Finding The Church On The Ground

By Paul Sparks

Dancers from Dusty Feet Mob Lead Children In Dance at Surrender 16 (Photos by Matthew Deutscher for Surrender)

What if the largest social movement in the history of the world is forming … but it’s invisible?

Something like this seems to be happening!

Research is revealing an immense distributed population around the globe who are responding to critical issues of social justice and ecological sustainability. These groups are largely grassroots and community-based.

The Invisible Movement

“Nobody seems to know what to call this.” The authors of Recovering The Commons claim, “All over the world something is afoot — a courageous, creative, and elusive rethinking of politics, economics, and culture.”

  • David Korten speaks of “The Great Turning.”
  • The Zapatistas named it “The Movement of Movements.”
  • The Sustainist Guide calls it “A Worldwide Cultural Shift.”

Internationally recognized ecologist Paul Hawken claims:

“This is the largest social movement in human history. No one knows its scope, and how it functions is more mysterious than meets the eye.”

In an interesting parallel, equally surprising reports are being submitted regarding radical shifts within the church.

Take the United States, where I live, for example. Below the clamor of the political circus, something profound is happening on-the-ground. Researcher George Barna, who has been regarded as the most quoted person in Christianity, designates a movement within the church of twenty million by 2020 and growing exponentially.

Though perhaps premature, he calls this group “revolutionary” in the sense that their way of life uproots “established systems” and includes “a radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure.”

The Paradox Of The Parish Church

Here is the paradox of what Barna calls the quiet revolution:

“The media are oblivious to it. Scholars are clueless about it… Christian churches are only vaguely aware that something seems different, but they have little idea what it’s all about.”

Over the course of the last decade, my work with Parish Collective has taken me to over 800 towns, neighborhoods, and villages across the United Kingdom, Canada, United States, and Australia. Joining worship gatherings, sharing meals, and walking the main streets and public spaces I too have discovered this strange phenomenon:

In literally every neighborhood, the number of parish churches, missional communities, and small groups of friends weaving a fabric of love and care on-the-ground is growing exponentially. Yet, their work goes largely unnoticed. Even these groups themselves often have a perennial sense that they are on their own.

While there can be discrepancies regarding the scope of this social change, one thing is becoming more and more certain: Something is happening at a grassroots level across the globe, and it has been largely imperceptible to the upwardly mobile, media-saturated parts of the world.

  • Why is this movement happening now?
  • How is it possible that the general public is not aware of it?
  • And how do you discover it, and join in with what God is doing?

Living Above Place

The revolution will not be televised. It will not be brought to you by Fox News with commercial interruptions… It will not be sandwiched between ads to accelerate your life or be all you can be. There will be no reruns. The revolution will be live. The revolution will be in the streets. -Shane Claiborne

The movement toward a more ecological and community-based way of life remains unseen because most of the western world has been “living above place.”

In the The New Parish, Tim Soerens, Dwight J. Friesen and I, describe “living above place” as the “tendency to develop structures that keep cause-and-effect relationships far apart in space and time where we cannot have firsthand experience of them.”

You can get a sense of this by thinking about the things you purchase at the store or online. For example; in the “modern” world, everyone knows what it is like to buy groceries without “without any idea where the food originated, or who was involved in the production and delivery process.”

Another example might be the way society has structured all the activities of life to happen in different places outside of the neighborhood. Work, shopping, school, recreation, exercise, and all the driving in between — even the countless hours of TV, gaming, and computer time keep us from being fully present to the relations of our place.

No one activity can be named as the problem… It’s the cumulative effect that separates you from life together at the human scale.

This type of cultural matrix develops over decades when societies make controlling outcomes and escaping responsibilities more important than learning to relate together faithfully.

It happens when tools, techniques, and technologies are used to evade participation in the relationships that surround you.


“What happens when a society lives above place for generations? Over the course of time, whole populations can develop a cocooned way of life, unaware of how their lives really affect each other and the world at large.”

In the end, what could be life-giving modes of technological innovation and knowledge are instead used to disconnect people from reality. The capacity to be present dissipates. You are drawn away from community life and taught to value speed and scale. You become blind to what the Spirit is doing right where you are.

This type of blindness can cause you to miss the very particular ways God may have been working long before you arrived.

Denise Champion, part of what may be the oldest living continuous civilization on earth speaks of this in her book Yarta Wandatha:

“What was God doing with us as Aboriginal people before the white man came to Australia?”

