Against nostalgia for the parish


I’m tired of being shamed from the pulpit for not befriending/investing in/ministering to my physical block-level neighbors. I literally NEVER see these people – ever. It’s just the reality of the modern city, at least as I have experienced it in the USA. I have circles of acquaintances at church, at work, with regulars at the coffee shop and the park, and with my family scattered around the world. I have precisely zero interaction with the people that live more than one house down the street from me in any direction. I’ve lived in the same house now for seven years and in the same city for 16 years and there has been no variation in this. To engage these physical neighbors would required a forceful awkward action on my part, and to continue to engage them would require heaps of creepiness. I suspect that many with an ounce of tact know this, but yet we often nod our heads whenever the preacher or the latest book on evangelism or non-traditional church community exhorts us to witness to our physical neighbors or conjure up a block party. It’s not gonna happen, at least not with the way our cities, jobs, and families are currently set up.

Some of churches I know of, including several in my town, decided to chop up their small groups by “parish”, that is, by their physical location within town, with lines that are very similar to those used for school district zoning or voting districts. The idea is to harken back to the way parishes effectively existed for centuries in the Christian west. But of course the whole thing is contrived and the people in the small groups will unconsciously resist this sort of (previously natural but now unnatural) grouping. At the end of the day, who are you going to hang out with? The family that shares your interests and who has kids the same age as yours, that likes to watch the Seattle Seahawks and that lives a 5-minute drive from your house, or the single German grad student in Biology who just happens to live in an apartment 3 blocks away and who sometimes attends your church?

For starters, denominationalism has made the idea of a local physical parish a complete lost cause. Forget cars and compartmentalized specialist jobs and everything else Wendel Berry laments. The fact that the people on my block attend at least 5 different churches (some in the next city over) and many take part in no church at all makes any thought of making the parish (Latin ‘parochia’, dwelling beside) meaningful hopelessly broken. I can’t fix this and I can’t push back on it in a substantial way either. I get a hundred times more mileage investing time and energy into the people I do meet naturally day-to-day. For better or worse, in the modern west, the parish is now a web, not a circle. Maybe you live somewhere (an isolated midwest small town or a tiny village in Honduras) where the parish model still makes sense. Great! Maybe you are that one guy ministering to a collective of artists living in an experimental rent-controlled apartment. Cool – whatever. Maybe some day the parish model will work again here, but not today. So how about let’s spend our energy on something other than pining away for this nostalgic model of pre-automotive Christendom. No I don’t really like it either and it’s really too bad that it’s gone, but we have a lot of foundational things to change if we want to recover the parish and it’s benefits. We can’t just dictate them out of thin air.