You might think, from the state of the current conversation around mission and church planting, that parish churches have had their day. That they are a quaint, nostalgic and ineffective legacy of comfy Christendom. But parish churches have never been more important.
It is true that a great deal of evangelism naturally proceeds along lines that largely ignore residential locality. In a highly mobile (geographically, economically and socially) culture, relationships often cluster around workplaces rather than neighbourhoods. Friendships are made more elastic – and, frankly, more vulnerable – by our reliance on the connections provided by cars. And, as Mark Driscoll has observed, the place where people play is sometimes the best place to invite them to worship.
However, it is also true that churches tend to target the ‘soft underbelly’ of society, rather than its hardened carapace. And this means that some tribes are vastly better served than others. Witness the recent rush of church planting aimed at young professionals in the inner city. The density of this activity (it is too uncoordinated and uncooperative to describe as a movement at this stage) has led to something of an arms race of media, music, personality and venue to secure a slice of the pie of young Christians looking to escape the ‘burbs.
Interestingly, it isn’t young professionals in the inner city who are most underrepresented in evangelical churches. That title belongs to groups like mainland Chinese, ex-cons, the mentally-ill, long-term migrants isolated by language, Muslims, baby boomers, and communities from South America and the Mediterranean.
This is where the parish model comes in. The parish model insists – demands – that the local church take seriously the call of Christ to reach the hardest and most resistant corners of our multicultural world. It says: you may not follow the easy seams of your culture, like a river working its way to the sea. You must travel uphill. You must batter against granites. You must bridge cultural gorges, becoming all things to all people, rather than becoming just what you really wanted to be, anyway.
The parish model says: yes, there is no mission more economic than the mission to young professionals. Everyone of them has a salary, and nothing to spend it on except themselves and their church. But we are also called to love and evangelise the most uneconomic groups in our world.
And this, of course, demands a different kind of culture. One of sacrifice, where church can’t be ‘the way I like it’, since I am in the midst of diversity. The parish model creates middle-of-the-road churches. Churches where no one loves everything they do. Churches where they sing songs so old that they need an organ, or so new they contain 4 separate melodies. Churches where kids scream during the really, really deep part of the sermon.
Simply brilliant. I love the parish church.