All posts tagged “church

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Book Review: The New Parish

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.”

NewParishBookCover4Last 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.

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All together guilty, all together forgiven

In the presence of the cross there are no innocent parties and no innocent classes. And there is no body which can make this witness except the church, defined as it is simply by its acknowledgement of the supreme Lordship of the crucified and risen Jesus. We are all together found guilty and all together forgiven. The church is called to be the place where that is actually happening.”

– Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History

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What are Christian aesthetics good for?

NPR recently had a long, rambling interview with Bruce Springsteen. At a certain point the interviewer asks about gospel music and the “religious impulse” in some of The Boss’s music:

Without overusing the word, you know, there’s a Christian element that runs through it because I grew up Catholic and so I was indoctrinated in religious language between eight o’clock and nine o’clock every single morning for the first eight years of my schooling. Five days a week, every single morning, the first thing you did was religion. And so you grew up with that language and it was, of course, distorted, and screwed me up terribly, but at the same time, it made for good writing. And it was a wonderful source of metaphor when you went to write about the world and about your inner life and it served me. I suppose looking back on it, I would like to change some things but I wouldn’t have had that any other way in that it’s served me very, very well and continues to do so. I have a very deep connection to gospel music. I understand the language — I feel I understand the essence of the music itself.

Notably here, Springsteen says he draws from the deep well of Christian language because it makes for “good writing” and serves as “a wonderful source of metaphor.” And he feels “a very deep connection” to the music of the church. This despite the fact that his Catholic education—or “indoctrination,” as he describes it—”screwed me up terribly.”

This reminds me a bit of the time the “militant atheist” Richard Dawkins told a reporter for the Spectator that he has a certain love for the Anglican tradition in his native land, and specifically its aesthetics, even if he doesn’t for one moment believe any of its theology. Would he feel deprived if church buildings were to disappear from the English landscape? “Yes, I would feel a loss there,” Dawkins said. “I would feel an aesthetic loss. I would miss church bells, that kind of thing.”


These comments from Springsteen and Dawkins beg the question: What should Christians make of such (unexpected?) appreciation for the aesthetics, sensibilities, and cultural contributions of our faith, while the substance behind those contributions is largely or wholly dismissed? Is this good, to an extent? Or is it entirely bad, with the dismissal of the substance canceling out any possible value in the appreciation for the aesthetic?

I have two hands, so I’ll make a point for each and leave it at that.

On the one hand, appreciating the aesthetic beauty of Christianity—awe-inspiring architecture or gospel music or liturgy or what have you—is certainly not the same thing as embracing Christianity itself. (Many of us, from various Christian traditions, would do well to be reminded of that from time to time.)

On the other hand, could it be that for some, the Spirit uses aesthetics to woo even those who for various reasons have found certain claims and/or norms of the faith to be stumbling blocks?

[Image via]

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Repaso: January 17, 2014

1. What is a city for?
Joel Kotkin of New Geography, a blog “devoted to analyzing and discussing the places where we live and work,” addresses an important question that’s far too often overlooked, even among New Urbanism types:

What is a city for? In this urban age, it’s a question of crucial importance but one not often asked. Long ago, Aristotle reminded us that the city was a place where people came to live, and they remained there in order to live better, “a city comes into being for the sake of life, but exists for the sake of living well.” However, what does “living well” mean? Is it about working 24/7? Is it about consuming amenities and collecting the most unique experiences? Is the city a way to reduce the impact of human beings on the environment? Is it to position the polis — the city — as an engine in the world economy, even if at the expense of the quality of life, most particularly for families?

Phoenix Civic Space Park

2. The new age of Christian martyrdom
Kirsten Powers writes for the Daily Beast:

The concept of Christian martyrdom may seem like something from a bygone, uncivilized era when believers were mercilessly thrown to the lions. Not so. This week, Open Doors, a non-denominational group supporting persecuted Christians worldwide, reported that Christian martyrdom has grown into a pervasive and horrifying human rights crisis. In their annual report of the worst 50 countries for Christian persecution, Open Doors found that Christian martyr deaths around the globe doubled in 2013. Their report documented 2,123 killings, compared with 1,201 in 2012. In Syria alone, there were 1,213 such deaths last year. In addition to losing their lives, Christians around the world continue to suffer discrimination, imprisonment, harassment, sexual assaults, and expulsion from countries merely for practicing their faith.

3. The church and the cause of freedom
I’m still too intimidated to read anything by Oliver O’Donovan, though his name keeps popping up all around in conversations about Christian ethics and political theology. But I’m definitely intrigued:

We discover we are free when we are commanded by that authority which commands us according to the law of our being, disclosing the secrets of the heart. There is no freedom except when what we are, and do, corresponds to what has been given to us to be and to do. ‘Given to us’, because the law of our being does not assert itself spontaneously merely by virtue of our existing. We must receive ourselves from outside ourselves, addressed by a summons which evokes that correspondence of existence to being. ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ (2 Cor. 3:18).

4. Tales of the new creation
Pete Peterson of The Rabbit Room on tradition and what it might have to do with the new heavens and the new earth:

We love to mourn the end of a good book don’t we? We love to imagine what might be if only the author had kept on writing. There’s something wonderfully tantalizing about the idea that the authors of our favorite books might have further stories to tell us if only they were still alive to do so. But all we’re left with are the signposts left behind to point us toward things we can only dream of. These “signposts” are important. Personally, spiritually, culturally, they mark the ways we’ve come and the ways we hope one day to go. And I think the well-built signpost endures, becoming in time like an eroded marker left by a long-forgotten civilization. The well-built signpost may even become a tradition.

5. Jon Foreman on Air1

[Image: Phoenix's Civic Space Park via]