Finding a sense of place

The New Parish. Written by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight J. Friesen. InterVarsity Press, 2014.

September 10, 2014 | Artbeat | Number 18
Reviewed by Henry Neufeld | Special to Canadian Mennonite

Churches should be rooted in neighbourhoods or parishes. That’s the claim of the authors, who represent Pentecostal, Anabaptist and Reformed traditions. Our lives and churches are fragmented, and many Sunday commuters pass other churches to meet with people who support their views and where everyone looks and acts similarly.

The church has left the neighbourhood; it is individual-, consumer- and commuter-oriented. Some scholars call it “evangelical consumerism.” Despite evangelistic crusades, missional language, church growth and seeker-sensitive movements, attendance still declines. New techniques are not needed, but a return to the neighbourhood is, according to Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight J. Friesen.

Historically, the parish—or local—church was the centre of community activities, but today it is removed from engagement in real-life struggles in the neighbourhood. The church has shifted from love of neighbour to developing systems of belief, doctrines and power.

Modern evangelicals redefined the meaning of being a Christian by emphasizing individual salvation. Church-growth strategy tends to be based on the idea that people like to hang out with others who are more or less like them. Meanwhile, house churches and emerging churches seek to organize around relational principles.

Either way, the church has lost its sense of place. Faithfulness needs to encompass more than worship to include the mundane activities of everyday life, according to The New Parish. In prophetic tones the authors suggest that if the church cannot be present and involved in its neighbourhood, it has lost its way.

These theologically trained authors all propose a new parish: Follow Jesus into your neighbourhood with other followers of Jesus. This means “taking your bodies, your locations and your community very seriously, as seriously as God in Christ took them.” If a church is in, and for, the parish, everything changes, and might result in what they call “slow church.”

While calling the church to a neighbourhood base, a “faithful presence,” they decry the obsession with results. Donors, denominations and conferences want results. “The modern western church is addicted to the next technique,” they charge. The challenge, they suggest, is to hold community, formation, mission and worship together.

Sparks was pastor of a rapidly growing Seattle church with worship bands and lots of pop-culture references. But he sensed a growing infatuation with stagecraft and putting on performances. During his six-month sabbatical—a 2,600-kilometre walking pilgrimage of the U.S. Pacific northwest—he would walk for four days, then stop for the rest of the week to visit local ministries and churches.

Much later, his church decided to move into a downtown area and congregants seemed supportive of the new vision. But once the shift towards parish ministry started, the crowds that had been attending began to shrink from hundreds to handfuls.

The New Parish does not provide church-growth techniques. Instead, it calls us to develop relational communities in our neighbourhoods: “If the church cannot be present in life-affirming ways in its neighbourhood, it has lost its calling.”

This book would be an excellent resource for small-group study.

Henry Neufeld attends Point Grey InterMennonite Fellowship in Vancouver.

--Posted Sept. 10, 2014

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