Review by Rev. Matthew Kitchener of Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight J. Friesen’s The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community (Herald Press, Scottdale PA and Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press, 2010)
In The New Parish, Sparks, Soerens and J. Friesen describe a movement of churches marked by deeply and faithfully inhabiting their neighbourhoods and allowing the neighbourhood to shape their practices of mission and faith.
I will structure my thoughts about this book by beginning with a “Coles’ notes” outline of the book followed by my assessment and the reasons I believe it could be just what some of our churches need!
The book is organized around 3 questions: “Why do we need a new parish?”, “What is the new parish?” and “How do we practice the new parish?”
Why do we need a new parish?
That key word “parish” is defined as “a geography large enough to live together (work, play, live…) and small enough to be known as a character within it.” The size and makeup of a “parish” will range greatly between Bowness and Brandon, Willowlake and Kitimat; which is precisely why the authors wrote this book. The place a church is located matters!
To the first question, “Why do we need a new parish?” the authors point to a North American church and culture following the lies of individualism and living above place: that is, living as if we don’t need others and living as if the uniqueness of each place doesn’t matter. Set in opposition to these lies, the authors teach that (contra individualism) church and parish do truly need each other and (contra “above place” life) churches cannot shoehorn themselves or their parishes into the “one size fits all” ministries offered up by the latest popular church and book.
In the midst of a church theology that few would dispute, the authors begin to ask praxis questions:
“Where does our neighbourhood impact us enough that it has a voice in the shape of our church mission and church life?” “Do we actually matter to our specific setting?”
Out of these haunting questions the authors begin to formulate a new articulation of the church/parish relationship. After exploring varieties of ways churches have related to (or avoided) their neighbourhoods, they cast a vision for a church “within” and “In-with” their parish.
“Within” means being deeply rooted in the place God has planted your congregation. “In-with” means seeking collaboration with others who are seeking the good of your parish. The authors name this ideal relationship of church within parish as “faithful presence.”
What is the new parish?
When they move to the second section of the book addressing “What is the new parish?”, they begin from the concept of “faithful presence.” The more precise definition of “faithful presence” is “a relational view of our neighbourhood asking us in each situation, listen for what our relationships require of us and respond according to our capacity.”(59)
How can a church begin to become a “faithful presence” within their parish? Sparks, Soerens and Friesen challenge churches to begin by recognizing their fragmentation from their place. Some churches have been guilty of idolizing a certain technique or strategy for winning over their parish without reflecting on whether that ministry fits the real lives of people who live in their communities. “How can you love YOUR neighbour?” is not something an expert from Chicago, Colorado Springs, New York City or London can tell you. Rather, get involved in the life of your literal neighbour. Learn to love your place rather than your hopes for the place or your strategies for changing it.
If churches insist on technique rather than love, if the techniques don’t work, the temptation is to withdraw from their parish, turning inward and relinquishing responsibility for their neighbours.
As opposed to fragmentation, the authors call churches back to an integrated life where the Church’s central call to holistic Worship is lived out in embodied practices of Christian formation, Mission and Community. A church that is moving towards this integration with an awareness of their parish will be faithfully present.
What areas of a community’s life might this impact? The authors describe a vision for a “new common,” arenas of everyday community life in which the majority of the neighbourhood shares a common concern. They choose four areas where a church’s integrated faithful presence might be practiced in its parish:
- Economy: how we collaborate together so that everyone has what they need for a flourishing life (such as food and shelter).
- Environment: all the ways we interact with the built and created world we share (soil, air and places built for living together).
- Civic: all the ways we make decisions together; local governance and leadership.
Education-both the teaching of students within the parish and the broader themes of formation and wisdom; helping us all grow into mature and good people.
Imagine a local economy enhanced because neighbours took care of each other’s children, supplied food for neighbours by hosting them regularly or helped each other start a local microbusiness?
Imagine unused lots becoming community parks or gardens. Imagine underused structures becoming places of gathering or learning. Imagine churches being a community where people look out for the good of the whole neighbourhood not just their pet area. These are the kinds of visions toward which faithful presence can lead.
How do we practice the new parish?
The final section asks the question “How do we practice the new parish?” The authors attempts to get our imaginations and conversations moving by encouraging churches in “presencing,” “rooting” and “leading.”
By “presencing” they mean being truly and fully present to your parish. This begins by listening deeply to God’s story so your presence within the community isn’t simply accommodation to public expectation. They also encourage the dual listening to your own story and to the story of your place.
