Introductory Note:

Chris Webb is a Benedictine Anglican priest, author, and the former president of Renovaré. While serving as Renovaré president, Chris wrote a community newsletter called Explorations. In this installment, Chris walks readers through a series of reflections that churches and groups can use to structure their activities in a way that helps them follow Jesus together.

Renovaré Team

Reading a Church

Our churches incarnate our beliefs. From the grandeur of a European cathedral’s soaring towers to the simplicity of a tin-roofed chapel in the African bush, our places of worship embody and reveal the values and theology of the communities that create and inhabit them. As Shakespeare wrote, there are sermons in stones” — and the stones, glass, and rafters of our church buildings declare the character of our life together as well as any good preacher ever could.

Christians in the liturgical tradition, such as Catholics and Anglicans, usually focus their worship space on the altar, since the celebration of the Eucharist is such a central part of their spirituality. Stained glass frequently witnesses to the illuminating role of biblical imagery and symbolism in their theology. The smell of incense often permeates the building, a striking reminder of the rituals of worship.

All this is in stark contrast to the Baptist chapels I used to visit back in Wales. These unadorned buildings spoke of an uncluttered simplicity, a directness of purpose. The pews and galleries were gathered tightly around the towering pulpit, on which would sit a huge Bible, always open and ready to speak. Between preacher and congregation would be the spacious baptistery, a prominent sign of the call the conversion.

Other buildings echo very different emphases. Welsh Methodist churches are often dominated by the huge, looming pipe organs, raised into place by a people who loved to sing their praises. Traditional Quaker meeting houses are often starkly plain, the circle of chairs drawing attention to the presence of God in other worshippers. An evangelical community church in the US might often be centered around the raised dais for the worship group and the preacher. Orthodox churches, on the other hand, hide their worship leaders behind an imposing and impossibly beautiful iconostasis, a glittering wall of Byzantine art.

Each community, in different ways, is using the structure of its built environment to articulate the Gospel: to show how the life of God is made manifest in this place. And the environment, in turn, helps mold the community, reinforcing its beliefs and worship, strengthening its sense of identity in Christ. The structure both expresses and shapes a shared life of faith.

The Shape of our Lives

It is not only in the structure of our buildings, though, that our discipleship of Jesus is manifested and reinforced — it is also in the structure of our community life. Every week, we make choices about the pattern of our life together. We provide opportunities for people to worship, pray, serve, learn, engage in mission, or simply spend time together; and some of these activities we highlight more strongly than others. We make decisions together about how we will use our resources: the time of staff and volunteers, our money, and our buildings. In this we way create a context for following Christ, a set of values, priorities, and opportunities which form the character of our community, and the lives of its members.

The ancient church has taught us much about the value of carefully crafting the architecture of our community life intentionally and deliberately. Some of the greatest pioneers of the Christian spiritual life — such as Basil of Caesarea, Benedict of Nursia, Augustine of Hippo, and Francis of Assisi — distilled the wisdom gleaned from groundbreaking experiments in community into their regulae or community Rules’, the documents in which they encapsulated the essential rhythms of a shared life in Christ. They learned that it is possible to turn our patterns of activity into a powerful catalyst for spiritual development.

As we noted in the previous issue of Explorations, it is important to understand that a Rule in this context is not a legalistic set of instructions keeping the community in strict order. It is more an evocative description of the way a group of people might live together (and their reasons for desiring to do so): an invitation to commit ourselves to one another in a particular way. Thinking of the wooden rules used to draw a level, straight line in geometry, Benedict wrote of his Rule: it is called a rule (regula) because it straightens out (dirigat) the lives of those who obey it.” A good Rule guides people without confining them.

It is possible for any church, congregation, group, or team to draw together their own Community Rule — whether a detailed description of community structure and life, or a looser, creative expression of the rhythm and values which we seek to embody. Our community may have thousands of people, or just three or four. We may share a home together, or live in the same neighborhood, or be spread across a town or city, or even be dispersed all around the country and beyond. No matter. It is still possible for us to create a common pattern of life, built around our shared passions, values, and commitments, which help us create a more Christ-immersed life together.

Shaping such a Rule can be both a challenging and an extremely rewarding exercise. The pattern of life experienced in many church communities is usually something that has evolved rather haphazardly. Our daily, weekly, and annual rhythms are formed by clusters of activity that have slowly coalesced over the years: elements of church life we assume to be indispensable (Sunday worship, youth group, committee meetings), particular ministries for which someone or other has a special passion (missions prayer group, prison visiting, meals for the housebound), and stuff that is just plain fun (softball team, church picnic, the annual Superbowl party). All these have a valuable place in a church’s life. But the overall pattern of activities also shapes the way we will follow Jesus together. It is worth thinking about shaping that rhythm more intentionally.

