Relocating the Body of Christ: Parish Collective and the Twenty-First Century Church
In the tenth chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, the writer admonishes the church, saying, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25, NRSV). Simply meeting together, the author writes, is integral to maintaining the confessed hope of those who have believed the gospel of Jesus Christ (v. 23). Echoing the initial divine judgment that it was not good for humans to be alone (Gen. 2:8), the admonition of the author of Hebrews asserts that the gathering of the community coincides with God’s desire to establish a relational kingdom among God’s creatures.
Yet, the reality we inhabit is one dominated by limited, or thin, communal interactions. In Western culture, people are becoming more and more disconnected, and this fragmentation is so pervasive that even our congregations are succumbing to it. As Robert Putnam has persuasively argued, over the last few decades, Americans (including Christians) have experienced a decisive drop in every form of community involvement. Not only are we neglecting to meet together, but our typical sites of connection are being lost—from political participation to informal associations, from the halls of civic meeting places to the sanctuaries of our churches “we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities.”1 While the overall number of folks who claim to regularly attend church may not yet be precipitously falling, it is clear that the participatory nature of church and the social fabric of our congregations are wearing thin. Furthermore, as the stock of social capital in the church declines, the impact of the church on its larger community also declines. This trend should evoke real concern from those of us in the church.
The crippling effect of this drift on our congregations can be seen in the increasing numbers of congregants who experience loneliness or in the rising tide of despair among congregants, as more and more of us lose the sense of connection and meaning that is intrinsic to strong relationships. The disappearance of thriving faith communities also seems indelibly connected to an overriding sense that the church really has nothing to offer to the real lives of those struggling to find community and purpose. This is most vividly displayed in a recent Barna Group study that reports that increasing numbers of our young people find church to be superficial, and boring.2 The answer to this crisis cannot be simply to gush with nostalgic sentimentality about the past or to fret about the issues of the present. Someone must work to rebuild our relationships and to reconnect us to one another; someone must begin to work for real change in our day and age.
One place where this work is being attempted, where God’s desire for us to live and flourish in community is becoming tangible, is in the organizing and networking efforts of the Parish Collective. Seeking to buck the trend toward detachment and isolation, the Parish Collective “is about connecting and resourcing the people of faith in particular neighborhoods to be the church in the place they live.” Their work consists of rooting “together neighborhood churches, missional communities, and faith-based orgs in their parish” and linking “them to other parishes regionally and globally for mutual support and innovation.” Co-founders Tim Soerens and Paul Sparks are experimenting with new ways of regenerating the social connections of congregations and communities. And now, in the hope of inspiring the ministers and laity who read The Other Journal, we want to present for you in this Praxis feature a glimpse of what they are doing and how they are doing it.
On April 20 and April 21, we will once again partner with the Parish Collective and the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology to produce the Inhabit Conference in Seattle. In only two short years, this conference is proving to be one of the most innovative and collaborative events for Christians who are thinking about and experimenting toward faithful presence in the twenty-first century. Inhabit will bring together hundreds of practitioners who are living into the themes of featured in the video below. Finally, if you find resonance with the work Paul and Tim are doing, the most effective way to connect is through their map (www.parishcollective.org/map), which depicts Christians all over North America who are joining together to weave a fabric of care in and between neighborhoods and cities.
1. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 27.
2. Adelle M. Banks, “Teens Leave Churches Seen as Judgmental, Unfriendly According to New Book ‘You Lost Me,’” in Huffington Post, October 9, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/09/teens-leave-churches-seen-as-judgmental-unfriendly_n_1001528.html.