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Five Hopeful Signs that Dare Us to Be the Church

April 6, 2018 in Featured Posts, Parish Stories

If you take five minutes to scan through your facebook feed or even the headlines of the news, it sure does seem like there are good reasons to start freaking out.

Easter day bombings in Pakistan, ISIS terrorist attacks in Brussels, Global Climate Change. Mass Migration. Growing Inequality. Nations constantly at war. Societies perpetually distressed.

Oh, and, Um…Donald Trump.

And if Trump doesn’t make you leery, or if perhaps you lean to the other side of the political aisle, it might make you uneasy that a Socialist just had a rally in a baseball stadium.

But, regardless of whether you are Republican, Democrat, or something in between, if you care about the future of the church you probably also find yourself shaking your head in bewilderment these days.

As some churches battle with each other on political issues, the tsunami of both the “nones” (the quickly growing demographic of folks opting out of Christianity) and the “dones” (those who, because of their faith, are opting out of institutional church) continues to swell. If you are paying attention, you’ll notice plenty of hand wringing in both the pews and denominational boardrooms all across North America. People fear things are getting out of control. And maybe they are.

So where do we find hope?

In recent years there has been a diligent hunt for signs of life within Christendom. But if we are honest, our search has left us wanting and confused (or do you need to check Facebook again?).

We find ourselves asking: Are there any signs of life beyond the forms and structures of church that have dominated the mainstream Christian imagination?

Most of us know that there is a rapid decline in what is commonly measured as “church growth and success.” That is, decline in membership, shrinking attendance and aging congregants. Church leaders are scrambling to attract more people to their church community, particularly Millenials, in order to increase their cultural impact. Yet these approaches don’t seem to be addressing real problems that God is inviting the church to help alleviate.

Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong direction.

While some may grieve the conclusion of church forms of the 21st century, there is, in fact, great hope out ahead of us. The next chapter of God’s story of renewal might be happening so close that it’s difficult to see. Just look more intently and you’ll notice that in our backyards, across our streets and in the very center of our cities, towns, and villages, God is birthing something profoundly beautiful. Beyond our church growth charts and measurement sticks there is a movement bursting up from the ground, a counter narrative to the anxious grip of the past. A movement is growing to reclaim the ancient idea of the parish for the 21st century. When we say the word parish, we mean that people are weaving their lives together in actual places large enough to live much of their live (live, work, and play), but small enough to be known as a character within the story of that place. In neighborhoods, suburbs, villages, and towns followers of Jesus are learning how to be the church in the everyday context of their actual lives.

Here’s what we’re talking about: People everywhere are coming together to follow Jesus and join God’s renewal in every neighborhood, every sector and every culture. We could call it ecclesial kenosis. Communities of faith are taking shape by letting go of the small story of church growth and embracing the big story of joining God right where they are.

The signs are everywhere! Out in the streets, the storefronts, small businesses, parks, porches and playgrounds… life is happening, abundantly. God’s love in Jesus is renewing the world and through it, the church is taking root in some of the most innovative ways we’ve seen. In suburbs, in city centers, rural communities and small towns all over North America and likely all over the world, the people who make up this movement are countering darkness with light, forming deep human connection and contending for God’s shalom in everyday faithful ways. They’re not only reclaiming a sense of place, but partnering with God to alter the paradigm for what it means to be the church.

At a recent retreat gathering of pioneering place-based churches, we rummaged through treasures of stories and statements in an attempt to convey what we’ve experienced as the most common threads of practices, values and distinctives that seem to be evident in this movement of God in neighborhoods all over.

It became apparent that these were indeed signs of life worth celebrating and marking. We’re calling them signs because they’re not meant to prescribe a particular method or propose a formula for doing church differently. Rather, these signs are drawn from stories, pictures and expressions of what God is already doing to love the world.