Denise describes how God revealed wonders to her people throughout the generations and compares it to the way God spoke to the Patriarchs of scripture in and through particular places, and then instructed them to build altars there to remember it. “That’s how I see our stories, though they are attached to geographical altars, I guess — mountains or waterholes or different parts of the landscape.”

This is the type of wisdom you miss if you’re “living above place.”

Getting Back On The Ground

There is a common hope emerging from communities on the margins. It is simple, yet it requires a miracle.

If you want to contribute to healing and flourishing, you’re going to have to be very intentional about fostering a common way of life in a community. You’re going to have to practice living in relationship with people who are different than you. It means getting reconnected to the land, and co-stewarding the built environment. The common thread is a shared inhabitation, being planted together in a particular place and participating together in caring for it.

Think about the separate issues…

  • How can we help with the energy crisis? Drive less, walk more.
  • How can we lower the rates of crime? Develop collective efficacy in the neighborhood.
  • How do we work through racism, classism, sexism, etc.? It starts with being present in the everyday life of the community, and getting to know people who are different from your affinity group.
  • How can we solve a multitude of food problems? Buy from local grocers, create farmers markets, and foster community gardens.
  • How do we help with loneliness and isolation? Create communities of hospitality where people are present together in everyday life.
  • How do we sustain through global economic failures? Practice import substitution, local ownership, and gift economies.

The list of local possibilities goes on and on.

In the current cultural matrix, solutions are offered separate from one another, each one addressing a different crisis in a bewildering array of options. But when you put all the issues together, it’s amazing what a practice of inhabiting the neighborhood and learning to fit together with people who are different than you can accomplish.

This turn toward the local is not a fancy trend. And it isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, it’s going to become more and more important.

The faster the speed of life around the globe accelerates, the more valuable your presence in the community will become.

The Good News

“Your parish is a relational microcosm that helps bring many cause-and-effect relationships back together again. Being in collaborative relationships in real life (where you live, work, and play) awakens you to the effects of your actions both on people and on the place itself. It creates a context where your church can see whether their faith is more than just talk.

The parish becomes the testing ground, revealing whether you have learned to love each other and the larger community around you.”

Of course the trouble with facing each other again is that humans have a long history of exclusion. You probably know from experience that relationships are not easy, especially in a world with so many opportunities to evade them. This is where I find the the Gospel to be so hopeful.

The central core of the Good News is this idea of healing and reconciliation.

It is a whole new way of being in which our restored relations with God through Christ helps us to enter in relationally with one another despite our differences.

As the apostle Paul told the Church in Corinth:

“by means of his one Spirit, we all said goodbye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life… (1 Corinthians 12 The Message).”

This is the place where we bear one another’s burdens, forgive seventy times seven, and practice fitting together as members of a local body that live as a tangible expression of God’s love in the parish. And this is what is happening in neighborhood after neighborhood, town after town, village after village.

The church in the west is not underground. It is on-the-ground. And if you’re “living above place”, you’re not going to find it.

Looking For The Church On The Ground

For the past several years my colleague Tim Soerens and I have been working alongside a handful of organizing leaders within the Parish Collective. The Parish Collective uses grassroots forms of organizing to identify churches and groups that are inhabiting their neighborhood. It connects them together across places, and co-creates contexts with them for collaboration, learning, and friendship.

This group of pioneering organizers has been slowly visiting and interviewing hundreds of diverse parish churches and groups to discover whether or not there might be common “signs” of the Spirit’s movement that could be found across groups that are growing the fabric of love and care in the neighborhood.

After several years of this, we convened parish leaders for a Summit to wrestle through our collective experiences and discern what might be held in common. Together we composed five signs that seemed to characterize these parish churches and groups regardless of their denominational or cultural differences.

Two of the key conveners and editors Christiana Rice and Tim Soerens wrote about these discoveries saying:

“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.”

We decided to call 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 seems to already be doing.

These five signs are often invisible to a culture born “living above place”. But here they are offered as guideposts to the thousands of emerging expressions seeking to grow in sustainability and fruitfulness on-the-ground in real places.

5 Signs Of The Church On The Ground

  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.

These secrets of the kingdom compose a radical contribution that followers of The Way have to offer the growing movement who are seeking social justice and ecological sustainability in the 21st century. And they are guideposts to discovering the hidden church in the place you live.

Paul Sparks is the co-author of the award-winning book The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community(Reviews on Amazon). This article has been adapted and reprinted with permission by The Edition Volume 1, July 2016 Churches of Christ Vic/Tas.

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