My only exposure to the idea of Parish came from the Catholic friends I grew up with here in Atlanta. I took it to be the ‘territory’ of the local Catholic Church. I could see the drawback to the idea in the questions, “But what if I don’t like the local church? Why can’t I go to another?
I was baptized into the Lutheran church along with my young son. We first attended the Lutheran church where my wife grew up and we were married. When we moved to the suburbs to buy a home and raise a family, we had to look for another church. Like many other consumers at the time, I shopped around for a church. we ended up at a church ten miles from our home. We had to drive by several Lutheran churches, and dozens of other churches to get there.
Rodney Stark, in his book The Triumph of Christianity, uses the term religious pluralism. There are varying levels of religious fervor in any population, and where there were monopolistic state churches for centuries, the needs of the majority were met, but many others were looking for something else to meet their needs.
Stark says America was the first country that had religious pluralism enshrined in its Constitution. In that freedom, a multiplicity of expressions developed, as established churches split again and again. I liked the freedom to choose, and since I married a Lutheran and not a Catholic, I never gave Parish much thought. (Here’s what Wikipedia says about Parish).
These dynamics led in the last half of the twentieth century to the growth of the attractional model of regional church. People would come from all over the area and many churches became disconnected from the local neighborhood. I watched a growing estrangement over two decades between our own church and a demographically changing neighborhood.
We moved back to a historic neighborhood called Candler Park near downtown Atlanta six years ago. We tried to make a home at the Cathedral Lutheran church about fifteen minutes away. It was not a good fit for us.
I found out about a parish church being planted a couple of miles away in Inman Park when I attended a Church Planting Network meeting with a Lutheran pastor I was coaching. Scott Armstrong had planted City Church Eastside as a parish church reaching out to close by neighborhoods. As I entered my post-denominational phase, we were seeking a church with discipleship as a core value. We found it at City Church. What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was how much I would come to value the parish model.
City Church creates Missional Communities in each of the neighborhoods surrounding the church. The focus is doing life together serving the needs of the neighborhoods. Since entering into community at City Church, I’ve found wonderful attributes to the parish concept.
When we went to church ten miles from our home, we found very few fellow church members in our area. So, we were constrained in doing any real missional service by the lack of numbers in any particular area. We were part of small groups, but they drew from miles around, and did not focus in deep ways on mission.
When we entered into the City Church community, I quickly came to appreciate the commitment to parish. We have Missional Communities in seven neighborhoods around the church. We do life together in our community. One aspect of discipleship that I did not fully appreciate is the component of life on life. Jesus lived with his disciples. They traveled together, ate together, fellowshipped together, and they got an intimate look at Jesus’ life. I truly believe this is an essential component of discipleship. Jesus’ disciples learned by watching, by listening, and by doing what the master did.
When my experience of the leaders of small group is limited to an hour a week, and time together on Sunday morning, it is hard for me to see that which I am called to imitate. As we begin to do life together in community, we get a much deeper look into the lives of the leaders.
In our neighborhood Missional Community, we gather for common meals, we invite neighbors to join in fellowship and service. We volunteer together to help the local school, the regular neighborhood festivals and road races, and to take meals to new mothers and others in need. We connect with ministries serving the homeless, and work against human trafficking.
As we walk our dog through the neighborhood, we often see friends from church walking, driving or bicycling down the roads and walkways. The neighborhood has a Halloween parade for the little kids. When we take part, we see about 20 people from the church there. We get together for pizza and beer, to go to the Neighborhood Association meetings. We have fun together, serve together, inspire and are inspired by others in our community.
I had no idea what I was missing in the twenty-five years we were part of regional churches. As we do life together, we find deeper intimacy, fellowship, vulnerability and authenticity in the social spaces that emerge in the parish. All of these factors combine to inspire us to a deeper walk with Jesus and with others in community. This way of life tries to imitate the early church in its way of life, as we yearn to become fully committed Christ followers.