The Five Signs of the Parish Movement

  1. Centering on Christ: Formed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we seek to share life together as a tangible expression of Christ’s body in our parish. Saying that Christ is at the center is not just a statement of belief but a commitment to a way of life together. As communities we commit to love one another and grow together with Christ within the grime and beauty of our everyday stories.
  2. Inhabiting Our Parish: Rooting our lives in our neighborhood, we seek to join God’s renewal in, with, and for our place. Rather than trying to be all things to all people, we are learning to accept our limitations as a gift from God, live with intentionality, be known by our actual neighbors and tangibly love those around us. We seek to participate in God’s renewal by listening to, serving, and caring for the land and the people where we live, work and play.
  3. Gathering to Remember: Trusting that God is at work, we draw together in worship to remember the larger story of our faith, rehearse the kind of people God desires us to be in the parish, and encourage one another in love and discernment. We have discovered that the more active we are in joining God’s renewal in our neighborhoods, the more crucial it is for us to gather back together to grow in our faith, strengthen one another and remember that we are a part of the massive story of God.
  4. Collaborating for God’s Renewal: Joining God’s renewal within the broken systems of our world, we seek to reconcile fractured relationships and celebrate differences by collaborating across cultural barriers and learning to live in solidarity with those in need. It’s never been more important to foster unity between all the diverse followers of Christ within our local contexts. Just as important, we are learning to collaborate with neighbors from other traditions, faiths and experiences as we journey alongside the suffering and pain of those around us. If ever there was going to be a robust movement of unity in the 21st century church it will likely be lay-led, local, and in the neighborhood. When unity and trust grow between us, it is amazing how we can work together and build peace for the common good.
  5. Linking Across Parishes: Actively connecting with other Christian communities across parishes regionally and globally, we grow in mutual learning, friendship, and life giving partnership. We live in the most interconnected moment this world has ever experienced. We are learning how desperately we need one another if we are going to step into the challenges and opportunities set before us. Not only do we need to trust God but we are committed to learning how to trust one another as well. This is not an easy task, but there is no other way to be faithful, much less effective, if we don’t learn how to link up at an unprecedented scale.

We should say in conclusion that these five signs are not a new gimmick or fad. After all, the Church through the ages has certainly been living into these themes since the beginning. But it does feel like there is something new in the air. And while there may be plenty of confusion and frustration swirling around our broader culture and within the church, we find ourselves brimming with hope. If more and more communities take on this God sized dare to faithful presence in our neighborhoods, then we couldn’t imagine a brighter future.

By Tim Soerens and Christiana Rice

Small Steps to Big Change

July 30, 2016 in Parish Stories

Around midnight we had to call 911 because of a disturbance with possible gunshots in a park on the next block. This park has a rough history, but has been reclaimed for good in recent years. This morning, I woke up to an alert on my iPhone that three police officers were killed in Baton Rouge. This comes on the heals of multiple, horrific episodes of violence in Minneapolis, in Dallas, in France, in Turkey, in Bangladesh, in Iraq and other places in our country and around the world. It comes in the midst of the harshest, most vulgar and divisive election season in memory. As followers of Jesus, what can we do? How do we deal with the monumental problems facing our national and global society?

Surprisingly one answer is to “get smaller” in our focus. Our friend Jon Huckins, author of “Thin Places” writes:

“When we are daily exposed to all the worlds’ problems without being rooted in our own soil, it’s as though a collective numbness takes us over. We lose touch of our senses, priorities and relationships. We become more irritable. Our relationships become more mechanical and forced. Our attention span shortens. An anxiety about our individual and collective future breeds paralysis. The distance between those of different cultures, traditions and ethnicities grows. We pour more time and energy into our political allegiance than our Kingdom allegiance. We miss seeing the sacred even when it’s being displayed on the faces of our kids, sidewalks, parks and pubs”.

