Archive for May, 2019

XMSC_151Over the last few months my congregation and I have been talking about our life together as a kind of monastic community with Jesus at the center.  I wrote this article to help stimulate discussion:

They still print Christmas cards showing small, light-filled church buildings looking inviting in the winter snow.  These images still capture some people’s imaginations momentarily.  Perhaps they remember a similar spot that was dear to them in their childhood.  The thought, “How lovely!” flashes through their mind.  But that’s often where the imagination stops.  They don’t imagine calling such a place home now.

In the light of day, real life little churches in the wildwood seem to have little to offer with their small communities of believers, simple buildings, humble worship, and slower pace.  What can they offer that is excellent and life-enriching? 

It’s true that some small congregations—and larger ones, too, for that matter—are not healthy.  Whatever its size a church isn’t healthy if it’s only about serving self and what the insiders want, or if it’s a service club wearing religious clothing.  It’s not healthy if it’s a place where people are primarily interested in wielding power and controlling others.

But other small churches in the vale are healthy, and what they offer is a way of life, a way of being together in community with Jesus at the center.  They are trying to practice the way of Jesus with one another and with the neighborhood and world around them.  They are trying to become like him.  They want to help others see Christ and experience his healing love and salvation.

Healthy small churches can be a type of monastic community, complete with a rule of faith and practice.  Whether it’s expressed explicitly or not, the people see themselves in sacred covenant with each other.  These congregations resemble the ancient Celtic monasteries that were more like a small village.  Celtic monastic communities included single men and women, which is what we typically think of when we imagine a monastery, but they also included couples, and families with children.  Celtic monasteries were intergenerational.  Hospitality was one of their highest values.  Strangers were honored and welcomed to spend time with the community.  The guest house was one of the most sacred places in the village. Sometimes strangers found the way of life in the community so welcoming and so winsome that they stayed and eventually became believers (1).

The small congregation I serve that calls a little reddish-brown church building home is a monastic community with Jesus at its heart.  Morton Presbyterian Church has formed generations of loving, serving, giving people who have taken the blessings of Jesus Christ far and wide.

With a huge and tender heart, Morton Church very definitely offers a way of life, and we have a number of spiritual practices that are distinctive.  Here are some of the norms of life and practice at Morton.  We do not practice them all perfectly, but we are growing into them.

  • Our boundaries are elastic.  The word “us” is very elastic.  People are warmly included and welcomed to walk with us as long as they need to and want to whether they choose to “formally join” or not.
  • The family of our family is our family.  This practice is apparent, for example, when the congregation offers tender care and hosts funerals for people who have never been in the church, and perhaps have never been in any church, just because they and their families need it.  Another example is helping people in the extended family and community celebrate milestones with graduation lunches and baby showers.
  • We show up for one another, whether it’s a funeral for a relative or a child’s school program.
  • Prayer bathes everything.  For us, prayer is a way to practice love.
  • Gratitude is a central practice.  The congregation deliberately counts its blessings, noticing what is good and beautiful, noble and just, and gives thanks.  Prayer concern times are filled with thanksgivings as much as naming needs.
  • Children are cherished.  They are seen as young disciples.  Wherever possible they learn to serve by serving alongside faith-filled adults.  Adults go out of their way to reach out to other people’s children, not just their own.  Older and younger people spend time together.
  • We tell and retell the scripture stories, aiming to internalize them so that they come to mind when we are discerning what to do in the present.
  • Simplicity is a way of life.  Simplicity is practiced in many ways.  Our worship is simple.  Our organizational structure is simple.  Our church house is simple, yet beautiful.
  • Group singing is a practice that joins our hearts in fellowship.
  • Stewardship means caring well for all that God has entrusted to us.
  • Breaking bread together is a priority, and so is seeing to it that people get nourishment when they are sick or stressed.

We find these practices and more to be life-giving.  Walking together with Jesus in this way greatly enriches our lives.  A big question for us is, “So how do we share this way of life?”

I have read article after article and book after book expressing the deep hunger of people of all ages in our culture for loving, authentic community.  Loneliness is profound, and people long to be known and loved as the people they really are.  Yes, that includes young people, who do not need more of the noise, busy-ness, chaos, and stress that so often characterize daily life in this age.  Young pastor Laurie Lyter Bright, for example, speaks of the millennial generation’s longing for deep relationships across generational lines.  “Millennials want to know and be known,” she writes (2).  “They want to choose and be chosen into a family in the fulness of their identity.  Is the church ready for that?”

Are we? A healthy small church certainly has the potential to be that family.  How does a small monastic community like ours take our tenderhearted hospitality where the people are, where they can experience it and experience Christ’s love?  How can we make the guest house, the sacred space of hospitality mobile and visible out in the world?  How do we share Jesus pure and simple without seeing people primarily as potential consumers of programs, attendance builders, and offering-givers?

The light inside the little church in the wildwood is lovely indeed.  But imagine another Christmas card showing the people spilling out of the church, carrying the light through the darkness to all kinds of people in all kinds of places.  It would in fact be a better representation of the meaning of Christmas.


1 For a discussion of life inside a Celtic monastery, see George G. Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), Chapter 2.

2 Laurie Lyter Bright, Vagabonding: In Defense and Praise of Millennial Faith (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2018), p. 61.

For more about children in small churches, see this post, Give a Small Church the Chance to Nurture Your Children.


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