A movement is growing that will radically shift this generation’s understanding of that perennially elusive word: church. Oddly enough, if you go looking for this movement on a Sunday morning you’ll probably come up empty. Searching online or attending the biggest conference won’t help you won’t see it either. To get a glimpse of what might be one of the most exciting movements in the Church you simply need to walk outside into your neighborhood and open your eyes.
Thousands of Christians are reclaiming the ancient idea of the “parish” and weaving together a shared life in the place they call home.
They are forging a new expression of the church for the 21st century.
This movement is profoundly hopeful, in part because reclaiming the notion of the parish, in a new, modern understanding, confronts some of the most perniciously fragmenting conceptions of the contemporary church.
1. Subverting Consumerism
Remember that time in the gospels when Jesus told his followers to go into Samaria, Judea and the ends of the earth to seek out a church community that fit their personal preferences? Me neither. But, if you’ve recently moved into a new neighborhood or city, you probably know how complicated it is to search out for church community.
For many of us, finding a church home is awkward. We don’t want to shop for churches like we would for a sweater. But it’s pretty difficult not to put ourselves into the mindset of a consumer shopping for religious goods, services and relationships.
Especially amongst millennials there is growing desire to share life as an integrated community; it’s one of the reasons that sociologists are researching the growing phenomenon of urban tribes. The parish church is just such an integrated platform. Rather than finding ourselves divided amongst niche market demographics, niche denominations and niche issues that are differentiated by what they are not, what if we organized around what we share?
If we are already in a neighborhood, and choose to become a character within its story, then we already belong. We find ourselves already present in a particular neighborhood and all that it is within it. As a result, rather joining the passive posture of consumption, we find ourselves surrounded by local economic, political and educational opportunities. Moreover, we find all sorts of issues, people and assets that actually have a name and face. We’ll then discover that God has very much been at work in this place well before we arrived.
2. Confronting What We Count as Success.
The vast majority of denominations are wringing their collective hands over shrinking church attendance, diminishing budgets and plummeting cultural influence. But, before we toss up our hands and desperately throw money at the latest technique for church growth, let’s just stop for a second. For just a moment, let’s look at the local church with a “parish lens.”
Let’s imagine that in your neighborhood there are 10,000 people. If only 10 percent of the population says they want to focus on neighborhood renewal because of their Christian faith, you’ve already got 1,000 people! Think of it as a hermeneutical miracle? A thousand person church was just created in your imagination! A veritable mega-church resides right around you, but because we primarily measure how many people show up to a regional gathering we often drive by hundreds and thousands of our neighbors.
The local church will challenge this scorecard by creating a new one. How are everyday followers of Jesus learning how to weave a fabric of care together? Who are sharing their gifts and assets with each other? How many inclusive neighborhood gatherings, parties and dinners are happening? How are we supporting the local business, civic organizations and nonprofits that make their home alongside us? Unfortunately, these same 1,000 people have very little platform to connect, very little capacity to meet and know one another. But that could change if we organized around shared life connecting toward renewing of our neighborhoods
3. Disrupting Cultural Wars With Everyday Life
Whether you are more of a Fox News sort of person or MSNBC, if you are seeking to follow Jesus, you probably find it a bit disconcerting that so much of today’s so-called communication degenerates into yelling matches across multiple media platforms. The left and the right may use name-calling in politics and in the media, but surely this shouldn’t happen to people who follow the Teacher who pleaded with the church to be one.
When church is primarily viewed through the lens of an event we consume, it’s a whole lot easier to label the “other” out there and how wrong they are. Let’s recall that the mandate of Jesus was not actually that we agree with one another, it was actually much more challenging. We are supposed to love each other, which is really, really hard—and pretty much impossible if our lives are not lived together.
Faithful presence in our neighborhoods could actual subvert many of our culture wars by putting a face on what was previously an ideology.
Culture wars are a cancer eating away at the church, but getting to know actual people in our parish could be an antidote to this ideology, and a timely one at that.
Civility, discourse, curiosity, the capacity to strongly disagree while remaining in relationship—are these not the skills and practices the Church needs to be modeling to our increasingly polarized culture? The parish is an invitation to difference, to breaking out of our silos that often enforce our desire to stereotype.
Tim Soerens is a pastor, social entrepreneur and co-founding director of the Parish Collective. He is also the co-founding producer of the Inhabit Conference and the co-author of The New Parish available now from Intervarsity Press. Find him on Twitter @timsoerens.