Any sort of Christian community, be it a household, a church, a study center, or even something as large as a Bruderhof community, needs to practice three types of work as part of their life, it seems to me.
First, there is the work that allows the community to be solvent. Maybe we’ll call this “living work,” as in “work you do to make a living.” This will almost always be work that brings money into the community either via market-work, entrepreneurial work, fundraising, or receiving small donations. While this work is often not the first thing people think of when they think of Christian work, it is a necessary part of the community’s life if it is to function well. (It’s also worth noting that there are ways of reducing how much of this work is purely monetary in nature. The Bruderhof, for example, grow much of their own food. There isn’t any reason, in theory, that other communities could not attempt some form of this as well, even if it will not be on the scale of what the Bruderhof can do.)
Second, there is the work that maintains the day to day life of the community, both spiritually and physically: call this “maintenance work.” It’s the work that maintains the life of the community on a daily basis. This will include tangible things like maintaining the grounds or property the community has and making meals, but also includes things like Bible study and education offerings for people who are already Christian to help them deepen in their understanding of the faith. It will also include times of communal prayer and singing as well as the ordinary conversation that helps to form friendships and deepen trust between members.
Third, their is the work that makes the Christian life intelligible to the world outside, the work of evangelization. Call this “outreach work.” This can include things like public events hosted at a church or study center, conferences, and things like the Alpha Course. It would also include other forms of outreach in the community, such as volunteering at a homeless shelter or in a local school, making your building available to the community around you as they have need and as you are able, and so on.
As we watch more and more seminaries seemingly decline or simply slide into becoming little more than a content delivery mechanism via online classes and as we watch churches and non-profits struggle financially, I worry that the outcome of this will be that many of the forms of work described above will fall off due to a paucity of resources.
What communities can house and promote the work of theology, for example, if seminaries are in decline? What communities can do the work of outreach and evangelization if churches are fearful and under-resourced? How can Christian households do all that they might reasonably do if they are laboring under a constant sense of fatigue and, again, a lack of resources?
One answer to these problems offered by churches of the past has been monasticism. I suspect we may be headed for such a time when monasticism will again see a resurgence simply out of pure necessity. But it will not be the celibate monasticism that the church relied on in the past. (Heh, for that matter the celibate monasticism of the church’s past was often not actually celibate.) Rather, I think communities like L’Abri and the Bruderhof offer a picture of where we might go: communities of lay Christians choosing to live together, sharing a common life (for a season at L’Abri, permanently at the Bruderhof), and supporting one another so that all the forms of work described above can actually be accomplished.
To take a couple examples: Because the Bruderhof have profitable businesses they maintain and because they live from a common purse, they don’t labor under the same sort of wretched urgency that many of us living under late capitalism do. This allows them to have a large staff supporting Plough, for example, and to maintain excellent schools and to be available to one another and to their neighbors as they are needed.
Similarly, because L’Abri does not fundraise but simply prays and asks God to give what they need, the community is able to give itself to other forms of “work”: to lengthy lunchtime discussions, to joyous times of shared work in the kitchen preparing for a meal or lecture, and, yes, to sometimes tedious work around the grounds, though even that work often leads to something beautiful in the end.
My point is simply this: One of the defining problems of the age the American church is now entering is scarcity. We are beginning a phase in our life when it is likely that we will have more problems than our communities have resources to support. Indeed, that is always the case, I think, but it is likely to be felt even more acutely in the days to come as the baby boomer money dries up and our institutions continue to circle the drain. One way of addressing that problem is for Christians to bind themselves together, saying “my life for yours,” and, by pooling their collective labor, be able to get closer to addressing some of the gaps that exist in our communities today.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).