rediscovering christianity's forgotten, organic ways amidst the modern industrial religious machine

How Does a United Church Form Smaller Communities?

As my faith in the oneness of the church has grown I’ve found myself building relationships with Christians from many diverse backgrounds who attend many different worship services across the city.  But this has created an additional dilemma.  How do those of us who believe we are already one united church form smaller communities for deeper relationships?  I no longer believe trivial things like music style should create a divide in who we build community with.  But at a practical level in America, these things can easily cause us to completely separate from other Christians who we live next door to, or functionally end all spiritual activities with our extended family who might attend other worship gatherings.  Increasingly Christian community in Western culture is based on preferences, not faith.  Loyalty is given to the worship ministry who best meets our family’s felt needs.  There are obviously many problems with this pattern but I’m writing to those who no longer accept this current reality, but like me, want to embrace an alternative.

Imagine a city where every Christian fully identified with one another and lived in very close neighborhoods.  Would their spiritual life primarily consist of waking up on Sunday morning to drive 20-30 minutes to the worship service that fits their personal preference?  Then later in the week would they drive another 15 minutes to a small group (made up only of people who exclusively attend the same style of worship service) with people they never see any other time during the week?  I don’t think so.  This would not be the rhythm that would define their spiritual community.  If you live close with Christians and you identify with them as fully a part of your church you would gather with them.  But what might that gathering look like?  When would it meet?  Where?  How often?  Why?

Perhaps the most healthy event that would define a distinct Christian community would be a daily prayer gathering.

A few days ago I was taken on a tour of an old Jewish neighborhood (called Nachlaot) in Jerusalem by my orthodox Jewish Hebrew language teacher.  She pointed at a room in the center of the neighborhood where many people were streaming in.  “It is time for evening prayers”, she explained, pointing to this small synagogue.  Later when we were practicing Hebrew at a nearby coffee shop I asked about this rhythm.  She proceeded to take me through several thousands years of Jewish history and how the prayer meeting determined how they formed communities everywhere they lived all around the world.  “Our communities are formed through the minyan”, she said and we then discussed the Talmudic interpretation of the Torah which requires ten men to be present in order to say certain prayers.  This practice made it impossible for observant Jews to live as isolated families or singles.  They could only move to a neighborhood that had ten other Jewish families.  And this was a major reason why Jews maintained their identity for two thousand years outside of their homeland.  Leaving aside whether this Torahic interpretation is valid, I’m fascinated by the implications this has had on the way Jewish communities have been formed through the centuries.

If you knew you needed to be at a prayer gathering that included at least nine other men morning, noon and night, this would create an incredibly clear boundary for the formation of your community.

  • You would build a neighborhood around a place of prayer.
  • You would need to live relatively close together.
  • Your most consistent spiritual rhythm would always be with those you live closest to
  • You would want to build business with others in your community that have the same rhythm
  • The number of those in your deepest spiritual community would be small enough to allow intimacy but big enough to enjoy their diversity
  • Your community would be recognized by those in the wider community as unique
  • Seekers could experience your community simply by entering your neighborhood
  • New believers could have a place to live that gives them an immersive experience of their new faith
  • Prayers meetings, unlike worship services, are less likely to create division by preferences
  • Prayers don’t require the presence of professional leadership (which prevents another major reason to split)
  • And most importantly – prayer centers the community on God instead of man.

Living in the Middle East, this is one of the most striking differences when compared to American or Western culture.  Synagogues and mosques are designed to create a place of prayer for the community and, since they see themselves as one people, you simply go and pray at whichever one is nearby at the appropriate times.  For Jews this is three times a day for Muslims this is five times per day.  Compare this to Christians who, on average, might attend one prayer meeting per year.  Something seems off about this.  I’m glad we’re not bound to follow the Talmudic or Koranic legislation but is this total neglect of prayer and gathering a wise use of our freedom in Christ?

“One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon”
– Acts 3:1

A proposal I’m interested in exploring is what would happen if Christians gathered together for prayer every day at 3 in the afternoon?  In my spiritual rhythm I pray individually in the morning and with my family in the evening but I’m wondering what would happen to our community life if we worked toward creating a common prayer gathering at 3pm.  There are endless obstacles to this from living in isolating suburbs to working far away from our community in a very secular environment but this kind of rhythm, when embraced and built in a multi-generational context, can, over time, create a new kind of culture.  It can force the prevailing culture, that sees no place for God in the workday, to bend around the truth that all of life is centered on God.  Maybe we would move closer together.  Maybe we would work together.  Maybe we would actually begin to believe that we are one people.  Maybe this through rhythmic prayer we would draw closer to God.  Right now it’s just an idea, a kind of dream.  But maybe it’s worth it.  We’ll see.