From the beginning, Christians have recognized the call to love our neighbors as central to following Jesus. More recently, many of us have started to wonder how that command relates to our neighborhoods as well. Some have even begun to talk about “a theology of the city” and to consider how that theology might translate into the choices that give shape to our common lives.
These developments inevitably lead to a new set of questions: Does God care about the engineering of municipal plumbing systems? Does it bother him if street-corner utility boxes are drab eyesores? Does he care about the physical, social, economic, and spiritual well being of those on both sides of the tracks? Does he call people to run for city council?
I’ve come to believe that questions about the ways we inhabit and give shape to the places where we live, work, and play are integral, not incidental, to the mission of God. And I’m certainly not alone. Many of you are familiar with Christianity Today’s This Is Our City project, which aimed to spotlight how Christians were “responding to their cities’ particular challenges with excellence, biblical faith, and hope.”
Last spring, I was part of Common Good PHX, an inspiring two-day event at which a diverse swath of folks gathered to collectively dig deeper into what it would look like for our city and our neighborhoods to truly flourish. I’m sure there are plenty of examples of similar gatherings and initiatives where you are.
As more and more of us have been asking these questions and working to discern tenable answers, three consistently thoughtful voices in these conversations are Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen, who together have written The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community.
Sparks, Soerens, and Friesen (referred to henceforth as “the authors”) open the book by making their case for something they call “the new parish” (a theme we’ll return to in a moment). They go on to describe it as a place—and just as important, a people—of faithful presence, with an ecclesial center, and a fresh understanding of what constitutes “the commons.” Next, they get down to discussing such things as rooting, linking, leading, and “presencing” (which may or may not have anything to do with what Otto Scharmer talks about here). The authors lay their cards on the table early:
It is our conviction that humans are meant to share life together, to learn to fit together as a living body in relationship with God, with one another, and for the place to which they are called. We think that entering into these common relationships with growing faithfulness and fidelity is what it means to be human. The gospel of Jesus enables us to live toward this full humanity. And the local church is a body that bears witness to this way of becoming human in Christ, through both manifesting that growing reality of our lives together and becoming those who see and proclaim the signs of this work happening in the people and places around us.
You might say that the authors are trying to give the concept of parish a facelift, as something more friendly than the “lingering conceptions” people have of an arrangement through which, we’re told, manipulation, hierarchy, patriarchy, abuse, oppression, fear, and control are given free reign. In contrast to all of these nasty descriptors they see the new parish more happily characterized as bottom up, organic, relationally defined, and ecumenical.
While I find their overall vision for the new parish to be compelling—and I should emphasize here that I really do—I’ll admit that at one point they left me scratching my head. Now, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the kinds of people who will read this book are not, for the most part, folks for whom the concept of “parish” is any sort of a hang-up. Rather, I’d hazard a guess that the authors are writing to an audience well acquainted with (and perhaps a bit disillusioned by) a kind of church that by its very definition is anti-parish—a kind of church without any sense of place beyond that which relates to zoning permits, traffic patterns, and the demographics of potential tithers.
Again, the authors lay out a compelling case, and in many ways I consider it a step in the right direction. But I wonder if there’s a grain of truth to the idea that, to tweak (or, I fear, to maim) G.K. Chesterton’s line, “The old parish ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and—at least in our contemporary Protestant context—left untried.”
I make that suggestion because, in my reading, the vision for the new parish presented in these pages is not really an attempt to reform and revive the old model; it’s rather a stab at creating something new, while appropriating and redefining the term. And that’s perfectly fine as far as I’m concerned. But I’m left wondering whether the authors also see a place for Christians to breathe new life into more traditional parishes, or whether new entrepreneurial ventures and missional urban communities are rendering the “old wineskins” redundant. If they get at that in the book, I’m afraid I missed it.
I’ll conclude by saying that what I appreciated most about the vision for the so-called “new parish” is its consistent emphasis on rootedness and relationship as the context for transformation. Throughout the book, the authors do a wonderful job of inviting us to look beneath the surface and to see past façades. Flourishing doesn’t always announce itself on billboards, after all, or through the proliferation of restaurants with valet parking in the hip part of town.
The authors of The New Parish invite us to see our neighbors and our neighborhoods anew, to experience their joys and their sorrows as our own, and to celebrate signs of life wherever we find them. Whether we consider that vision new or old, it’s a vision I’ll gladly get behind.
“When we call God ‘Father’, we are called to step out, as apprentice children, into a world of pain and darkness. We will find that darkness all around us; it will terrify us; precisely because it will remind us of the darkness inside our own selves. The temptation then is to switch off the news, to shut out the pain of the world, to create a painless world for ourselves. A good deal of our contemporary culture is designed to do exactly that. No wonder people find it hard to pray. But if, as the people of the living creator God, we respond to the call to be his sons and daughters; if we take the risk of calling him Father; then we are called to be the people through whom the pain of the world is held in the healing light of the love of God.”
– N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer
In The Wounded Healer, the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen resituates ministry in the context of shared human brokenness. Summarizing the book’s main premise, we might say that the one who ministers—whether as an ordained pastor or simply as one friend to another—does so most faithfully when drawing upon his or her own experiences of woundedness and healing.
This is not always the posture taken by celebrity pastors in North America. Nor, frankly, is this kind of compassion and care the posture that tends to characterize people like you and me.
While re-reading The Wounded Healer not long ago, I was reminded of another of Nouwen’s short books, In The Name of Jesus, which turns just about every notion of leadership—Christian or otherwise—on its head. In that book, I still remember being startled and unsettled when I read this line for the first time: “The Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.” The rest of the book is equally jarring—and equally liberating. Do read it if you haven’t already.
Returning to the pages of The Wounded Healer, Nouwen suggests three principles of Christian leadership. First, on the basis of the Incarnation as well as our vocation as Christ’s ambassadors, we’re called to be with others in their suffering. Next, we’re to lead others, however dimly we might see the way, into a recognition that life has meaning beyond the chaos and destruction around and within us. Finally, we’re called to be bearers of hope. Nouwen continues:
Leadership therefore is not called Christian because it is permeated with optimism against all the odds of life, but because it is grounded in the historic Christ-event which is understood as a definitive breach in the deterministic chain of human trial and error, and as a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness.
For some of us, Nouwen’s principles won’t go far enough as we consider the very real burden of ministering to those in pain. Belief in the sovereignty of God and confidence in the reliability of scripture’s promises are two more that come to mind.
But Nouwen’s main framework holds: those who minister in the name of Christ must be present with those who suffer—as those who share the basic human condition of brokenness—even while pointing beyond the chaos and despair into glorious, inexhaustible light.