In the previous issue of Explorations we discovered how the structure of our individual lives can either help or hinder us as we seek to grow in Christlikeness. The same is true, in a slightly different way, of our life together in community. Together we create rhythms of life which help determine the kind of people we will become. Basil, Benedict, Augustine, and Francis learned that it is possible to turn our patterns of activity into a powerful catalyst for spiritual development. They illuminate possibilities for our community life, ways of structuring our time and activities as a loving response to the grace of God in Christ. They show us that it is possible deliberately to create an environment where growing into Christlikeness becomes both more likely and more natural.

Creating a Community Rule

In this issue of Explorations we are going consider how a community might work together to sketch out such an intentional pattern of living, a Community Rule, drawing on the wisdom of the ancient church. This is an exercise which could be appropriate for any group of Christians seeking to create a richer life of discipleship, whether a whole congregation, a leadership team, a small group within the church, or simply a family in their own home. But before we begin, may I offer a few words of advice?

Be open. Let every member of the community help shape a Rule. Benedict counseled his abbots to draw on the wisdom of everyone in the monastery before making important decisions, because the Lord often reveals what is better to those more junior.”

Be realistic. A good Rule will stretch and challenge people a little, but — to learn again from the advice of Benedict — should contain nothing harsh or burdensome.” There is no need for heroics here!

Be creative. If the Rule of St Augustine is sufficient for your community, adopt it. But if you have unique gifts, ministries, interests, and passions, and a distinct calling, don’t be afraid to reflect that in your Rule. Read the ancient Rules for inspiration (see the short bibliography at the end of this issue). But let the language, ideas, expressions, and vision of this Rule be all your own.

Be simple. Keep it clear, keep it practical, and above all keep it short. A good Rule should inspire the community, and help focus our intention — not become an over-detailed straitjacket. Consider confining the first draft of your community’s Rule to a single sheet of paper — even better, to one side of the paper. The Northumbria Community, based in the north of England, have compressed the essence of their Rule into a single sentence: The Rule we embrace and keep will be that of availability and vulnerability.”

We are going to consider six elements that have been prominent in the four great Rules in the Christian tradition: the Rule of St Benedict, the Long Rules and Short Rules of St Basil, the Rule of St Augustine, and the Rule of St Francis1. Most of these elements would probably find expression somewhere in rhythms of a healthy, flourishing Christian community. Thinking through these seven areas together might help your church, team, or group form a clearer idea of how together you can shape a life that draws ever more deeply on the life of Christ.

1. Intention

Before we begin to express the specifics of our pattern of life together, we must be clear about intention. Why are we seeking to establish these rhythms of life? As we journey together, what do we long to become? If this is a community people enter by choice (for example, a church or small group, rather than a family), what might motivate that choice?

Different communities may have quite diverse intentions. Benedict saw his monastery as a practical college of spiritual formation: We intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service,” he wrote, where people can share in the sufferings of Christ” and also share in his kingdom.” Augustine, on the other hand, saw participation in the community as the end in itself: Before all else, live together in harmony, being of one mind and heart,” he counsels; for is it not precisely for this reason that you have come to live together?” Basil, writing for those who desire the kingdom of heaven,” sought to create an environment where attention to God could be nurtured, since we have set before ourselves one and the same goal: the devout life.” And Francis, hoping to draw together those who yearned to share together in the imitation of Christ, summarized his Rule in a single phrase: To live in obedience, in chastity, and without anything of our own, and to follow the teaching and footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

A statement of intention is not quite the same as a mission statement. The latter usually expresses purpose: something we hope to do or achieve. For example, the mission statement of a passionately evangelistic congregation, might be: To draw the people of this city into a living relationship with Christ.” In a Community Rule, the statement of intention usually expresses who we hope to become through God’s grace. So that same church might frame its Rule around the desire to create patterns of discipleship that lead them to become a Gospel-saturated, mission-oriented people.

Reflect: Sharing a life in Christian community, by the grace of God at work among us, who do we hope to become?

2. Prayer

Experience suggests that prayer will either be the ordering principle of the whole life of a Christian community, or a peripheral pursuit squeezed into the gaps of an otherwise pressured timetable. We can choose to structure our time around an intentional life of prayer, or we can struggle — constantly — to make time’ to pray. Very few communities successfully find a middle way between these poles.

