I remember the day like it was yesterday. I had a couple hundred people in my ministry as a young pastor and I thought I was “relevant” to the culture to which I was called. Someone asked me a question not precisely like this but the essence was the same, “Do you know the names and stories of the people in your parish?” Sadly, I could only say no. As I began to get to know the names and stories of those in my parish I realized how not relevant I was.
In our quest to be relevant in the church have we overlooked key traditions of the church deep with meaning? I think that we have. Just the other day I was invited into a social media debate group to debate whether tradition or scripture has more authority in the church. I’m a protestant evangelical so I believe in Sola Scriptura. But that believe system does not mean I don’t believe in tradition. It was interesting to find how many folks jumped immediately on the side of tradition. Have evangelicals missed it?
I recently wrote a dissertation on discipleship communities and how they thrive. One of my key findings was that those that thrived contextualized some key church traditions. The three key church traditions that I focused on were gathering, sacraments, and the table. A lot has been written on contextualizing the gospel and mission. I have written about them as well. I think that every church needs to start with contextualizing the gospel and mission. Let your church form out of those two things. But, as the church is forming what has been used over the last two thousand years that you can contextualize into your new community.
One of those things I believe every church needs to contextualize which comes out of the tradition of the table is the concept of the parish. The concept of the parish has been lost for many evangelicals. For many evangelicals hearing the word parish scares them or makes them nervous. Why is this? Well it is something that they have run away from because the parish is something catholics or mainline protestants did. Sure, to be fair, the baggage probably had some good reasons behind it. Over time the church lost the rich meaning behind the parish.
The word parish comes with it a lot of baggage. Yet at it’s core I believe it is a beautiful ideal that has been lost in the bureaucracy of the church. Over time the word simply came to mean the jurisdiction of a particular church. It was an area that the church was in. It is so much more than that. We need to get back to the root meaning. The word parish comes from the greek word paroikia meaning “dwelling beside, stranger, sojourner.” Para means beside, by, or near. While oikia’s root is oikos which means house.
Parish is to be with people in their home. It is to gather around the table together to get to know someone. Parish ministry is to slow down so that we can know someones name and story. To live out a parish based ministry is to care for the neighborhood. To dwell in, with, and beside those in your neighborhood. Do life with people in your neighborhood. Care for and love those in your neighborhood. To see the parish that you are in as under your pastoral care. In the traditional sense the church has been seen as the center of the neighborhood. In fact, historically churches were built in the center of the neighborhood so that everyone could easily make it to the church gatherings.
Jeremiah 29:7 says, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Do you seek the welfare of the city, town, or neighborhood in which God has sent you. In Genesis 2:15 God puts Adam and Eve in the “Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Within our human job description we are to take care of the garden in which we are put. In Luke 9 Jesus sends His disciples out to the homes and villages to proclaim the Kingdom. The New Testament Church was described as living out the gospel and mission of the church in the everyday realities of the parish.
Living as a church in the parish gives the church permanence and proximity for relationships that can be elusive in our culture. Being a church for the parish will dictate what your worship gatherings might look like. If your parish is a university you might focus on a ministry for college students or you might focus on the more intellectual types in that environment. If your parish has a majority of families you might focus on kids discipleship. You will also be more aware of the needs in the local neighborhood that as a church you can meet. Most importantly the church will know the names and stories of those living in your community.
If we are to contextualize the parish properly in today’s culture we need to look beyond the physical neighborhood in which people live. It is important that we see our parish as the neighborhood. Because of technological advances like the car, social media, and others like it we also have our social tribes that we do life in. We do life at our gym, with our “girls” or “boys,” with our moms group, our sports buddies, our art clubs, running clubs, and the list goes on. These tribes are also our parish. So, the modern parish is both our neighborhood and tribe. The church must walk in and pastor in both.
In our rush to grow the 3 B’s (butts, budgets, and buildings) of the church we have missed getting to know those who live in our parish. Do we as a church know the names and stories of those living in our parish? Do we know our parish? Most evangelical churches (I’m only talking to the evangelicals because I am intimately familiar with them) tend to embrace the American individualistic and consumeristic values. Paul Sparks says in his book The New Parish that Americans “often drive by dozens of churches en route to our church, the one that meets our cultural expectations. American society has engaged in an evangelical spiritual consumerism that some scholars pejoratively call “Burger King Christianity.”
Craig Van Gelder in his book Missional Church says, “To be faithful to its calling, the church must be contextual, that is, it must be culturally relevant within a specific setting. The church relates constantly and dynamically both to the gospel and to its contextual reality.” We cannot be culturally relevant if we are not doing life in our parish. We cannot express the kingdom of God in our parish if we do not know the names and stories of those in it. In recent demographic studies I’ve done the church is declining across the United States. Leaders across the country are scratching their heads as to why. The reason why is because they do not know their parish. The data proves that they do not know the parish. The “growing” churches are getting larger but the evangelical population is shrinking. All that this shows is that christians are attending the more attractive church down the road. Churches might know their parish in the intellectual sense but they do not know the people living in it. In our rush to “grow” the church we have lost our ability to know the people in the parish we are called to reach.
People all around us are hopeless. Their only hope is the Gospel. It is our job to take the Gospel to the world. If we want to take the Gospel to the world it must start in the parish to which we are called. It is my hope that the church we regain a parish mentality in ministry. I think we need to take the word “parish” out of the closet, dust it off, and use it. Some might say let’s use other words without all the baggage. I agree words are important. Which is exactly why we must bring this back. Not only bring back the word but the meaning as well. Using the word will force us to it’s meaning. It will be a constant reminder of who we are called to. Where is your parish? And who is in it? Go and express the hope of the Kingdom of God in it.