The New Parish: Finding the Church in All of Life
The New Parish: Finding the Church in All of Life

The New Parish: Finding the Church in All of Life

Without engaging the world, the church becomes a fad nurturing cynicism and despair.

June 5 th 2014
EXCERPT: The New Parish
EXCERPT: The New Parishby Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen. InterVarsity Press.

If you've ever been sailing, you may know that three major components must work together to make your boat move. Naturally, you have the blowing wind that is the energy for movement. You also have the sail that catches the wind. And finally, you have the keel underneath the boat that links the boat to the sea, counteracting the force of the sail. When these components come together you have motion—you're sailing.

It's all too common when talking about the church to have Spirit-given energy (the wind) and engagement within the church community (sail), but lack meaningful connection to local cultural realities (the keel linking the boat to the sea). Without using the keel when you're sailing your boat is going to be set adrift. That's also what can happen when theories and programs have no connection to a local context. If the church in the parish doesn't engage the local realities of that place, then the opportunity for renewal is dead in the water.

It's worth asking: what value does the theory laid out in the previous chapter have if it cannot be practiced? Probably not much! Such a theory would be destined to float around in the vacuous realm of abstraction, and people would eventually conclude that it wasn't so meaningful after all. Any new imagination for what it means to be the church that doesn't emphasize engaging the actual world we all live in is likely to become a fad that will eventually nurture cynicism and despair. It may feel like something is happening, but in reality you wind up having some exciting conversations that never end up serving the very people for whom the church exists.

In our book, The New Parish, we locate the ecclesial center in real time and space, enabling you to get a practical idea of what faithful presence looks like as it works its way into every dimension of life in the parish. As the church becomes faithfully present in the parish and becomes attuned to the wind of the Spirit, every dimension of life is going to be invited toward reconciliation and renewal. The three of us have seen this growing reality in hundreds of parishes around the world. We invite you to dive into the new commons and discover an astounding opportunity for the local church of the twenty-first century to literally find itself a home.

What Is the New Commons?

Perhaps the clearest language to communicate what is meant by the word commons is, as Jay Walljasper has described it, "all that we share." We add the word new because people share far more together than has often been acknowledged when the commons has been used in the past. So by new commons we mean all the dimensions of life for which everyone in your neighborhood shares a common concern.

Figure 5.1. Faithful presence in the new commons

As faithful presence grows in your neighborhood, it builds healthy relationships. These relationships are critical to being human in and of themselves, but they are also the glue for engaging the commons together as community members. How people in the parish relate together around the new commons will have consequences that matter to nearly everyone. For this reason faithful presence is at the center of the new commons. If your community cannot learn to fit together well, all the commons are destined to feel the effects.

While there may be other ways to categorize the things people share a common concern about, you may find it helpful to use the following four realms to reflect on your engagement with the commons:

  • Economy: This includes how you collaborate together so that everyone has what they need for a flourishing life. It is a common concern because all of us desire such basic things as food and shelter.

  • Environment: This includes all the ways you interact with the built and created world we all share. At some level it is a common concern, because everyone in the parish desires clean air, good soil and a healthy place for living, working and playing together.

  • Civic: This is about local governance and leadership. It includes the way you make decisions together in the parish. It is a common concern because all of us desire to have a say in the decisions that impact their lives.

  • Education: This is much more than the tradition of teaching students reading, writing and arithmetic. It is about formation and wisdom, the way your context and the relationships in it end up forming people in certain ways. It is a common concern because nearly everyone desires to grow as mature and good people.

The way that the structure of the Western world keeps people from seeing that their concerns are commonly held is by focusing on them through the lens of the privatized individual. For instance, the environment is often treated as a resource of exploitation for personal or corporate gain. The civic realm is often a means of hoarding and leveraging power. The economic realm is often seen primarily in terms of personal wealth acquisition. And education is often abstracted from formation and reduced to mastery of knowledge or a set of skills deemed valuable to get a job. But, this cultural narrative is transformed by the vision of the kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated.

Followers of Christ are called to live out an alternative story of renewal in the local community.

The questions you have to ask your church or group are: Do we have a redemptive way of living out these dimensions of life together as a local body? And do we have a way of engaging faithfully together with the way things currently operate in our neighborhood? Or have we narrowed down the meaning of the church to something that does not include vast segments of life?

As you reflect on each of the commons you can ask these questions as a way of discerning areas that need growth. Reflect on how you hope your faith community might function together. Then consider what small ways you could catalyze movement in that direction. Let's consider just one realm as an example: the economic.

Economic: Finding Our Faith in a Spreadsheet

Perhaps no other realm of the commons so challenges what you claim to believe. Economics functions as a mirror, where the truth about your faith is reflected back. The spreadsheet is a theological statement, reflecting any incongruence between what you say you believe and how you steward your resources. This reality can be painful.

The close connection of economics to the practicing of your faith is reflected in a simple principle that Jesus communicated: "Where your treasure is, there your heart is also." Perhaps you've heard this particular saying so many times that its penetrating effect has diminished. You might think, "Right, I need to give and donate to God's purposes." But this would be a drastic reduction of what Jesus is saying. To think of faith and economics primarily in terms of philanthropic giving is to fundamentally mistake what economics are and why they are so powerful.

At a core level economics has to do with basic exchange, receiving and giving. This exchange is behind common word pairings such as spending and earning, investing and accruing, or borrowing and lending. The connection between your treasure and your heart is not simply about how you give; it's also about how you earn, which means there is nothing that has to do with money that doesn't have to do with your heart. Your heart is connected to your treasure.