All the ancient Rules agree on this point, and make prayer the first priority of their respective communities, but perhaps the Rule of St. Benedict above all raises the work of God” (opus Dei, Benedict’s term for the monastic liturgical prayers) to the highest degree. Nothing is to be preferred to the work of God,” he wrote, after spending thirteen chapters describing in exquisite detail the pattern of daily worship — eight services compassing each day’s activity; the praying of the entire Psalter every week; and lengthy meditative readings from Scripture. Every other aspect of the community’s life is ordered around this cycle of prayer — prayer which must never be allowed to become mere formality or duty, but which should be offered with tears and heartfelt devotion.”

The foundation of any Community Rule will be the rhythm of prayer. This can take any number of forms: each community will need to discern for itself what is appropriate and helpful. Some will follow the hours of the Divine Office, while others will root themselves in some other means of daily, prayerful reading of Scripture. One Rule might embody a simple commitment to pray at a certain time of day, while another might outline in more detail how Psalms, readings, songs, or silence will help shape that prayer. Many communities are able to create opportunities for this prayer to be shared in common, at least some of the time. We should not worry that not everyone will always be present; those who pray alone elsewhere will find it encouraging to feel that they are, in some sense, still joining in the prayer of their wider fellowship. Knowing that others pray with us and for us helps us to persevere faithfully in prayer at the hours and times appointed,” as Augustine exhorts the members of his community.

Reflect: How and when will we pray — together, and apart?

3. Work

Christians have long recognized that our daily work is much more than a regrettable burden which must be endured to produce the weekly paycheck. In Eden, after all, Adam worked the soil long before the Fall. It seems that laboring in creation is one of the ways we express the image of God implanted within us.

A Community Rule cannot afford to ignore the nine-to-five world of those who will live by it. Different communities, though, have understood this in a very wide variety of ways. The early Desert Christians wove baskets in their silent cells, and had them sold at market to earn a little bread. Benedictines and Cistercians tilled the soil and grew their own food (for spiritual reward, not just physical; after all, Benedict reminded his community that, Idleness is the enemy of the soul.”) Franciscans served the poor, and begged alongside them. Dominicans and Jesuits often earned their pay in schools and universities. Calvinists and other Protestants became famous for their work ethic’, investing themselves in honest’ jobs and excelling through diligence and thrift. Many missionary communities have chosen to live by faith’.

We need to understand how our working lives — together or apart — will contribute to the Kingdom of God being revealed among us. That means discernment about the kind of work we intend to undertake, and helping one another recognize our workplaces as altars where we make a holy offering to God… not alien territory in a secular world utterly divorced from our experience of God elsewhere. A Rule can help bring a new perspective here, as it weaves our working experience into an overall pattern of life devoted to God. It is surprising how helpful a shared rhythm of discipleship can be in transforming our everyday working lives.

Reflect: How will we express our passion for Christ, and our desire to walk more closely with him, in our work?

4. Hospitality

All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ,” wrote Benedict, expressing the extraordinary commitment to hospitality found in every strand of Christian community life. The reception of guests came to be seen as a litmus test of the community’s true quality, since in every guest the person of Christ presents himself to us anew, either to be welcomed or rejected.

In framing a Community Rule, then, it is worth considering how we will receive newcomers and strangers — both those who wish to join our community, and those who simply desire to visit with us awhile.

For Benedict, hospitality was such an important value that the normal rhythm of community life could be disrupted and even set aside for the sake of a guest, In a Benedictine community, as soon as the presence of a guest is announced the abbot and other brothers are encouraged to drop whatever they are doing in order to attend to the visitor. Work may be left undone. The routine of the kitchen may be disturbed. Fasting may be broken so that someone might eat with the guest. After all, the whole purpose of this shared rhythm of life was to become ever more attentive to Christ; if we really believe that we can greet Christ in this guest, then attentiveness to our visitor becomes more important than anything written in our Rule. The irruption into our lives of this unexpected presence serves as a necessary reminder that the purpose of our Rule, our rhythm, the architecture of our lives, is always more important than observance of the details.

Reflect: What might we need to set aside in order to give guests our loving attention, and how will we cultivate a welcoming atmosphere? 

5. Mission

The activism of contemporary Western culture has enticed many Christians and churches to reject out of hand the enclosed, monastic communities which were so valued in medieval society. We are often tempted to scorn these contemplatives as those who have retreated into quiet and comfortable cloisters, avoiding the arduous struggle to bring the message of the gospel, and the justice of God, to a lost and suffering world. This is perhaps a symptom of a more general malaise: our tendency to see prayer as a tool or a duty, rather than as a way of life. We might want to reflect whether these small groups of people, who turn their entire existence into one long act of devoted attention to the presence of God, might not in the end turn out to be the lynchpins of history.

