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A Feature Review of
The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community
Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, Dwight Friesen
Paperback: IVP Books, 2014
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Reviewed by Maria Drews.
“Most people are longing for a more integrated and connected life. Followers of Jesus want to be the church together in deeper ways than simply attending professionalized church programs.” – The New Parish
For several years I lived in intentional community with some people from my church in a low-income neighborhood, spending afternoons playing with the neighborhood kids and evenings catching up with my housemates. Together we hosted backyard movie nights and tutored kids at our apartment. We joined the neighborhood council, partnered with other local churches to feed the hungry, and stopped to listen to neighbors as we walked to the local shops and library. We joined in with our neighbors to support each other in difficult times and shared with those who needed help. But when asked, I always struggled to name what we were doing. We weren’t a ministry of our local church. We were a poor excuse for a new monastic community. And we weren’t community organizers or sent missionaries. We were a little community making a small attempt at seeking God’s reconciliation and renewal along with our neighbors and struggling to live life as Jesus taught us in our little corner of the city.
In their wonderful new book, The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community, authors Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen give a name for what we were. We were part of a new parish.
A New Parish
According to Sparks, Soerens, Friesen, a parish “represents the church’s everyday life and relationships within a particular place.” Being part of a parish means committing as a church community to a neighborhood or particular area and doing as much of life there as possible. The idea of the “new” parish takes it one step further, envisioning the people of all the local church expressions joining together to live their lives with their neighbors. In the new parish, local churches collaborate with one another and with their neighbors for the sake of reconciliation and renewal within their neighborhood.
By defining a particular place in which to live out life together, local churches enter into the story of their neighborhoods, building relationships with neighbors, paying attention to the businesses and schools in the area, caring for the land, and connecting with all the other organizations seeking the good of the neighborhood. And here, the authors explain, the gospel can become so much more tangible, as the local church shares in the struggles of their neighbors and seeks the wellbeing of all the people in the place, not just the ones reached by programs and ministries of the church. By reclaiming a sense of place, the church becomes rooted in the life of the neighborhood.
From Losing Our Place to Finding our Presence
Reading The New Parish, it is hard not to ask how the church became so disconnected from “place” in the first place. Whether we are driving outside of town to the big seeker church, heading across town to the denominational church, or missionally reaching out to those within our existing networks, we are practicing church without a sense of place. Sparks Soerens, and Friesen explore the cultural forces that have influenced the church, which have lead us to believe we are autonomous individuals, independent of others, and the history of the church in America, which has led us to believe we could be part of the church without being part of the neighborhood.
In response, The New Parish calls the church to a deceptively simple practice within a local place: faithful presence. Faithful presence means entering into a neighborhood and listening to the stories of our neighbors and the movement of the Holy Spirit, then responding within our capacities to love and care for the neighborhood. It means connecting the “dreams and assets of the people, associations, and institutions that are already there,” and seeking restoration and renewal together. To practice faithful presence, we must refuse to use techniques to accomplish our goals in the neighborhood. This means refusing to use standardized methods and ideologies to achieve our goals- no pushing people into set programs or plans or turning people into tools to achieve our own ends. As Sparks, Soerens, and Friesen say, “When this happens, presence- truly being with people in the moment, with no agenda except to be faithful to what a real relationship requires- is forsaken.”