Following Jesus into the neighbourhood

I walked into church a few months ago and there were four boys sitting on a bench in the foyer, sitting hip-to-hip, and all ferociously intent on their personal electronic devices. Being “alone together” has often become our social default position and our embodied, relational, located life suffers.

This small, charming and already celebrated book can be shortened to one sentence: “Follow Jesus into your neighbourhood with fellow followers of Jesus.” In other words, it offers the collected wisdom of a network of Christian leaders (The Parish Collective) who are intentionally pursuing fresh ways of being rooted in their particular local communities. Like many “missional” and emergent manifestos, it springs from disillusionment with churches centered on a one-hour-a-week performance event with specialized programs on the side, and speaks of a deep desire to walk alongside neighbours and make shared surroundings more livable, sustainable and beautiful. It seeks to recover the call to placemaking – as we can shape our surroundings even as they shape us.

Catching the wave of current localist politics, the book reads like a practical field guide for shifting the activity of church from a building to its local community. It is divided into three sections, beginning with “Why do we need a New Parish?” The answer describes two modern displacements: the myth of the independent individual and “living above place”– the tendency to inhabit a neighbourhood in which we have no idea from where things come or to where they go. Like our food and garbage.

The second section answers the question “What is the New Parish?” Christians have been contextualizing their faith since Pentecost and the word “parish” itself harkens back to an age-old concept of Christianized place. The authors insist this is a new parish idea because the old idea was based on hierarchies of power where control operated top-down an ecclesiastical chain, while the new parish seeks to start by giving a particular place a voice that actually contributes to the form of the church.

Secondly, while the old idea of parish usually centered on one denominational identity and structure, this new understanding assumes all Christian fellowships in a neighbourhood are collaboratively linked, and may even partner with other faith groups as well. The book’s origins bears witness to this ecumenical approach, as the authors identify with diverse traditions: Reformed (Soerens), Anabaptist (Friesen) and Pentecostal (Sparks).

The authors want to stress that this “new parish” is not the latest technique for improving lagging church life: it is a dare to our faith. Techniques – as standardized methods from the experts – in fact, are the problem, as their universal promises can cut us off from the whispers of the Spirit in our own context. The Biblical call, they insist, is to “faithful presence” – a holistic worship-life in which community building, faith formation and neighbourhood mission integrate our otherwise fragmented modern relationships.

A key idea in the book is “the new commons” – defined as “all the dimensions of life for which everyone in your neighbourhood shares a common concern.” For those of us whose community revolves around Christian schools, this means expanding the home, church, school trinity into something that includes, for example, local economy, government and environment.

The final section of the book asks “How do we practice the New Parish?” They then outline four key practices for the new parish: presencing (listening to your place), rooting oneself in local activities, linking across parishes to others far and wide and leading – best understood as following what is worth following in your parish.

The book obviously leans to a strong congregationalism, and from a Reformed perspective, downplays the church as institution while focusing on the church as organism, and overlooks the antithesis between the world and God’s kingdom in favour of a robust sense of common grace. Evangelism gets passing reference, as they prefer the old proverb of preaching the gospel at all times and if necessary using words. Additionally, the authors hint at failure and frustration in the new commons: I would have liked to read stories of disappointment as well success. Finally, you should look for an in-depth and critical analysis of place, social media and globalization elsewhere. Place can be overrated, too – a new ideology for a mis-placed people.

Still, it is a refreshing read, championing the church as an agent of renewal in its neighbourhood. Inspiring examples and workable concepts pepper the book. It comes with devotional/small group prayers, activities and conversation starters at the end of each chapter as well as a small bibliography. The New Parish will give you hope – maybe not for your denomination or even congregation, but for the body of Christ’s potential to be faithfully present right where you live. Don’t go to church as much as be the church where you live.

Author

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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