The ancient church developed a liturgy, still in use, called the sursum corda (Latin for "hearts lifted"). Here is how it's recited in thousands of churches every week:

Priest: The Lord be with you.

People: And with your spirit.

Priest: Lift up your hearts.

People: We lift them up to the Lord.

Now, imagine if you changed this liturgy by connecting our hearts and our treasure:

Priest: The Lord be with you.

People: And with your spirit.

Priest: Lift up your checkbooks, 401Ks, credit cards, employee ID cards, and the balance of all your assets.

People: We lift them up to the Lord.

Feel the difference? If you are serious about joining God in the renewal of all things, then imaginative thought and action need to go into how your church supports each other in giving and receiving, and in how you interact with the economic system at large.

The dominant version of how the economy works is no longer satisfying to the vast majority of people. For the past number of years it has become the story of unemployment, housing bubbles, the 99 percent versus the 1 percent, the vortex of systemic greed on Wall Street that has metastasized away from being a true marketplace to resembling a virtual casino gambling on complicated bets worth billions. This is in direct contrast to the philosophy of living systems guru Pamela Wilhelms, who told us in an interview that business exists not just to increase shareholder value but "for the flourishing of life."

Fortunately, there is an alternative gospel story being played out under the nose of the dominant one—a "sub-version," as Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann has described it. Your church or group can enter into the subversion by looking for ways to invigorate the local economy with what Peter Block and John McKnight would call an "abundant community" perspective:

  • First, we see the abundance that we have—individually, as neighbors and in this place of ours.
  • Second, we know that the power of what we have grows from creating new connections and relationships among and between what we have.
  • Third, we know that these connections are no accident. They happen when we individually or collectively act to make connections—they don't just happen by themselves.

This is in contrast to the scarcity mindset of systems that communicate by their very nature: "You are inadequate, incompetent, problematic, or broken. We will fix you. Go back to sleep."

Consider the Gift Economy

The gift economy most often happens with an exchange of goods and services that takes place without the medium of money. It is also the economy that's most ignored. The gross domestic product (GDP) can be measured, but have you ever thought to measure the economic value of popping over to the neighbors' house to watch their kids for a few hours while they go to an important meeting? How about borrowing a friend's truck to haul away an old mattress? What about the millions of meals carefully prepared and then shared among friends every day? These dinners don't come with a bill after dessert.

The gift economy in your local context is crucial for economic flourishing at every level. It is all that you give and receive as a gift, an act of love, and hope, and faith in relationships that produces the kind of trust that society needs if it is to develop economies of scale. Without the social trust that develops through local gift economies, larger economies bog down with extensive rules, contracts and enforcement, or they devolve into chaos, where everyone fends for themselves.

Alvin Toffler makes an important if not humorous observation about the necessity of the gift economy. "Employers rarely recognized how much they owe to the parents of their employees, we have often made this point to corporate managers, by asking a simple, if indelicate, question; 'How productive would your workforce be if someone hadn't toilet trained it?'" This "potty test" demonstrates how much larger systems of society and economy rely on the gift economy for everything they do. From the trust that the gift economy develops, other forms of giving and receiving become possible: time banks, co-ops, local currencies, gift sharing and the like.

Starting Local Enterprises

The imagination and perspective of the gift economy can be extended to some degree into the realm of small businesses. The three of us have found that the church has much to learn from organizations that have been doing pioneering work in the new commons for some time. BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) is an inspiring example. Here is their stated vision for a platform that supports small businesses that contribute to local economies:

Within a generation, we envision a global system of human-scale, interconnected local economies that function in harmony with local ecosystems to meet the basic needs of all people, support just and democratic societies, and foster joyful community life.

Sounds a lot like an economy birthed out of God's vision of shalom—the kind of economic vision that followers of Jesus could get behind, right?

Local businesses may not be thought of as "mission" in many circles. But when you think of how BALLE talks about their reason for existence, it sounds pretty similar to holistic mission. As we argue in The New Parish, mission is defined as what you do to join in God's world renewing project. While BALLE is not faith-based, we think it's helpful to compare and contrast this type of work and what the church usually does for mission.

Of course, this is not a treatise against mission projects. But, it is to say that the standard definition of church mission projects is so much smaller than what is possible. Starting and supporting any type of entrepreneurial venture in the parish is a vastly underexplored area for the church at large. You have to champion the church members who are taking risks to be present in the neighborhood.

Imagine the difference. While most ministry leaders hope members will tithe 10 percent to the church, they end up with an average of about 2 percent. In the same way they typically hope members will contribute 10 percent of their time to the work of the church, it's probably around 2 percent as well. And when it comes to contributing their real gifts, strengths and passions to the church—well . . . there are only a few types of "ministry" skills that are called for (singing, preaching, and teaching being the most popular).

But, if the church is in and for the parish, everything changes.

Paul Sparks
Paul Sparks

Paul Sparks is a Parish Organizer and Social Entrepreneur. His place-based expertise and trusted friendship in neighborhoods across North America make him an indispensable consultant to faith communities, academic institutions, and community organizations. Paul speaks for strong resilient relationships within the parish, and brave collaborative links across places.

Tim Soerens
Tim Soerens

Tim Soerens is a pastor, social entrepreneur, and co-founding director of the Parish Collective

Dwight J. Friesen
Dwight J. Friesen

Dwight J. Friesen (DMin, George Fox University) has over a dozen years of missional pastoral experience and is currently Associate Professor of Practical Theology at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. He is passionate about peace-making, interfaith and missional-ecumenical conversation, and about communally and personally embodying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in local contexts. Read more:


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?