But many communities are called to a more active’ role in the mission of God’s people, whether through evangelism, or through working for peace and justice, or both. We see that passion clearly reflected in the Franciscan Rule. Let any brother who wishes to go among Saracens and other nonbelievers, go with the permission of his minister,” writes Francis, who himself traveled to a crusader camp in Egypt, crossed the lines of battle, and shared the gospel with Sultan Malek el-Kamil, leader of the Saracen forces. Francis pioneered an approach to mission in which the good news was lived as much as it was explained; proposing two alternative approaches to evangelism, he wrote that one way is not to engage in arguments and disputes but to be subject to everyone for God’s sake,” while the other is to announce the Word of God, when they see it pleases the Lord.” Francis never actually said, Preach the gospel; use words when necessary” – but the words perfectly summarize his spirit.

Our Rule, then, should be shot through with our mission — or, if you prefer, our calling as a community. That calling may be to prayer, to evangelism, to serving the poor, to political action, or in some other area. Whatever it is, our Rule should both express our mission, and create an environment which actively helps support it.

Reflect: How will our life together help us fulfill the calling God has given us?

6. Commitment

Community is built on commitment; not only the commitment we have towards a common cause, but our dedication to one another. Because of this, every classical Christian Rule has tackled the thorny question of obedience. Benedict insisted on it, and legislated punishment for those who resisted. Augustine emphasized the need for community members to, Obey your superior as a father; … both love and respect are necessary.” Even that freewheeling patron saint of dropouts and rebels everywhere, Francis of Assisi, maintained that holy obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ” entailed obedience to church authorities and to the structures of community.

Since many in our age find the strong meat of obedience and submission difficult to stomach, we might prefer to think of our commitment. Community life is founded on love, not just ideas. It is about more than principles, values, theology, and activity; fundamentally, it is about commitment to other people. We need to consider carefully how a life shared together might help deepen that commitment. How will we allow leadership to be exercised in our community? What, ideally, would be the character of our leaders? How will leaders be chosen, appointed, or recognized? How will decisions be made — and who should be involved in making them? How will we resolve conflict and disagreements?

If all this sounds a little laborious, a stifling of the freedom of our individual spirits, consider an alternative perspective from Benedict. He saw submission to one another and to the rhythm of the community as an incredible opportunity: an opportunity to love others more than ourselves. Try to be the first to show respect to the other,” he wrote, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.” When our first commitment is to people, not ideas or causes, such obedience becomes not only possible, but an outright joy.

Reflect: How can our community’s life help us commit ourselves ever more deeply to one another, and so to Christ amongst us?

A Blueprint for Community

These six elements — intention, prayer, work, hospitality, mission, and commitment — are some of the key building blocks of a community rhythm of life. Reflecting on each of these areas, and on our unique gifts and calling as a church or community, can help us draw up an intentional statement about how we might continue to build a Christlike life together.

Of course, it’s not necessary for every community to draw up a Community Rule; it may not even be helpful to some. Perhaps reflecting on the experience and wisdom of people like Basil, Augustine, Benedict, and Francis — as well as the later experiences of the Moravians, the Methodist revival, and contemporary New Monastic’ communities such as the Simple Way and Rutba House — is enough. We can simply learn from the past, and from one another, how to follow Christ together.

But I invite you to reflect whether a Community Rule, a regula which helps express the vision and passion of your community, might be worth considering. Would it not be worth giving at least as much thought to the architecture of our community as we do to the architecture of our buildings? Life together is not accidental: not only are we able to shape it, we need to shape it, if it is to be an expression of our intentional desire to follow Christ.

I invite you to consider how the rhythm of your community’s life might help you, and those around you, to fulfill our high calling: to become more like Jesus.

Short Bibliography

The following are good modern editions of the four classical Rules which have helped shape Christian communities around the world for the last millennium and a half. 

  • The Monastic Rules, Augustine of Hippo. New City Press
    ( ISBN1565481305.
  • Ascetical Works, St Basil of Caesarea. Catholic University of America
    Press ( ISBN0813209661.
  • The Rule of St Benedict in English, edited by Timothy Fry OSB.
    The Liturgical Press ( ISBN0814612725.
  • Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (includes both versions of the
    Rule of St Francis), edited by Regis Armstrong OFM. Paulist Press
    ( ISBN0809124467
  1. Francis wrote two Rules for his Little Brothers’, in 1221 and 1223. The first was filled with enthusiasm, passion, and vision – which was very inspiring, but challenging to use as a foundation for community life. The second was more prosaic, but at the same time more practical. Franciscans today accept the second Rule as normative, while interpreting it by the spirit of the first; I quote from both here. ↩︎

Photo by Sophie on Unsplash

Text First Published December 2015 · Last Featured on August 2022