripture as the Book of Common Prayer, why aren’t we seeing more maturity? This was the starting point for me.

        I began to look around at the Western culture and saw symptoms which are in every church, such as consumerism, transience, etc., and began to think about what we can do to change these. As it stands, IMHO, I believe that the current parish structure is not working. In fact one could go so far as saying that it needs to be allowed to die, so that new ways of being church can rise up. (I do not mean to say that there are not any positives in the parish model. However, in many cases, what the parish model has become does not fit the contemporary life. At least half of the congregation I’m serving in as curate are from ‘outside’ the parish boundaries. Immedately this causes a disconnect from church and their ‘real’ lives. So how do we fix this?)

        I believe that the Minster model (where I originally started) will work in the contemporary contexts better than the parish model currently does. In fact, as I’ve dialogued with some of my friends in North America about this; I truly believe that this model would be a better fit there, particularly in ACNA and the Anglican 1000 initiative. Also, as my family and I discern the next steps after the end of my curacy (June 2011) and pray/think/dialogue about coming back to the States and joining ACNA, I truly think that this model would be more effective with our current resources.

        The Minster model/abbey model are closely related. The Minster is what predates the parish here in the UK. The Minster was a district larger than a parish. The Minster allowed for a use of resources in a larger sense, rather than just in ‘our parish’. The Minster churches were, in some cases, founded and influenced by the Celtic monastics, such as Aidan, Columba, et al. One conversation which led to my questioning of ‘the parish’ was with another curate in a nearby parish. We were chatting over coffee. His church is a large church; has multiple staff, etc. Lots of programmes and averages around 700 on Sunday. The gent who heads up their Children and Family Ministries is paid and full time. He is great at what he does. However, at some point he will have to step down from his current role. Why? Because he has developed the programme as much as he can in the parish. Also, he is coming up against the mentality that (rightly or wrongly) he is getting too old to be running Children’s events etc. So, where does that leave him? In the Anglican world, either get ordained or go to a bigger church. But what if these were not the only choices? The Minster model allows for a third choice. Here’s a guy, excellent at what he does, but has no desire to be ordained. The Minster model allows the Minster to use him as a resource to the district; train up others, oversee the Children’s/Families work in the entire district. This is just one example. The point is this… the parish model requires 1 priest, 1 organist, 1 youth worker, 1 etc. Unless you’re a large church that’s nigh impossible for the church. What if we let that dream go? It allows us to think in two directions at once. We don’t have to let go of having a ‘youth group’ and let them go to another (subtext – better) church because they do youth ministry well. We can have youth in the church locally, but also think about youth in the entire district; and think about ministering to them strategically. I personally don’t like the current categories about ‘ministries’. I’m simply using categories and ways of thinking that people are familiar with… because we’re thinking in a ‘parish mindset’. I’d define it differently.

        The Minster/Abbey model allows us to go beyond this mentality…

        I think I’ll stop there for now. Hopefully my ramblings make sense. I’d love to hear about St. Pat’s and the HONA network. How do the practices work on a day to day basis @ St. Pat’s? Love to hear anything you’d have to share…


  1. Daniel Trautmann says:

    Your Abbey model makes intuitive sense to me. I like your observation that, “the abbey model fosters both a local and regional, inward and outward focused community”.

    Currently my extended household (husband, wife, son and two non-family members) is part of a community minded Assemblies of God congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Another congregation commissioned my wife and me, to support this newer Church start-up.

    (Seward Church resides at the center of arguably the largest concentration of Somalis outside of Mogadishu.)

    My denominational church association has little depth of communal history to draw from and so I struggle to be part of the larger Church story. This has led me down neo-monastic pathways.

    Over the last 33 years of married life, my wife and I have lived communally more than solitarily. In the 70’s & 80’s we were a part of a communal missionary society named Bethany Fellowship, in Bloomington, Minnesota (US). We were part of this community for seven years.

    Bethany was a fully self-sustained Christian Mission Society (the five founding families were Lutheran). At the height of community life there were around 150 adult members (not including missionary training students). We lived, ate and worked together- members sharing from a “common purse”. All our businesses were community owned and operated.

    We lived simply and frugally on 55 acres of land, so that from our surplus the community fully supported an additional 200+ foreign workers (especially in Brazil and Indonesia).

    *My wife and I are no longer a part of Bethany and after some 60 years, Bethany no longer practices a communal lifestyle. Their global vision and activity live on though, as Bethany International.

    Our extended household, another community house and one other house under development, work in conjunction with our congregational leadership in neighborhood service and community development, for Jesus sake. We are struggling to find a historical Church model (framework) to grow on. Your “Abbey Model” is intriguing and seems to fit our community life and aspirations.

    Please direct me to more information about Abbey modeling that I can discuss with our small and growing local network. Thanks.

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