For the past fifteen years I’ve regularly conducted an informal survey in different Christian settings. In pre-COVID times, I would invite different groups to review the past month, then ask: “On how many of the last four Sundays have you participated in weekly worship services?” The results are anecdotal—hardly scientific—yet a picture emerges of where we find ourselves as a church.
The sample groups I asked were mostly faithful, practicing Christians: elders or deacons and other invested leaders, religion students, people who love their church, go to worship conferences, and read journals like Reformed Worship. The results? The clear majority (over 60 percent) attended worship services for only two of the past four weeks. They weren’t twicers in the traditional sense (twice every Sunday), but twice a month! There was no lurking dissatisfaction, no backsliding. They were merely busy people with sick kids or Sunday work shifts or family travel and full lives in a highly mobile society.
This increasingly new worship “normal” (among fairly committed Christians, remember; imagine what it’s like for others in our churches), along with any post-COVID new “normal” we face, raises all sorts of questions and invites necessary conversations. Think of the implications for faith formation when we pack so much freight into the vehicle of weekly worship services.
And what happens, then, if that practice shifts to something like twice a month? Or what happens if a pandemic doesn’t allow us to gather at all? How can Christian formation flourish apart from weekly worship yet remain connected to it? How might followers of Jesus live with a distinctive Christian identity, with a vital sense of belonging and connection to a local Christian community even while being apart throughout a given week and dispersed across a given place? What regular patterns and practices meaningfully connect Christians to Jesus and other followers of Jesus within a framing, forming, and worshiping community?
A Rule of Life
All these questions have led me not to any worship innovation but to a rediscovery of the Christian tradition found in a rule of life. What is a rule of life? In essence, a rule is a structure. It’s a form, a pattern of habits and practice that cultivates in us a distinct way of life, a habitus of love for God and neighbor. A rule of life is probably best known from Christian monastic communities that formed themselves around a shared rule of life.
If you recall your church history, you know that the Reformers were animatedly opposed to all things monastic. However, John Calvin’s primary beef with the monasticism of his day was not its practices and patterns, but rather how it put out of reach what he believed should be normal for the whole church. A rule of life is not elite Christian living or superhero faithfulness. It’s regular Christianity (the word “rule” comes from the Latin word regula, from which we get our word regular). As theologian Simon Chan notes, “Living by a rule is what turns one into a regular Christian.” A rule of life is the church’s scaffolding for the formation of regular, everyday Christianity.
For the past three years I’ve been leading a community within my congregation (previously in Knox Presbyterian Church in downtown Toronto, now in ClearView Christian Reformed Church near Toronto) that commits itself to living out a common rule of life. In this Habitus Community, we commit ourselves to daily, weekly, and monthly practices that echo and extend the shape of Christian worship—gathering, listening, communing, sending—into the dailiness of our lives.
For example, our central daily practice is arranging our day around three times of prayer. We begin our day using a daily office of prayer and Scripture, seeking communion with God before checking phones or reading the news. At midday we interrupt our schedules for a brief prayer (using alarms on our devices like a monastic bell calling us to prayer). This year, amid all the rage, division, and polarization, we are using the simple prayer of St. Francis as a helpful midday prayer. The midday prayer often feels like an interruption to our workflow, but it serves as a reorienting call to worship, a daily reminder that our time is not our own, that whatever we are doing this day is in service to another Lord. We end each day with the prayer of examen (see RW 141:31), a simple practice of reviewing the day to look for traces of God’s presence in our lives, training in us the habit of seeing God in all things.
Learning from Subscribers
For us, worship rituals are like children’s playtime. By playing, a child learns how to be an adult. In worship, we learn how to be a Christ follower by conversing, being generous, and discovering the Word alive with us.
—Rev. Jeremy Bellsmith, pastor at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Nanaimo, British Columbia.
Disengage to Engage
To help us to reflect on our relationship to technology and to restrain the addictive nature of the digital devices in our lives, we daily disengage from our devices and screens. It’s a simple renunciation: for one waking hour, we dock our devices and turn off our screens. We remain present to life around us—the people in our lives, the physical reality of life unmediated by screens.
Then throughout the week we engage six different faith practices that order our week around communion with God. We live into the rhythm of creation, setting aside one continuous 24-hour period for rest and worship, to pray and play as a Sabbath to God. At some point during the week, we commit to carving out a half-hour period of silence, reclaiming quiet and learning to attend to the loving, life-giving presence of God.
Knowing Jesus did some of his best work over a meal, we practice table fellowship, countering the prevalent isolation and loneliness and extending God’s welcome into our networks and neighborhoods. One meal is shared with others, particularly non-Christians or those from different ethnic, cultural, or socioeconomic backgrounds. Recognizing that our consumer culture is constantly shaping our instincts, we also give ourselves to a form of fasting one day per week. Each person discerns what form of fast will be most beneficial for one’s own growth and what is appropriate to one’s own season and needs. Though it’s one of the least-practiced Christian disciplines, regular fasting trains us in our bodies to resist the demands and desires of a culture so often at odds with God and God’s kingdom.
Living the Jesus Way in Community
One of the driving impulses behind this rule-of-life community is to live the Jesus way together instead of as a solo project, to experience faith formation in community and as a people. Stanley Hauerwas writes, “Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God.” Throughout our year-long participation in the Habitus Community, we meet with two or three others in weekly triad groups for friendship, prayer, and encouragement in this way of life. Once a month we gather as a whole community for a meal, a brief teaching on a particular practice, and conversation about how the life of Jesus is taking shape among us.
Does this sound like a lot to fit into your already full life? This is also the grace in a rule of life: it reveals the current patterns of our daily lives. A rule of life is never meant to add more burden to an already full life; it’s meant to assist in the reordering of our lives around communion with God. It will lead us to consider the operative patterns that currently form our lives according to lesser loyalties, and it will guide us to reorganize our lives around the “unforced rhythms of grace.”
While the daily and weekly practices of a rule of life unfurl the pattern of corporate worship into our week, it also prepares us for worshiping together. For instance, the practice of praying the daily office is intimately connected to corporate worship. The pattern of a daily prayer office echoes that of corporate worship, keeping the rhythm of worship before us through the week and so training and preparing us for worship. In The Rhythm of God’s Grace (Paraclete Press, 2003), Arthur Paul Boers suggests a practice such as the daily office is a missing link between daily life and corporate worship. He argues that something in our corporate worship has been lost because we aren’t adequately prepared for worship through praying the daily office.
In the ongoing experiment of Habitus Community we’re finding that the common rule of life is how we continue to function as a community of Christ while we are apart during the week (or longer), sharing together the way of Jesus even when we’re not physically together.
After three years we’re still learning, still making adjustments, and still figuring out how a parent of young children, a student, or a busy electrician or executive can all meaningfully participate. But we’re finding our rule of life a hopeful and helpful means of transposing the rhythms and patterns of worship into our everyday lives.
Interested in More?
The Habitus Community is still experimental, but here’s the dream: that every congregation has a rule-of-life community in it. That every congregation has a gathering of Christians—people with homes and hobbies, jobs and families—who together live a holy, ordered, and ordinary life in community, sharing a common rule of life within a congregational setting and so serving the flourishing of their local church. What is intended is not a cloistered community, but rather what Richard Mouw called for: “the clear and radical witness of a smaller body within the church, calling the entire church to a clearer and more radical witness.”