My friend Tim Soerens has written an important book called The New Parish, with Paul Sparks and Dwight Friesen. It drops today!
Here’s an excerpt:
THE HIDDEN MOVEMENT: THE RETURN TO RELATIONALITY AND PLACE
Popular imagination holds that North American churches are dwindling away, frozen in irrelevance and dying from divisiveness. Many books on the church in recent years highlight statistics that speak of the church’s decline in the Western world. While it is certainly true that all is not well within popular Christianity, those collecting the data may be asking the wrong questions. The persistent questions regarding Sunday-morning attendance, program involvement or the building budget may not be the wisest measurements for discerning the health of the church.
The new parish introduces the possibility that something spectacular is brewing beneath the level of categorical definition. Indeed, there is an immense distributed population, often unrecognized by official figures, who are learning to love their neighbors in everyday ways. Within a single mile of wherever you are reading this book, it’s quite likely that there are dozens upon dozens of people who are loving their neighbor as an expression of their love of God. And here’s what we find most exciting: right now there are millions more migrating toward this
relational way of being the church. Over the course of the past few years we have walked the streets, eaten in the homes, and entered the shops, gardens and ghettos of over three hundred diverse neighborhoods across North America. We have been on an expedition to discover coalescing local bodies of believers sharing life together in particular places. Throughout the course of our explorations we have stumbled on a very surprising phenomenon. Contrary to all the clamor about dying churches, the closer we get to the everyday life of people in their neighborhoods, the more we find burgeoning expressions of reconciliation and renewal.
Our dear friend Brandon Rhodes, a longtime member of the Springwater faith community in Lents, Portland, has guided us through his neighborhood, where on one strip there are five different church buildings representing five different denominations. While each church is struggling to survive and suffering from dwindling congregations, there is another story at play in the area. From simple acts of hospitality, garden sharing, urban farm harvest parties and intersection repair projects, Springwater is a tangible expression of God’s love in the real life of the neighborhood. Along with neighborhood friends they have encountered along the way, members of Springwater are weaving together the fabric of love and care across the parish. Their lives bear witness to another way of living together in every dimension of life. But you would never notice this by looking at those five church buildings.
A simple switch of the imagination can produce a whole new set of questions regarding the health of the church. Here are just a few that we ask our hosts when we are visiting communities. These questions also serve as prayers as we invite God to lead our exploration. What would you ask if you were surveying neighborhoods, searching for signs of the Spirit’s movement?
• Are there people who have found a way to share a life of love together here?
• Are there people leading movements toward reconciliation and renewal here?
• Are there people living on behalf of justice with the marginalized and poor here?
• Are there people entering into relational forms of civic and economic life here?
• Are there people creating reciprocal relationships of care across parishes globally here?
If we begin to ask different questions, we get different answers regarding the state of the church. What if more and more of us were on the lookout for the Spirit’s movement, bearing witness to signs of new hunger for reconciled friendships, cooperative collaboration and the responsible stewardship of the place we live?
What is critical for receptivity to the new endeavor is the capacity to see how the Spirit may be at work in both the institutional church and the world at large. Both parties are finding themselves drawn from different directions toward a shared center. Throughout this text you will see a constant dialectical movement between the work of the Spirit in reforming the church and the love of God on the move in the neighborhood, drawing it toward reconciliation and renewal.
Learning to see the immeasurable and radical forces at play will require a new lens. It will require a new imagination that expands beyond our current concept of church and begins to track new patterns of renewal at work in the world. Ultimately, learning to see will require reorientation, new postures and new ways of practicing faith.
WHY IS THE WORD PARISH RESURFACING? WHAT’S NEW ABOUT IT?
When the three of us talk about what seems to be happening in the “new parish,” it is important to distinguish from the old, or prior, understanding of parish. To propose that a new parish understanding is emerging is not to write off all that was good about the old, but to see it as the root from which new learning and growth can emerge. It also awakens us to the massive shifts in global society that mandate fresh vision and meaning for the current context.
While the ancient word parish carries important memories of love, home and goodness throughout its history, it also recalls various types of manipulation that have been instituted through centralized hierarchies, patriarchal structures and other forms of abuse. There have been streams of beauty and hopeful possibility, but there has also been oppression, fear and control.
We are contrasting the new parish with lingering conceptions the church has carried since Christendom, when the
institutional church more or less dictated the form of the neighborhood. The church that is emerging in the parish
today is different in many ways. The first difference is that the neighborhood— in all its diversity—has a voice that contributes to the form of the church. There is a growing sense that the Spirit works through the relationships of the neighborhood to teach us what love and faithfulness look like in that particular context.
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.
When we say the word new it does not refer to something we have invented and now present for the first time. Instead, it is a phenomenon that we have born witness to, something we have seen playing out in embryonic form that is different from the old conception. What’s surprising is the origin of the new parish. We have found that those who have allowed the Spirit’s movement in the neighborhood to give shape to the church in North America have often been urban leaders in historically underresourced neighborhoods. These leaders are guides toward a new way of thinking about the meaning of parish.
What is both radically and profoundly hopeful is that once disparate groups are now finding connections across places. This linking phenomenon actually changes the very nature and meaning of parish, from old typecasts of insularity and abuse to transparency, innovation and subversive ecumenism. The work that pioneers have done is catching on, spreading across parishes and coalescing toward something altogether new. It is beyond what any one of us could dream. The three of us hope to be part of those who are bearing witness to this new work and offer hopeful possibilities for the church in this new century.
Again, download the whole first chapter here, and get 40% off the book purchase today only!