Five Hopeful Signs that Dare Us to Be the Church

by Tim Soerens & Christiana Rice

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.

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