Do you know the history of your parish? Do you know the current “characters” in it? Are you one of the characters in it? As you listen to your parish, listen first to love and then to discern how you and your parish need each other.
By “rooting” the authors are describing a set of practices flowing from intentionally sharing life in your parish. This starts by “localizing” what you already do. Shop, eat out, drink coffee and beer, dry clean, bank…in your parish. Get to know others and be known by others as a person committed to the life of the parish. Do this not simply as an individual, but by linking up with other Christians in your neighbourhood and other people committed to the common good of your neighbourhood.
By “leading” the authors do not mean becoming some kind of power player in local politics or business. What they are describing is looking for others whom you can follow who are already a faithful presence in your parish. They offer examples of kinds of leaders to watch for:
“Designers” who create and design environments and practices for deeper shared life;
“Conductors” who find unique voices and strengths in the community and invite these parts to function as a whole by encouraging them towards authenticity and collaboration; and
“Player Coaches,” practitioners of faithful presence within the community (player), who also have a larger field of vision than her/his specific ministry (coach).
In leading, churches could begin simply by noticing and celebrating those examples worth following in your community. They end with going back to the very basics to remember that God is already at work in your parish and that Jesus remains the perfect model of one who was faithfully present!
Although this book is relatively new, I know that the conversation has been ongoing for many years within the “Missional Church” movement (and simply lived by some congregations for centuries!). Coming to the book I was somewhat suspicious; not whether it was true but whether the information was worth the hours busy Christians would need to read it. It seemed as if the authors simply repackaged basic concepts of contextual mission popularized by Newbigin, VanGemeren and others. They had illustrations that described a “faithful presence” church; and new terms like “new parish,” “faithful presence” “Ecclesial center” and “new commons”; but was it simply new packaging to sell books or the “Inhabit” conference the authors run every year?
As I began to read (less as a critic and more as a local church pastor of a community church), I was both appreciative and inspired by the theology on the ground (or rather…in the parish!) modeled by this book. I think because the authors are theologically thoughtful and practitioners within faith communities the book is direct and practical without being theologically shallow. It is also helpfully structured to, not only be read, but be practiced. What I couldn’t demonstrate in my Coles’ notes was the format of the book, which doesn’t just teach at the reader, but takes space in each chapter to ask piercing questions and make helpful suggestions that could be considered together as church board, staff or small group.
I believe the real strength of this book is its appropriateness for the vast majority of CBWC churches.
We have a few “destination” churches where people come from many communities for a large gathering, but many of us are more “community” or “neighbourhood” churches. For the few “regional” churches, this book will take some adapting to make it applicable on a church wide level. However, for the majority of us already connected to a smaller locale, a “parish,” this book has an immediate fit.
Besides the excellent practical suggestions, two gifts emerged for me while reading. The first was the encouragement that being a neighbourhood church is good and can be exactly what is needed for your community. Sometimes the insecure side of me reads books by successful church leaders on successful ministries and I hear (though the authors don’t say) “It’s o.k. if you are leading a small neighbourhood church. Here are some ways to overcome that deficit and put our ideas into practice anyway.”
Another gift of this book is that the authors point to some churches and leaders within Western Canada many of us would already know. We can have partners for the journey.
That is not to say I didn’t have some reservations about this work. There were a few questions that I feel could have been better addressed:
Could “parish” be another human ideal by which all churches are now measured to see if they are truly following Jesus or not? Generative visions can quickly become abortive idols if not held with humility and faith.
What does a “new parish” vision look like for larger regional churches? Are they modern aberrations people should leave to worship in the neighbourhood where they live? Should we turn people away based on geography?
What does a “new parish” church look like in a middle class or upper class neighbourhood? The vast majority of the examples of churches used in this book were poor and extremely under resourced communities. While we all know the needs are still great (just better hidden) in wealthier neighbourhoods, the book could have been more helpful for many of our churches had they included some examples and asked stimulating questions for churches in suburbs and wealthier neighbourhoods.
Even with these question marks I think this book is a “must read.” I am so glad to have read this book! I will be rereading it with my board and seeking to implement some of the suggestions this year.
The beauty of the book is in the basic teaching in understandable language and doable ideas: Living true to who we are as a community of followers of Jesus rooted in a place; loving that place enough to know and be known, to acknowledge we need our parish and it needs us.