This week, Iris and I spent part of a day picking up trash in our neighborhood, later we bought some plants from the bargain bin at Lowes and refreshed the traffic circle that we adopted a few years ago, we received a bag of apples from a friend’s tree and passed the extras on to another neighbor. We lent a glue gun to another neighbor, we took possession of another neighbor’s house keys as they were out of town. We borrowed a tool to trim a tree from another neighbor. We said “yes” to a block party on the next block over, we walked our neighborhood and prayed for the gospel to take root and flourish. We met “Randy”, a vet dealing with PTSD and some physical injuries. Randy lives in the Mark Cooper House, a transitional housing center in our neighborhood for veterans recovering from addiction. Randy spends most of his day on a park bench a block from our house reading books and watching people. We updated the email and phone numbers on our neighborhood guide, turned it into a “google doc” and made it available to our neighbors. We said, “hi”, to everyone we saw on the street or sidewalk. Especially the black kids with sagging pants and the blind people who work at Lighthouse for the Blind. We smiled when we spoke to strangers. We walked to Borracchini’s Bakery and had coffee. We walked to Pinky’s and got a haircut. We walked to the neighborhood fruit stand and bought tomatoes and blueberries.

Do these small choices make a difference? Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds that when planted grows to become a large tree in which the birds can find shelter. He says that it’s like leaven that works through dough in a loaf of bread. The Kingdom looks small, almost invisible, but it has tremendous effect.

The exciting thing is that these kind of Kingdom outbreaks – these small steps fostering human connection and love are taking place in neighborhoods across our country. People are loving their actual neighbors and it is making a difference. We just returned from a trip to Oregon in which we walked and heard stories of redemption in three different cities and towns. We celebrated Independence Day in a cul-de-sac in Corvallis, Oregon and participated as believers were sowing Kingdom Seed in the midst of sparklers, burgers, and micro-brews.

We hear stories from friends in Florida who have just opened their home to provide a safe place for kids whose parents are in drug rehab. These same friends facilitate a bible discussion in their home with neighbors of various faiths. We’ve received three letters this week that have pictures of friends gathered around tables for meals. I’m reminded of the book “Next Door as it is in Heaven” in which the authors make the case that the most powerful evangelistic tool at our disposal and the one Jesus used more than any other is the dining table.

We are learning. We are learning that ministry consists, not primarily of activities and events, but of the everyday, the mundane and the ordinary in a particular place over time. As a friend from Philadelphia wrote recently, “I have been challenged in my ‘theology of place’, to think in geographic rather than demographic terms. The learning curve has been high in this new initiative”.

Dallas Willard writes about the Kingdom impact unleashed when we learn to love our neighbors. “We must see what that means in practice. Why we are not to love everyone as we love ourselves, but our “neighbor.” Who that is. Think small here: with humility and boundaries based on humility. How many “neighbors” would you have? Investing in a few relationships. Openness. Planning to do it. Learning as you go. The place of spiritual disciplines in all of this. Steps”.

In The Mission of God’s People, Christopher Wright puts it this way, “It’s difficult to quantify the results of good neighboring. What we do know is that when people get to know their neighbors, good things start happening. Real relationships are formed. And these relationships make a difference. Neighbors start to work together. They shovel driveways, get to know aging neighbors, notice strangers walking around, and help each other in a pinch. These small acts add up to something significant”.

It’s small. It’s big. It’s a movement.

by Sara

The Temple House Community

June 8, 2015 in Featured Posts, Parish Stories

A few years ago, The Salvation Army acquired six houses in a struggling St. Louis neighborhood. The houses were initially used for transitional housing, but the federal funding ended and the houses remained.

Unwilling to abandon six homes in an area where occupancy rates were already plummeting, someone had an idea. What if we filled these houses with students and young professionals who would serve in the neighborhood in exchange for housing?

The result, while good, was essentially an Americorps type program. Our community lacked depth and a real sense of mission in our neighborhood.

I moved to St Louis about 18 months ago to establish the Urban Mission Center and to guide Temple Houses into deeper commitment to each other and to our community. The process has been slow, sometimes awkward, and often hard. But we’re beginning to recognize the formation of authentic community.

We’ve a long road ahead, but the journey is sweet.

“God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.”

1 Corinthians 3:17