Review and Reflection for “The New Parish”
Posted On June 1, 2023
The subtitle of this book is “How neighborhood churches are transforming mission, discipleship and community.” This is an excellent book that helps congregations think through the future of what it means to be a congregation. It offers a model, but it does not pigeonhole congregations into a specific way of being a congregation.
And while the book was published in 2014, the concepts and ideas presented by the authors are very relevant. That’s because even though the pandemic has seen an increase in people leaving churches and churches struggling for meaning and purpose and mission, all that really did was accelerate what was happening before the pandemic. Congregations have been needing to figure out who they are and why they exist for some time now. The way things were is no longer working. It’s not a judgement of the way things were – it’s a statement of fact because the world has changed along with the assumptions, expectations, and values of the world. The church is not the center of the culture and the culture is no longer interested in telling the story of the church any longer (it’s debatable as to whether the culture told the right story in the first place). It’s time for the church to adapt. And that adaptation includes some interesting things from the past and a look at the future. Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen have done a great job with this book. If a congregation is interested in exploring what it is called to and how it answers Jesus’ call to mission in its location, this book is a great aid to help that conversation and discernment. It doesn’t necessarily offer specific answers – which is a good thing because each congregation is in a unique context and needs to be able to discern how it should live into its calling where it is located. With all this in mind, let’s dive in to the book material.
The authors start with a look at the word “Parish” because the authors are proposing that congregations extend beyond their building walls to a different way of thinking about being community. “Parish…refers to all relationships (including the land) where the local church lives out its faith together.” (Pg. 23). This will be foundational to the rest of the book.
One of the key challenges that has impacted the church, the authors argue, is that the church has lost its place, or as they say it has been “living above place.” (Pg. 24). They cited social psychologist Christena Cleveland who observed that “when the church left its historical focus within the neighborhood it ended up becoming homogenous and consumer-oriented.” (Pg. 25). I think this is a powerful statement with a great deal of accuracy. When we get lost, we are disoriented. The church forgot its purpose. It turned inward on itself. I’ve written before that the church went from being about a body of believers to a building. That creates a whole range of challenges, none the least being actually living into what is claimed as belief. Bodies live, buildings don’t. Bodies go through life, death, and resurrection. Buildings can be remodeled and updated or town down. There’s a significant difference between these two things.
So, what is the new parish that the authors are talking about? It is something old and new, powerful and meek, open and learning. It is a model that can be adapted. The authors put it this way: “The new parish is also different in the way diverse church expressions with different names and practices are learning to live out their faith together as the unified church in and among the neighborhood. Whereas the old parish was often dictated by a single denominational outlook that functioned as law, the new parish can include many expressions of the church living in community together in the neighborhood. Not only do parishioners learn to love and listen to neighbors from other church expressions in the parish, they also seek out partnerships with people from other faith perspectives who have common hopes for the neighborhood.” (Pg. 31-2).
Chapter two moves the reader into a bit of church history that is helpful. The authors start by talking about the early church. “The early church understood itself as in its place…Christians’ primary allegiance was not to any particular vision of the economy, not to a political system or party, not even to their family, but to the reign of God practically manifested within their local context.” (Pg. 39). When the church became part of the empire it shifted the “center of gravity from the collective body in a particular place to the church of the state.” (Pg. 40). And as time moved on, so did the role of the church. This was the advent of the missionary movements which attempted to be the church for something. “But we can’t ignore the spiritual, physical, sexual and emotional abuses that sometimes accompanied colonial missionary work.” (Pg. 43). And lastly, the church again shifted gears. “It adopted a new posture that sought to be with.” (Pg. 43). The authors claim that this focus has been through the “modern evangelical movement and its emphasis on personal salvation.” (Pg. 43).
This leads to what the authors are proposing for the way the church to be. Their description says it best “The new parish church within its place while collaborating in that place with others.” (pg. 46). So, the question is – what does that look like? The answer is that it depends. But of course, there are some key characteristics of what a new parish is like. One of the most important aspect of this is relational in a few ways. It’s about listening, not having all the answers. The authors talk about the idea of freedom and what it is. “True freedom does not lie in detachment from our created place and time (Gnosticism) nor in mastering creation (Genesis 3). Rather, freedom results from living in communion with God and others.” (pg. 58). And with that, the authors talk about how the church has missed the mark. Some of this has been because of avoiding limitations and responsibilities, relying on expert strategies and confusing them with what will save a congregation, and deceiving ourselves into believing that human technique will be our salvation rather than God’s faithfulness. One of the best statements related to this that the authors use is from the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “Evil is the systematic substitution of the abstract for the concrete.” (Pg. 67). This relates very much with what Karen Armstrong writes about with how we have lost the sacred art of scripture. Meaning we lost what Scripture is about – it’s not about being right and literal interpretations and concrete answers. It’s more than those things and includes the abstract, the relational, and the creative. It is myth and truth. It is story intended to teach. It raises questions more than it offers answers.
The authors then move into what a new parish might look like. They refer to the concept of the new commons. “The word commons is ‘all that we share.'” (pg. 95). It’s about a faithful presence and relationships in a place. But it’s not just human relationships in the traditional sense. It includes economy, environment, civic, and education. “The Western world keeps people from seeing that their concerns are commonly held by focusing on them through the lens of the privatized individual.” (Pg. 96). In other words, our society has compartmentalized us and caused us to be blind from seeing how interconnected we are across considerations and with other people. We have lost our communal aspect and that hurts us. We need to be more integrated in our look about people and the challenges we face. And there is no better way to do this than through these four relationships. Ah, but money…. you might be cringing. Yes, money. Because money isn’t just a private issue. It impacts the community. Money is relational, not just private because we don’t just hold onto money for our own use – we use it with other people. Money is more than just a compartment of life shut off from the other parts of life. Rather, it’s a part that has impact on other parts. When we shut off sections of life from the rest of our life as if they don’t interact and impact other parts, we are fooling ourselves and trying to hide some aspect of ourselves. And it doesn’t work. The same goes for the environment, our civic life together, and education. All of these have a communal aspect that cannot, nor should not, be ignored. They are not just for our own personal benefit, but rather they exist for the whole body to benefit and they come with responsibilities as well. Ultimately this is about trust and vulnerability. Without trust, we end up with all sorts of problems, which I would argue we can see in our society and the many dysfunctions and mistrusts that exist in our politics, education, civic engagement, mis-stewarding of the environment, and use of money.
So how do we live out the new parish idea? First it is about being present. But not just being present. The authors use the phrase “adaptive presence.” (Pg. 118). Or put another way: “Every living thing that doesn’t change will die; it’s a biological maxim.” (Pg. 119). This adaption comes from listening for desire that exists in the community. From there, there is discernment with a Kingdom of God imagination. And finally, when discernment happens (and discernment is really about more listening), then there is acting into the incarnational presence of God. And then the cycle starts over again. It’s always about listening, which is humbling and vulnerable. What is the point of all of this? “When you read and reread Scripture, a strong case can be made that this deep desire behind God’s continued action is new creation itself. In other words, ‘the goal of biblical history is a renewed creation: healed, redeemed, and restored.'” (Pg. 123).
Finally, the authors spend a chapter on these other concepts as they relate to the new parish idea:
- Rooting – which is about growing stability in your place (Pg. 135)
- Linking – which is about connecting the church across places (Pg. 151)
- Leading – which is about living a life worth following (Pg. 165)
Again, this book is worthwhile in helping congregations discern what they are about, what their mission is, and how to go about that mission. But more importantly, it helps congregations deal with something that most congregations avoid like the plague – mourning loss of what was. There can be no listening to what is possible until we listen to what we feel we have lost, acknowledging that, mourning the loss, and accepting the new reality that we are living in. This book can be a benefit to congregations to explore its meaning and purpose through faithful and vulnerable conversation about place and the church’s place in the community, how to listen and to who, and to discern what the congregation’s mission is and how to live into that mission.